NASCAR thinking big after exciting finish to Cup Series’ 1st street race in its 75th season

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Shane Van Gisbergen celebrates after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at the Grant Park 220 Sunday, July 2, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

CHICAGO – Moments after NASCAR's daring adventure was over — a soggy day in downtown Chicago rescued by a compelling Cup Series race — they were all thinking big.

Shane van Gisbergen pondered a move from Australia's Supercars to a regular NASCAR ride. Justin Marks contemplated the promising future of Project 91. Steve O'Donnell talked about holding a NASCAR event on another continent.

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“I think we’re all confident at NASCAR that we could take the Cup Series anywhere we want,” said O’Donnell, who became the chief operating officer of NASCAR in March 2022.

O'Donnell and Ben Kennedy, the 31-year-old great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France and a key engine behind the sport's evolving schedule, were buoyed by Sunday's exciting finish to the Cup Series' first street race in its 75th season.

After hours of rain flooded the 12-turn, 2.2-mile course and scuttled the end of the Xfinity stop, it cleared up in time to get the Cup Series on the tricky track, albeit for a race cut short by the looming darkness.

The wet conditions added another element to an already challenging course that included seven 90-degree turns, and transitions from concrete to asphalt and back. But the drivers figured it out on the fly, and van Gisbergen powered to the front in the final laps to secure the win.

And just like that, NASCAR's first try at a downtown Chicago race won over at least some of the skeptics that had wondered aloud about its feasibility ever since it was announced a year ago.

“Truthfully, for a street course, I think it raced better than I thought it would," said Chase Briscoe, who finished 20th. “There are definitely parts that can be improved like widening the track and other certain things. But, all things considered, it surprised me compared to what I thought it was going to be.”

NBC and Nielsen said Monday that the race averaged 4.795 million viewers, which makes it the most-watched NASCAR race this season and NBC's most-viewed race in six years.

NASCAR has a three-year agreement with the city of Chicago, and Kennedy said it is planning to take a comprehensive look at its first event under the deal.

“We’re going to have a lot of takeaways from this weekend, which I think will be really good,” he said, “but from what I’ve seen so far, certainly from the fans and from a lot of folks in the industry, has been positive.”

The 34-year-old van Gisbergen, a New Zealand native, became the first driver to win his Cup Series debut since Johnny Rutherford in the second qualifying race at Daytona in 1963. The three-time Supercars champion also became the sixth driver born outside the United States to win a Cup Series race.

Van Gisbergen's seemingly smooth transition to NASCAR was helped by the similarity of its Next Gen cars to what he is used to back home. He also has extensive experience in street races, but he showed off his impressive skills as he chased down Justin Haley for the victory.

“As a driver you don’t want other forms of motorsport drivers to come in and beat you at your own game ... but unfortunately he’s just really good,” said Haley, who finished second.

Van Gisbergen raved about the racing, and left open the possibility of a NASCAR return.

“I’m committed next year to Supercars,” he said. “I still love Supercars and hope it goes well there. But in ’25, who knows.”

Van Gisbergen drove the No. 91 Chevrolet in Chicago as part of Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91. It was the third start for the program — designed to give international drivers a shot at NASCAR — after former Formula One world champion Kimi Räikkönen finished 27th at Circuit of the Americas in March.

Marks, who owns Trackhouse, said Chicago was the last date on the calendar for Project 91. But he sounded as if it was only the beginning.

“It was a big weekend because we had a company come in that said, we want to sponsor Project 91. You go get the driver. It wasn’t attached to a driver,” Marks said. "Enhance Health came in and said, we love this concept and we want to sponsor it.

“That’s a big moment for our company, is that actually a partner looked at it and said, we believe in this Project 91 thing siloed from everything else. We really love it and we want to be a part of it.”


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