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June 16, 2023

Road ace AJ Allmendinger analyzes ‘very technical’ Chicago Street Race course


AJ Allmendinger poses in front of Buckingham Fountain in Chicago's Grant Park with arms open
Alejandro Alvarez
NASCAR Studios

CHICAGO – Few ideas have not been tried in the NASCAR Cup Series’s deep well of history as the sport celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Yet one momentous debut lingers, just around the corner – a race on the streets of Downtown Chicago.

The Chicago Street Race is set to take the Windy City by storm on July 1-2 around a 2.2-mile circuit, the first time NASCAR’s premier competitors will tackle a street course.

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Among the drivers ready to hit Chicago for the Grant Park 220 (Sunday, July 2, 5:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) is road-course ace AJ Allmendinger. The 41-year-old driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet is back as a full-time Cup racer for the first time since 2018. Though he’s still looking to make his mark on the 2023 season, his racing resume is dotted with numerous stock-car wins on road courses – two in Cup (Watkins Glen 2014, Indianapolis road course 2021) and 11 in the Xfinity Series. The California native is also no stranger to street courses, however, with plenty of experience thanks to his open-wheel roots.

In a visit to Chicago in late May, Allmendinger got his first taste of the course layout in person. His takeaway? What lies ahead will be a challenge of skill and aggression for every competitor come July.

“Looking at the race track, it’s very technical,” Allmendinger told NASCAR.com. “But I like the way – at least driving around in a car … there’s a lot of sections that are super wide, which are not what you would expect from a street course, but there’s also a lot of real tight corners as well.

TURN-BY-TURN: See the course

“So just the way it’s laid out, just kind of the broad scheme of things of looking at it, it does feel like there’s passing opportunities and going to be some good racing.”

Allmendinger is a past winner on street circuits, winning on the streets of both Toronto and Denver during the 2006 Champ Car World Series season. That success still resonates 17 years later, but whether it will translate to a NASCAR Cup Series car remains to be seen.

“What makes especially on the Cup side of it so difficult is you’ve got the best drivers in the world, and we’ve seen that at all the road courses,” Allmendinger said. “It’s not just three or four guys that stand out anymore. I mean, it’s a tough field from one through 36. So I hope that experience helps, but put it this way – I’m not relying on it saying ‘Oh, that’s what’s gonna make the difference.'”

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With a debut comes numerous unknowns, making Chicago a prime example as a potential wild-card race. Drivers like Allmendinger, Michael McDowell and Austin Cindric are known for their road-racing prowess. All three have yet to win this season, but one victory will propel them into the NASCAR Playoffs. That also doesn’t include others like Ross Chastain, a winner last year at Circuit of The Americas, his Trackhouse Racing teammate Daniel Suárez who won at Sonoma in 2022, or Chris Buescher, who’s strung together seven straight top-10 finishes on road courses.

A sixth-place finish at Sonoma Raceway equaled Allmendinger’s best finish of the 2023 campaign and helped the veteran racer gain 20 points on the playoff cut line. However, he still sits 20th in points, 33 points shy of a playoff spot heading into the lone off week of the NASCAR schedule.

“At the end of the day, for me, and I think for the race team at Kaulig, it’s still about getting the best finish possible, right?” Allmendinger said. “So you want to win the race – if you show up to a race not willing and open to (the idea that) the ultimate goal is to win the race, then you shouldn’t show up. But yeah, you’ve just got to see where you’re at and see, OK, if the car is good, then maybe the win is the ultimate goal. If the car’s not great, you try to make top five, top 10 the best that you can, but it’s gonna be easy to make a mistake.

“So if you’re running up front, you can’t let your guard down. And if maybe you’re running, say fourth or fifth with a couple (laps) to go, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance to win a race because (of) a late-race restart or as I said, if you make a two-inch mistake, you’re hitting a wall and that’s gonna probably put you out of the race.”

The other aspect of a street race, of course, is the atmosphere around the circuit. The city will be a key star of the show – perhaps as much or more than the competitors themselves. The Black Crowes will perform a pre-race concert Saturday ahead of the Xfinity Series’ Loop 121 with The Chainsmokers set to perform post-race. Sunday’s show starts with pre-race concerts from Charley Crockett and Miranda Lambert ahead of the Cup Series’ main event.

MORE: Star-studded lineup set for Chicago weekend

Bringing that festival vibe to the city – while also showcasing NASCAR’s best – is a critical point that is expected to bring the event – arguably already the marquee racing event of the year – over the top, Allmendinger said.

“Especially the day and age we live in, it’s not just about the race for everybody. It’s about what the experience is and it’s a party, right?” Allmendinger said. “Like if you’re NASCAR, you’re not coming here just going, ‘We’re solely focused on the race. That’s what’s going to bring everybody in.’ It’s what’s going to bring the hardcore and maybe even somewhat casual fan in. …

“You look at the (Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial) Coliseum. It’s the same thing, right? When you’ve got Wiz Khalifa and Ice Cube playing a halftime break, that’s what’s cool about an event and that’s what makes maybe an ordinary event become special.”

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