NASCAR: Hamlin wins inaugural Chicago Street race pole

They are so slow on a street course it was like watching paint dry, but on his final attempt late in Saturday’s final round of time trials, Denny Hamlin knocked three-time Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen off the provisional pole for the first street course race in NASCAR Cup Series history.

Speeding around the 2.2-mile, 12-turn Chicago Street Course in 88.435 seconds (89.557 mph) in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Hamlin earned the right to lead the field to the green flag in Sunday’s Grant Park 220.

“It’s a lot of fun when you can have days like today,” said Hamlin, who claimed his third Busch Light Pole Award of the season and the 39th of his career. “Obviously, our Yahoo Camry is just super strong. I like where we’re at.”

Running behind Hamlin on his final attempt, Tyler Reddick, who drives for Hamlin and former NBA superstar Michael Jordan at 23XI Racing, earned the second starting spot at 89.513 mph (88.479 seconds).

Van Gisbergen qualified third at 89.305 mph, followed by Christopher Bell (88.765 mph) and Daniel Suárez (88.668 mph).

For a race where track position is certain to be a major issue, Michael McDowell will start sixth, followed by Kyle Larson, 2009 Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger.

Van Gisbergen survived a pressure situation just to make the final round. Like a pole vaulter who passes until the height reaches 18 feet, he didn’t start his first-round lap until fewer than six minutes remained in the session.

As van Gisbergen started his first attempt, Chase Elliott stayed close behind the New Zealander, maintaining a strong pace of his own until the entry to the Carousel (Turns 8 and 9). Elliott missed the corner and slammed nose-first into one of the 10,000-pound concrete barriers where the course transitions from the southbound lane of Michigan Avenue.

“I just made a mistake,” Elliott said. “Turned in too soon, clipped the wall on the right and then hit the wall on the left.”

NASCAR red-flagged the session with 3 minutes, 33 seconds left, nullifying van Gisbergen’s lap. But the Kiwi had time to run another lap and was second to Hamlin in the Group B session of Round 1.

Elliott will have to start from the rear of the field, where he’ll be joined by Kevin Harvick, who crashed in Turn 1, knocking two barriers out of position, as time expired in the round.

“We were going to be back there anyway,” said Harvick, who was slow in both practice and qualifying.

Points leader Martin Truex Jr. will start 11th on Sunday, while the series’ most recent winner, Ross Chastain, will start 34th.

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin was made available to media after winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series event at the Chicago Street Race on Saturday:

DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 Yahoo! Toyota Camry TRD, Joe Gibbs Racing

What are your first impressions of being here in Chicago for the first-ever NASCAR street race?

“Just really props to NASCAR and the city for making it happen. I certainly was pessimistic when it was first announced. I started warming up to it a little bit in the months leading up, but obviously when you see the fans that are walking around here on a Saturday – their excitement of just seeing a NASCAR race car up close taking pictures. It kind of is like this is what we’re supposed to do here. I mentioned on the podcast last week, the sooner we just kind of understand the gravity of the event and not get caught up too much in the on-track stuff I think the better off we’re going to be. Certainly, we were very optimistic about today. I certainly didn’t like waking up to rain. I thought that could’ve really changed things for me quite a bit, and hopefully it does not rain tomorrow. It was just a great day. Probably my single best day at the race track in all of my career for sure.”

Was there not much tire fall off on the track during qualifying and was it an advantage to only run one lap in the first round of qualifying?

“It was, but I messed up the first time. In the final round, when I ran the 88.9, I knew that I left a ton of time on the race track. I thought that the competition was going to let me get away with it, but Shane (Van Gisbergen) obviously put up a great lap. I knew that three or four tenths I could probably go get that in certain areas, and so we did. I still didn’t hit it perfect, but it was kind of just enough. The tire fall off, I thought that it’s really coming from reps. I think that the tires, if you were optimizing the driver’s perfect machines, but it was just the reps that were getting us a little bit faster.”

Was there anything about the track that you feel like needs to be changed for tomorrow?

“I felt that Adam (Stevens), Christopher Bell’s crew chief, brought up a really good point and that is coming off the final turn where pit entry is there are huge barrels there and with it only being a 40 mile per hour corner, we probably don’t need those huge barrels. So, if you could probably take one of those concrete barriers off the entrance to pit road because there’s no pit stalls for the first three stalls anyway and move those barrels back 20 to 25 feet, it would allow us to go through the final corner a little bit faster so we’re not causing a huge stack up with the cars that are pitting and the ones that are not. That’s the only thing that I saw. Everything else was kind of what you expected with the course. Your passing zones are going to be in the first six corners and then after that you’ve just got to maintain. That’s where you’re going to make the passes. The track gets so narrow after turn 6 that you’re not going to do much there.”

What were your concerns about this race when it was first announced?

“One of the things was from running the simulator and seeing how bumpy it was. It was a mess, but when we came out here and saw all of the extra paving that they did for the race track it made it significantly better. They really did a good job of smoothing out some of the big jumps that we had in the straightaways. That was one. And, certainly, just how tight it is. It is a tight race track, but it is what it is. I think it’s got three to four major passing zones that if you can stay close enough, you’ll be able to make passes. I was worried about this thing just going single file and that’s how you’re going to finish. I think that there’s an opportunity if you have a fast car, you’re going to move forward.”

Do you think Shane Van Gisbergen can contend for the win tomorrow?

“The biggest thing I noticed is the guy (Shane Van Gisbergen) is lightning fast, and all of the corners I feel super uncomfortable using that extra three inches against the wall. So, where the track is the narrowest and where you saw Chase (Elliott) and those guys kind of get into the wall is where he is extremely fast. He’s just got a feel for those barriers and the car control that he has. That’s his advantage right now is that we’re not used to having to cut the corners that tight and he is. It’s been impressive what he’s done today for sure.”

Is this really the best day of your career on the race track?

“Yeah. Just going into a race that obviously has got a ton of hype and has a ton of eyes looking at this race. Just the overall performance of our team today. From lap one of practice to the last lap of qualifying just having been strong on a track that is really tough, and everyone had to learn it at the same rate of speed. No one has got a veteran advantage at this type of race track. So, it’s just a proud moment for our team to be able to come here on equal footing with everyone and be able to perform as good as they did today. Again, I’ve never felt like I’ve had more speed in reserve than what I did today. I just knew that I can go get that. Do you want me to run four tenths faster? Just areas I can go and get that. Now, there’s risks with that. I think in the race I’m just going to have to back it down slightly to take away 20 to 30 percent of risk. You’re going to have to be a half second slower a lap, but you’re going to take away the risk of making a huge mistake. And I feel like when you have a car that’s as fast as mine, I’m able to back that up and still run a fast enough pace.”

Would you like to see this idea transposed to other major cities?

“I’m sure it’s possible for sure. I would like to see – if we do have a street race, you’d like to continue to get momentum at the place you’re at. I think that with it hopefully being a three-year thing here, I think that there’s a potential to continue to build it up bigger and bigger. Certainly, after the trial and error that you have the first year here there’s way more efficiencies that they can gain by doing it the second time around. They’re going to understand their timing better, be way more prepared when we get to the race track. The time to put it together would probably be cut 10 to 15 percent. Yes, but let’s not lose too far from where we are. I think that it’s great that we’re visiting, doing a street race and we have so many different disciplines, but you certainly have got to keep us doing what we do best and that’s side-by-side racing on ovals quite a bit.”

Are there certain tracks that you’d like to see added to the schedule?

“Nothing off hand, no. I’m sure there’s a lot of great race tracks that would be suitable. Even after running this thing on iRacing, I just was very skeptical of the layout of the track. But I just thought after driving it today that it has significant – it’s a raceable race track. It’s easy for me to say because I had such a great day, right? But I just think there’s tons of opportunities to make moves at this track. It’s one that’s very legitimate.”

What do you think it would mean to him if you or one of your 23XI drivers won the race tomorrow?

“He’s (Michael Jordan) pumped up whether we’re performing well at North Wilkesboro or we’re here in Chicago, honestly. It is a big city for him. He’s obviously did a lot for this city and this city did a ton for him. Having 23XI night at the Cubs game yesterday was big. Just the fanfare that the 23XI team has got from the unveiling of the car. Social outlets that don’t normally cover anything about racing because it’s about something else are paying attention to that. That’s how you grow the sport. And Michael (Jordan) is really proud of the growth that they’ve got and the speed they’ve got in such a short amount of time that the team has been around. For me, personally, it would have to be a top five win for me if we were able to do it.”

If it rains tomorrow, does it benefit Shane or Jenson because they’ve run street courses in the rain?

“Probably. I would say probably, yeah. I don’t know what we’ve got. I was a little pessimistic today coming in just thinking can I correlate what I’ve been practicing to the real thing. Certainly, in the rain I don’t feel quite as confident. We’ve all got to do it, so we’ll see how it goes.”

What is your responsibility to make sure the restarts don’t look like a cluster tomorrow?

“This is a start, right. We’ve definitely made a big shift with the restart zone at road courses because we have looked kind of bad at some of these late race restarts. Moving it back to create a corner to then spread out the field slightly. Trust me, it’s still going to be crazy into turn one but it’s just going to hopefully take us from not being bozos. That’s the goal. It still may happen, but I certainly think that you don’t really want to play a whole lot of games when it comes to that because it’s not good for anyone. It really isn’t. A lot of the responsibility will come from the second, third and fourth rows to really try not to anticipate or jump the start. You have to make a corner there. I think it’s placed probably in one of the best spots that it could to avoid what we’ve been doing lately.”

Do you feel like the elements you are good at on short tracks and superspeedway racing play a role in getting you into this position today?

“I think that for the guys out there, it’s as mentally grueling as any race track that we’ve got. Just simply because I think what Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) is talking about is that there is more speed out there, but the risk is going to be pushing it. Likely, if you have a chase scenario where you’re trying to chase someone down for the lead – they have the lead, they’re not going to run the most aggressive line, they’re not going to cut the corners as tight as they possibly can. But the guy in second is willing to do it because he’s going for it. It could cause the field to tighten up. The leader will always race a little more conservatively. It’s just weighing that risk that I think that he thinks that I try to do in speedway racing. When’s the time to push and when is it not.”

How are Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing doing with the changes to the cars for Atlanta?

“It’s certainly harder for a team like 23XI because we don’t have the manufacturing facility and we don’t have the equipment that JGR has. Certainly, we have to lean on them quite a bit to help us to execute those changes. What’s the long-term effect of it though, right? The business model of the car was built around it being super rigid and you’re never having to replace anything. The softer it is and the more crunchable it is, the more cause to crash them so what happens there. That’s the cause and effect that we haven’t seen quite yet. Luckily, we have a good agreement with JGR for when these things happen. They have the manpower to help assist us and make sure our cars are ready to go on time.”

Starting Lineup

Pos No. Driver Team Time Speed
1 11 Denny Hamlin Yahoo! Toyota 88.435 89.557
2 45 Tyler Reddick Monster Energy Toyota 88.479 89.513
3 91 Shane Van Gisbergen Enhance Health Chevrolet 88.588 89.403
4 20 Christopher Bell CRAFTSMAN Racing For A Miracle Toyota 89.224 88.765
5 99 Daniel Suarez Worldwide Express Chevrolet 89.322 88.668
6 34 Michael McDowell Chicago Pneumatic Compressors Ford 89.328 88.662
7 5 Kyle Larson Chevrolet 89.512 88.48
8 15 Jenson Button Mobil 1 Ford 89.571 88.421
9 22 Joey Logano Shell Pennzoil Ford 90.219 87.786
10 16 AJ Allmendinger Bath Plant by BCI Acrylics Chevrolet 90.283 87.724
11 19 Martin Truex Jr. Bass Pro Shops Toyota 89.404 88.587
12 54 Ty Gibbs # Interstate Batteries Toyota 89.613 88.38
13 48 Alex Bowman Ally Chevrolet 89.617 88.376
14 23 Bubba Wallace McDonald’s Toyota 89.667 88.327
15 17 Chris Buescher Fastenal Ford 89.687 88.307
16 14 Chase Briscoe Mahindra Tractors Ford 89.687 88.307
17 12 Ryan Blaney Menards/Dutch Boy Ford 89.756 88.239
18 8 Kyle Busch 3CHI Chevrolet 89.805 88.191
19 7 Corey LaJoie Celsius Chevrolet 89.859 88.138
20 6 Brad Keselowski Elk Grove Village Ford 89.878 88.119
21 43 Erik Jones DRAIVER Chevrolet 90.046 87.955
22 24 William Byron Valvoline Chevrolet 90.169 87.835
23 42 Noah Gragson # Wendy’s Chevrolet 90.225 87.781
24 10 Aric Almirola Smithfield Ford 90.232 87.774
25 38 Todd Gilliland gener8tor Skills Ford 90.235 87.771
26 9 Chase Elliott Hooters Chevrolet 90.283 87.724
27 78 Josh Bilicki(i) Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet 90.331 87.678
28 41 Ryan Preece Operating Engineers Ford 90.408 87.603
29 3 Austin Dillon Get Bioethanol Chevrolet 90.521 87.494
30 51 Andy Lally Camping World Ford 90.575 87.441
31 2 Austin Cindric Discount Tire Ford 90.718 87.304
32 21 Harrison Burton Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford 90.759 87.264
33 77 Ty Dillon Chicago White Sox Chevrolet 90.799 87.226
34 1 Ross Chastain AdventHealth Chevrolet 90.856 87.171
35 4 Kevin Harvick GEARWRENCH Ford 90.98 87.052
36 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Mariano’s/SunnyD Chevrolet 0 0
37 31 Justin Haley Benesch Law Chevrolet 0 0
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