By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer
The lone Kiwi in Sunday’s Cup Series main event was the one to beat Saturday at the Chicago Street Circuit.
Shane van Gisbergen, 34, scored the quickest lap in the weekend’s only practice session before backing that performance up with a third-place spot on the grid.
Driving the No. 91 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet under their Project 91 program, the New Zealander transferred his years of winning Australian Supercars races and championships into immediate speed on NASCAR’s top stage.
Are people surprised?
“That’s up to them, I know I’m surprised,” chuckled Gisbergen following his qualifying run Saturday. “I never race with expectations, but it’s obviously a nice feeling being up front.”
Being the first street circuit in NASCAR’s 75-year history, the leg up has, in part, gone to international drivers. Along with Gisbergen’s pace, British Formula 1 champion Jenson Button gave Rick Ware Racing their best qualifying-lap in their history as a Cup team, starting eighth.
“The foreigners are fast,” said two-time champ Joey Logano.
Gisbergen’s starting spot is the best for Trackhouse Racing, despite the team fielding two road-course winners in Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. And though he is here to win, the 34-year-old has no interest in stepping on the regulars’ heels.
“I have to be respectful of everyone,” Gisbergen said. “They are all trying to get into the [playoffs] and race for their championship. But, I want to be here and do well.”
Indeed, though it’s his first start, the rookie has watched his share of NASCAR races (he even has hopes of becoming a full-time Cup driver after the remainder of his Supercars contract expires after next year.)
Among the races he has seen was Circuit of the Americas in March, where a string of late-race crashes and contact buried the event in headlines criticizing the sports’ aggressive nature. For Gisbergen, he won’t be starting trouble.
“In Australia, we have rules on what we can do, we can’t just crash someone into the fence,” he said. I’m going to be respectful and race as clean as I can and hopefully everyone is nice to me, too.
“If I was [starting] 20th or mid-pack, I’d be pretty worried about how the race will be. These top guys are good, I know they will race pretty hard off the start. It’s definitely much nicer to be at the front.”
The privilege of good track position — on a track where it’s critical to success — was privilege earned. Knowing his Chevy has speed, the road racer sure is learning at a fast pace.
“It was hard work — everything is so new to me and my brain is going crazy trying to keep up with it,” he said. “The attitude of the team and the racing, everyone here — it’s relaxed but intense. it’s a very different dynamic here. I studied the racing a lot more. It’s not like 15 years ago when there were a couple road courses and a few good guys. There are so many road courses here now that you have to be good at them.”