Jun 16, 2024  |  
 | Remer,MN
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NextImg:Pole winner Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott focused on big picture of Grant Park 220

Denny Hamlin called it “probably my single best day at the race track in my entire career.”

Such a nice thing to say about the Chicago Street Race. 

But wait: Huh?

Hamlin has 49 Cup Series wins — three of them at the Daytona 500 — since he began driving full-time on NASCAR’s top circuit in 2006. Then came Saturday, when he won the pole in qualifying for Sunday’s Grant Park 220 with a fastest lap of 89.557.

Are we really to believe this was a career highlight for Hamlin, let alone a contender for the very top of his list?

“Yeah,” he said. “Just going into a race that obviously has a ton of hype, a ton of eyes looking at this race, and just the overall performance of our team today from Lap 1 of practice to the last lap of qualifying have been strong on a track that was really tough. … I’ve never felt like I had more speed in reserve than what I did today.”

Attitude is everything, one supposes. Several drivers were less than thrilled after qualifying — for racing reasons — but Hamlin, Chase Elliott and some others made sure to emphasize a bigger picture.

“The sooner we just kind of understand the gravity of the event and not get too caught up in the on-track stuff,” Hamlin said, “the better we’re going to be.”

The 2.2-mile, 12-turn downtown course is nothing like a traditional oval, a vastly different experience for even the most seasoned drivers here. Is this just a legit race or just a big marketing ploy?

“They’re all events at the end of the day,” Elliott said. “This is all entertainment at some point, right? I do think this has been looked at like that, and I think that’s good. There’s nothing wrong with that. 

“Somebody asked me what it would take to make this a successful race, and I don’t think it has to be [something exciting like] a late pass for the win. I think [it’s] if the atmosphere is exciting, it’s fun to hang out and everybody wants to be here.”

Second through fifth starting positions will go to Tyler Reddick (one of Michael Jordan’s two 23XI Racing drivers in the race), Shane van Gisbergen, Christopher Bell and Daniel Suarez.

Tough break, Mr. Mayor

If only this Chicago race had come about 10 years ago, “The Mayor” could have taken his crack at winning the thing.

No, not Brandon Johnson. Come on, people.

We’re talking about former elite driver Jeff Burton, now an NBC Sports analyst and still known by one of the sport’s great nicknames. Burton would’ve loved to have put the pedal to the metal through the Loop and along Lake Shore Drive, but instead he’ll be stuck in the TV booth. What a bummer.

“It is,” he said. “This is such a unique opportunity for our sport, and being part of the first of something is always really cool. To do this as a driver would’ve been just an incredible honor. This is revolutionary. I’d have loved to participate in this.”

Always a nice bit of consolation: Harrison Burton, Jeff’s son, will be running the race.

Reset Button

One of the more interesting drivers to monitor Sunday is 43-year-old Brit Jenson Button, who had a long, distinguished Formula One career — winning the world championship in 2009 — before diving into Cup Series racing this year for the first time.

“These cars, they don’t slow down like I’m used to,” said Button, who’d better be ready to ride that brake into the course’s seven 90-degree turns.

How challenging is the course? Button listed Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix as an 8 on a 1-10 scale, and Chicago as a 9.

Bear down

The Grand Marshall for Sunday’s race will be none other than Bears quarterback Justin Fields. It’s too soon to tell if he’s more of a run-first Grand Marshall or a pass-first Grand Marshall, but we’ll keep you posted.