Drivers outlast historic rainfall, race day chaos in NASCAR’s Chicago debut

Man in white shirt with umbrella stands next to race car.
A Chevrolet team member stands next to Noah Gragson’s car during the Grant Park 220’s rain delay on Sunday. (Kierstin Lindkvist/MEDILL)

By John Riker
Medill Reports

Instead of pre-race buzz and ignition of engines, the sights and sounds of a torrential downpour took over Columbus Drive on Sunday afternoon and dampened the excitement around NASCAR’s first-ever street race, the Grant Park 220. From tarps and covers shielding cars and crews from the elements to drenched tires and spectators huddled under openings in the paddock, all was quiet along pit road as teams and fans alike waited to see whether the show could go on.

Race organizers relied on patience and preparation in waiting out the rain and clearing the street course of standing water, then staged a 78-lap thriller characterized by collisions, a thrilling finale and all sorts of history.

“As far as being able to race on the streets, yeah, we did it,” fifth-place finisher Kyle Busch said. “We accomplished it in the wet. We had a few instances out there, but none that were too terrible.”

Drivers faced a daunting task heading into NASCAR’s foray into street racing, even before inclement weather entered the picture. With difficult turns across the circuit and a grid filled with drivers hoping to make a playoff push with strong performances, the Cup Series’ leaders approached their race prioritizing survival over taking big-time risks. 

The rain started its disruption of the Chicago Street Race Weekend schedule during Saturday’s Xfinity Series Race, forcing NASCAR to postpone the event’s completion to Sunday morning after 25 laps. When the rain picked up on Sunday morning, NASCAR decided to cancel the remainder of the Xfinity Series Race, naming Cole Custer the winner. 

“It was just so many unforeseen things just because this is the first time we’ve ever done this, and when you bring rain into the equation, it really throws a curveball at it,” Custer said. “There was a lot of confusion, but it is what it is and we can’t control the weather.”

Still, NASCAR maintained its plan to run the Cup Series race in its originally scheduled time on Sunday afternoon. The precipitation caused the National Weather Service to issue a Flash Flood Warning in Chicago and Cook County and warn against nonessential travel, along with disruptions to CTA trains and road closures. At 12:16 p.m. Sunday, the National Weather Service announced Chicago had already broken its daily rainfall record for July 2 with 2.27 inches.

Behind the scenes, NASCAR leadership held meetings every half-hour on Sunday, starting at 6 a.m. through the final laps of the race, to do everything possible to fit in the race while not compromising the safety of the drivers. After drying the streets — especially the standing water on the seventh and 11th turns — and delaying the start time by more than an hour, NASCAR gave the go-ahead to Cup drivers to take to the track. 

The Grant Park 220 found its shining moment with New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen becoming the first driver since 1963 to win his first start, but the slick course devolved into chaos and required quick thinking from teams and race organizers. The final tally: nine cautions, 23 crashes or spin-outs and the retirements of three drivers. The constant collisions and two restarts shook up the standings throughout the evening, and the delayed start prompted NASCAR to cut the race from 100 laps to 75 to avoid racing into the night, though a three-lap overtime boosted the final tally to 78.

The wet conditions also made an already difficult course more treacherous for drivers. William Byron’s crash into the Turn 11 wall turned into a 13-car pileup on the 49th lap, while the first turn had three collisions in the final 15 laps. Van Gisbergen called the concrete “crazy slippery,” and third-place finisher Chase Elliott added that the slick streets in potential passing areas made attempting moves more difficult.

“(The rain) certainly added a dynamic to the race, which isn’t super uncommon — we’ve been through that scenario before,” Elliott said. “Adding that to an already new and different atmosphere and different circuit was a little odd.”

The turnover in the leaderboard benefited less established racers like van Gisbergen and second-place finisher Justin Haley, while driver standings leader Martin Truex Jr. finished 32nd out of 34 finishers and Denny Hamlin couldn’t convert his pole position into a top-10 finish. 

Van Gisbergen stayed at the front of the field throughout the race, starting third and ranking in the top five through the first two stages before making his decisive move and opening up a lead on the 70th lap. Haley had a much more tumultuous path to the top three. After failing to qualify Saturday and coming through in 25th and 23rd in the first two stages, Haley rallied and led for 23 laps before van Gisbergen took control in the final laps.

While the rain soured Chicago’s inaugural NASCAR weekend, canceling the Xfinity Series race and much of the weekend’s festivities and concerts, the entertainment on the track validated the efforts and ambition of NASCAR and the city of Chicago, according to Elliott.

“The rain probably puts a bit of a damper on that,” Elliott said. “Otherwise, I think it would have been a home run. The rain added an element of excitement for TV or the fans here at the race track. Certainly the people coming out and having that pre-race excitement, it hurt that a little bit. Overall, I thought it was a success.”

John Riker is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter.