Van Gisbergen Weighs Worthiest Challengers in Back-to-Back Chicago Bid

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

CHICAGO – If one were to survey the NASCAR Cup Series garage as to who the favorite to win the Grant Park 165 should be, the overwhelming answer would be Shane van Gisbergen. Even looking at the oddsmakers forecasts for the second-ever Chicago Street Course race, it’s clear the expectation is for the three-time Supercars champion from New Zealand to go back-to-back.

After posting top-two speed in Cup practice, as well as NASCAR Xfinity Series practice and qualifying – where he won his second pole and scored his third win of the season – there’s great reason to believe the hype surrounding “SVG.”

Returning to the site of his debut and maiden victory, van Gisbergen is aware of the metaphorical target on his back. However, having half a season’s worth of Xfinity experience under his belt, as well as five premier series starts, he’s aware the competitive gap will be tightened and even offered some names as his biggest hurdle between him and a second Cup victory.

“There’s 10 or 15 really good road racers now, and then the rest of the field aren’t slugs either,” Gisbergen said. “It’s pretty impressive how competitive everything is, and especially, how much road racing there is now. Everyone’s gotten good at it. 

“I really enjoyed racing Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Kyle Larson last year,” the driver of the No. 16 Wendy’s Saucy Nuggs Chevrolet added. “Seeing how comfortable they were, their proximity to the barriers and how much they were pushing in the wet … It was pretty cool. I remember being pretty conservative in the wet and letting them through a little bit at the start. Those guys, they’re relatively inexperienced at (street course racing) and they were pushing pretty hard.”

Among the names mentioned by SVG, his worthiest adversary is undoubtedly Larson, who won the pole for the Grant Park 165 with a 90.168 mph (87.836 second) lap around the streets of Chicago – his series-best fifth of the season through 19 starts.

Saturday, Larson and the New Zealander spent essentially all day trading the top-two spots between practice and qualifying for both the Cup and Xfinity Series, as well as the entire duration of the Loop 110, which was won by van Gisbergen, as the 2021 champ came home third.

In addition to evident speed all weekend, Larson has proven to be in championship form this season with the most wins (three), top-five finishes (eight) and laps led, along with the second-best average finish (12.3) next to teammate Chase Elliott.

Looking ahead to the second-ever street course race, Larson hopes to improve upon his fourth-place finish from the inaugural event. In placing third in the Xfinity race, the driver of the No. 5 was vocal about the challenges he faced in Turn 5. However, he feels that won’t be an issue in the Cup Series.

“My car, actually, off of (Turn) 5 in Cup, felt really good there,” Larson said. “Much smoother, I could get to the throttle much better, and then through like Turn 9 all the way to 11, I had a much better lateral grip in those areas. 

“My Cup car feels much more, I think, competitively equal, I would say, to be able to battle (van Gisbergen) in more corners or hopefully hold him off better. It’s not just him, so there’s going to be a lot of other guys that are really good tomorrow.”

Among those drivers is Bell, who’s arguably been the hottest driver in Cup over the past month. He had amassed a stretch of five consecutive top-10s, which was bookended by wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Unfortunately, his streak of quality finishes came to an end last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, when a late wreck left him with his fourth DNF of the season.

Results aside, Bell still led a race-high 131 laps before getting collected in the carnage, and boasts an impressive road-course racing resume of his own. This year alone, he finished top-10 in both starts, including a runner-up outing at Circuit of the Americas. 

After sweeping both stages and leading the most laps at the Chicago Street Course last year, the team led by Adam Stevens got caught on the wrong end of a strategy call due to darkness and had to settle for an 18th-place finish. At any rate, it’s a no-brainer for Bell to be considered a contender come Sunday.

“[SVG and I] raced hard last year, and I ultimately took myself out of it, so he didn’t have to race me for the win,” Bell, who starts seventh, said. “But early on in the race, we were racing each other good and it’ll be fun to see where we stack up. He’ll be really fast, but hopefully we have what it takes in the 20 car.”

While SMT data from last year may not fully correlate this weekend due to damp track conditions, many drivers have been studying and taking notes on van Gisbergen’s driving style on road-course style events, as well as what he displayed all Saturday between Cup and Xfinity.

Reddick, one of the drivers mentioned by SVG, has established himself as one of the premier road course racers in the Next Gen era. In fact, since the seventh-generation car was introduced in 2022, he leads all drivers in wins with three. That prowess has carried through into this season, with no finish worse than eighth between two starts.

After finishing top-three in both stages and leading eight laps in Chicago last year, Reddick had to settle for an undeserving 28th-place finish, unable to claw his way through the field following an untimely pit stop with the sun setting.

“(van Gisbergen) just ran a very smart race and he has a good amount of experience on street courses,” Reddick, starting fourth, said. “Obviously, not in the Next Gen stock car, but certainly understanding how the track will evolve and just when to push and when to play it smart. I definitely picked up on that. The track’s going to evolve and keep getting faster. He’ll be really strong. I don’t think that should surprise anyone. 

“His race craft is really, really impressive on the road courses,” Reddick added. “I’ve seen it at a lot of these road courses, how he’s thinking ahead for the next corner, or how to battle back or defend. You can just really see the amount of experience and the knowledge that he has. His race craft is really, really impressive, and it gives me something to try to work towards as we get more of these road course races.”

Lastly, van Gisbergen made mention of last year’s pole sitter at the Chicago Street Course, Denny Hamlin, who’s been vocal about road course racing being his final frontier to conquer in the Next Gen car.

Whereas starting from first on any given weekend is a major advantage, Hamlin was more so leading the blind into the unknowns of the first street-course event, on top of having to charge hard in wet weather conditions.

Regardless, Hamlin had rivaled Larson (literally) as the best driver in the series, matching him in wins, and serving as second-best in reference to top-fives and laps led. As one of the most blunt drivers in the sport, he believes van Gisbergen is the favorite, but shouldn’t essentially be handed the win automatically based on last year’s performance alone.

“Last year was such a weird thing, right? Because we started in one condition (that) kind of was a hybrid, and then went to full dry at the very, very end,” Hamlin said. “On top of that, SVG was able to kind of flip the race with others. The fast cars that were up front – the (Tyler) Reddicks and the (Christopher) Bells and whatnot – got put to the back when SVG then went to the front. 

“I think he’s probably the favorite, (but) overwhelming favorite, I would not say is accurate. A favorite still is the most likely guy to win. But still, I think the field has just gotten tons better over the last few years. If everyone’s on the same track position strategy, it’ll be a good battle.”

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