Larson, Gibbs Have Fun, Falter to van Gisbergen in Xfinity Thriller

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

CHICAGO – To no surprise, the supremacy of Shane van Gisbergen was on full display once again in the streets of Downtown Chicago, but this time, as a rookie in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where he picked up a series-best third win through 18 races. Much like his historic debut in 2023, the three-time Supercars champ had to hold off some of the sport’s top-level talents.

After earning his third pole of the season, “SVG” became the first driver in Xfinity Series history to have a 100% pole-to-win ratio with multiple first-place starting spots, joining Hall of Famer Mark Martin (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series) as the only two racers to do so. 

However, The Loop 110 was far from a layup for the New Zealander.

Much like his NASCAR Cup Series debut at the Chicago Street Course, in order for van Gisbergen to emerge victorious, he’d have to hold off former champion and one of the greatest talents in modern-day motorsports, Kyle Larson.

Larson, making his second Xfinity start in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 17 this season, started beside SVG on the front row and established his presence early on as one of drivers the Xfinity rookie would have to go through for his third win.

In fact, Larson and van Gisbergen swapped turns leading laps the entirety of Stage One, in an iconic back-and-forth battle that led to a thumbs up and a wave between two titans of motorsports.

“The first stage, racing with Kyle there, my car was really weak,” van Gisbergen said. “I couldn’t get going at the start, the restarts, and then it would take two or three laps and he’d always pass me. When my car would come on, I’d be attacking him and it was just awesome, fun racing with him. His car was a little better over the bumps and under braking and he was driving very well. I gave him a thumbs up, he was waving back and, yeah, had a blast.”

At the conclusion of the first segment, Larson tailed the Kaulig Racing No. 97 closely, and even led the opening five laps of Stage Two. However, when a caution flew on Lap 24, they were among the many frontrunners to split the race by pitting again for the final time.

Unable to claw his way through traffic with the presumed ease of his friendly competitor, Larson rallied for a third-place podium finish, leading the second-most laps with 12. But above all else, the Cup championship favorite got to battle and learn from arguably the best road-course racer in NASCAR currently.

“I was having a blast,” Larson said. “Obviously I wanted to win today, but I wanted to learn (from Gisbergen) more than anything. I wanted to get to battle with him, because he’s just really good at creating shapes and angles and passing.

“The first opportunity I got, I wanted to get racing because I just didn’t know if (I’d) ever have another opportunity to race with him,” Larson added. “My car seemed to be a little bit better than his for maybe a lap or two, which helped me get by him and then able to protect and stuff.

“I appreciate the opportunity to learn and race with him. Whether he’s winning or not, I feel like he’s helping us all get better, which is pretty, pretty cool.”

Wrongfully – but understandably – overshadowed by SVG and Larson all weekend was runner-up finisher Ty Gibbs.

The 21-year-old started the 50-lap race from fourth and was on the heels of the top-two drivers in Chicago essentially all weekend between Xfinity and the NASCAR Cup Series, in which Larson won his series-best fifth the pole and Gibbs earned his fifth front-row start.

During his pit stop at the conclusion of Stage One, Gibbs’ No. 19 team had a tire gun malfunction, setting their driver as far back as 25th, while Larson and van Gisbergen exited as the top-two. Forced to stay out with track position being so crucial, the grandson of NFL and NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs wound up sixth in Stage Two, while SVG rallied to finish 10th.

For the entirety of the final stage, Gibbs ran around the top-three positions, working his way up to second as Jesse Love led the field in search of his second win.

On a restart with three to go, Gibbs restarted on the front row to the outside of Love with SVG lurking behind the Richard Childress Racing No. 2. Entering Turn 1, van Gisbergen went wide, surged by the No. 19 for the second-spot, and it was game over from there.

“I definitely should have been more aggressive and probably got around him quicker,” Gibbs said. “Starting on the top lane, into (Turn) 12 on the restart zone, it’s just really dirty up there. So you lose so much time and you get into (Turn) 1 behind.

“I think our best bet was just to not have our gun blow up on the pit stop,” Gibbs added, “I feel like I had to use myself up a lot to get back through the field. I just don’t think I helped our tires. It would have been close for sure at the end. I think we were gonna get by ( Love) so fast anyways, that I think it wasn’t gonna be a race at that point.

“I mean, he’s very, very fast and deserves a lot of credit.”

Although he and Larson have been the talk of both the Xfinity and Cup garages, van Gisbergen offered high praise for the craft of Gibbs and endorsed him as a legitimate threat for the win in the Grant Park 165 on Sunday.

“We’ve had a few good races now, Xfinity at COTA, and in the Cup Series as well,” van Gisbergen said. “He races really good, and you can tell when you’re racing around someone how aware they are, how sharp (they are). He puts the car in good spots and he’s always fast as well. I’m sure him and Kyle, they’ll probably be the quickest guys tomorrow.”

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