TTAC at the Races: 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 165 Preview


CHICAGO – NASCAR is back in Chicago. And we’re back at the track.

Um, excuse me, that’s course. As in street course. While we will use the word “track” to describe it, it is definitely not a dedicated racetrack.

Instead, NASCAR drivers are driving on the same streets that residents of Chicago use daily. Your author drives these same streets frequently. Though not at 145 mph.

This year’s NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 165 follows an inaugural edition of the event that was dubbed by most observers to be generally successful despite biblical rains.

With better weather forecast, and event organizers – and, of course, the drivers – having a year of experience under their belt, there’s a mix of predictability and unpredictably as we amble towards the Cup race.

As NASCAR driver Justin Allgaier pointed out, the track will be different in the dry than it was in the wet. Not only that, but because the track consists of public streets, there’s been another year of use by the public. Allgaier says that while the track is cleaned well, it’s still just different than racing on a dedicated racetrack.

It’s not just different for the drivers. NASCAR Chicago has learned from feedback from fans and media and has made changes that should hopefully make the Cup race go more smoothly for those attending.

Among the changes are additional pedestrian bridges that will make it easier for fans to cross over the racecourse – and easier for media, officials, and race workers to also cross over.

NASCAR Chicago heard the feedback loud and clear and shaved six days off the course setup, meaning that was six more days in which NASCAR wasn’t disrupting Chicago commuters. That number increased to eight days for the parts of the track that affect Columbus Drive – a key street in the Grant Park area of Chicago’s downtown.

That also means that 2,000 concrete barriers – each of which weighs 10,000 pounds – stayed in storage a bit longer. Those barriers were stored at a piece of currently vacant property just south of downtown known as the 78. If you follow stick-and-ball sports – or Chicago politics – that name may sound familiar. The 78 has been floated as the location of a possible new home for the Chicago White Sox MLB team.

The Sox, by the way, have their logo splashed on Michael McDowell’s car.

Tire barriers, meanwhile, we stored approximately an hour away at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. Chicagoland has been used for the Chicago-area NASCAR stop in the past.

Eighty-five percent of the fans who attended the race weekend in 2023 were first-timers, so with that in mind, NASCAR made some adjustments that they hope will continue to entice more new fans while also placating returning attendees. Youth pricing has been initiated – with kids attending Saturday’s Xfinity Race for free – and now fans can purchase single-day tickets.

One other change: Last year's Ferris wheel is gone, replaced by a MotoCross event.

NASCAR Chicago officials told assembled media that the number of countries represented by fans who live outside the U.S. has gone up to 23 from last year’s 13.

When it comes to on-track action, the biggest storylines have been focused on the much-improved weather and what other drivers have learned by studying Shane van Gisbergen’s win here in 2023. Reporters have also asked drivers about the big picture – Chicago and NASCAR have a three-deal and could extend two more years into 2027 – but drivers have reminded the press that they don’t make those decisions. Officials have been predictably vague – the future won’t be decided for quite some time.

I’ve taken every opportunity I’ve had to ask NASCAR drivers and officials about last year’s race and to preview this year’s race. It started when I had a few minutes to speak to Cup driver Daniel Suarez in Los Angeles during last year’s L.A. Auto Show.

“I really think the experience was amazing,” Suarez said in LA. The Mexico native was happy to race in a city with a large Hispanic population. Suarez has done some work with the Hispanic Motor Press Association.

“The fans were amazing, as expected, the Hispanic population is very strong, so I am excited that we’re coming back,” he said. Suarez also pointed out that NASCAR can go anywhere.

He hadn’t changed his tune two days prior to the green flag dropping.

“I’m super excited to be here. I think that the race is amazing, the event is unbelievable,” Suarez said.

He did say that even with the improved weather, drivers would be more cautious, at least at first. The walls are so close that even small mistakes can lead to big impacts.

Suarez has picked teammate van Gisbergen’s brain, since van Gisbergen has tons of street racing experience.

Van Gisbergen sees this type of racing as “normal” but he also understands the rest of field will get better at street courses as they learn.

Speaking of normal, that’s how Chase Elliott described the course in the dry weather: “More normal, right? Last year was just such a fresh thing for everyone, and then you throw the wet involved in that, and it was just a lot.”

Michael McDowell told me that if the weather holds, the worn rubber won’t be washed off – and the track will change as drivers have to adjust to avoid the marbles.

One thing that’s in the back of each team’s mind is the off-track logistics. It’s not easy to set up a garage on public streets, as Alex Bowman told me, but since drivers are now in their second year, they have a better sense of the lay of the land. Though, again, while it may be easier to navigate Grant Park, some things are still difficult.

“I wouldn’t say it’s easier,” Bowman said. “I would say from a team perspective, like the most difficult weekend of the year. There’s a lot of things that are way different for the team guys…at least knowing what to expect is definitely better.”

Elliott said knowing where everything is now is nice, so obviously some drivers see it differently than others. Van Gisbergen reminded the media that he’s more of a country boy than city guy.

One team that’s under a lot of pressure is the 23XI Racing team – part owned by former Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan, who in addition to his Chicago connections, is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.

Not only that but McDonald’s is a sponsor for 23XI driver Bubba Wallace. McDonald’s, of course, is headquartered in Chicago.

Denny Hamlin, another 23XI driver and owner, told me it would be “big” to get a win here in Chicago. “We’re putting a lot of emphasis on this race.”

Wallace said it’s not so much extra pressure, just busier. But once he’s in the car, he’ll be in a place of Zen.

Suarez and the other drivers aren’t the only ones who have learned from last year.

I’ve spoken with Julie Giese, president of the Chicago Street Race, a few times since last year. We chatted at the 2024 Chicago Auto Show, on the TTAC podcast, and on the Friday before this year’s race.

“We knew we were going to learn a lot,” Giese said in February. “We’ve learned a lot through that process.” In that latter part, she was talking about the weather, but of course, there’s also the general learning process.

“We spent a lot of time answering questions,” Giese said on our podcast.

There are still some unanswered questions. One is, how will the course race on Sunday as compared to earlier in the weekend. Two, will van Gisbergen’s dominance continue after he won Saturday’s Xfinity race? Three, if van Gisbergen doesn’t win, then who will?

Tune in Sunday afternoon at 4:30 Eastern to find out.

[Images © 2024 Tim Healey/]

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