Shane van Gisbergen acknowledges the target on his back

CHICAGO—New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen, the defending winner of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 165 (4:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) conceded that he expected this year’s race to go down differently from last summer’s rainy, inaugural edition.

His competition, now at least, has experience on the tight, technical 2.2-mile circuit between Chicago’s famed downtown waterfront and Grant Park. But, he said with a smile, he still carries a lot of optimism into NASCAR’s only street course event.

Van Gisbergen has two opportunities to hoist a trophy this year—driving his fulltime ride, the No 97 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, which he put on pole position in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race, and the No. 16 Chevy in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series, where he qualified fifth. 

 “I know for sure that there’s probably a target on us,’’ the three-time Australian Supercars Series champion said. “People are going to be looking at us a lot more and try to study what we’re doing. But just have to keep our heads down and expectations in check. Our prep has been good with all the Kaulig Racing guys and obviously some Trackhouse Racing input as well. So yeah, I feel ready to go and prepared. Just have to go out there and do it.’’

 Van Gisbergen is already a two-race winner as a rookie in the Xfinity Series – claiming trophies at both the Portland and Sonoma, Calif., road courses. His technique—right-foot braking—is admired by his competitors, even though most say they cannot replicate it successfully real time.

 “To me, it’s normal,’’ he said, laughing. “I see stuff that Kyle Larson does on ovals and I go, ‘What the hell? How did he do that?’ so it’s relative right? It’s what I’ve always been used to with this kind of racing and making moves like that. On the ovals, people are doing stuff to me and I’m like, ‘how did he come up with that or know that I was going to do the opposite.’ “

 Larson, the 2021 series champion and Sunday’s race polesitter, smiled speaking about van Gisbergen’s winning move last year to claim the trophy in his first ever NASCAR Cup Series start.

 “We hope we’re closer to him but you just never know,’’ Larson said of van Gisbergen. 

 “I feel like with him, some of us can go as fast as him, but his race craft is just way better than ours,’’ Larson added. “Last year he was making passes I’ve never seen before—the pass for the lead, the passes into Turn 2 and making it look really easy.

“He sees things different than us and is able to execute it better than us because he’s real experienced. When you can race with a guy like that, it elevates everybody.”

Daniel Suárez was eager to do double duty in Chicago

Ordinarily, full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver Daniel Suárez doesn’t get overly excited about opportunities to run races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where he won a championship in 2016.

But that attitude doesn’t apply to the Chicago Street Course, where Suárez was eager to run both races this weekend.

The reason: the chance to get more “reps” on a track that is markedly different from all other NASCAR venues.

“If we were in Sonoma, Watkins Glen or any other race track, and I had the opportunity to run the Xfinity race, I may do it, I may not,” Suarez said. “I don’t know, like I would really have to think about it, because the cars are so different nowadays that it can be helpful or it can be hurtful.

“But here on a street course, I personally, don’t have a lot of experience on street courses. I’ve had three street courses, so far, in my career. So the more laps that I can get, the more reps that I can get at this track, I’m going to take it.

“With that being said, I have in my mind very clearly, that the cars are completely different; the transmission is going to be different and everything is going to be different… the brakes are going to be different. But the goal of this for me is to get some extra reps on a race track that I know is different than 99 percent of the schedule that we have in NASCAR.”

Recurring duel between Larson and Hamlin a rivalry among friends

NASCAR Cup Series championship contending drivers Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin have carried a high-speed low-intensity rivalry throughout the season.

Both Larson, the 2021 series champion who drives the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, have a series-leading three wins this year. And they have been close to one another consistently during the final laps of recent racing—close enough for contact the last three weeks. 

The Californian Larson, however, instead of retaliating on track or outside the race car, has calmly soldiered through, no matter the injustice perceived by others. He says that’s largely because he and Hamlin are friends, even golfing buddies.

“Just feeling like you can trust, trust the moves that somebody is going to make on you,’’ Larson said, conceding he probably tolerates the rougher racing with Hamlin because they are friends.

“I feel like that’s when you can have close racing and trust what they’re going to do I think that’s fun to me. I’ve always enjoyed racing him a lot, before I guess middle of last year (when contact from Hamlin knocked Larson out of a Pocono, Pa. race).

“I’m sure we can get back to that point and we’ve had fun racing each other since Pocono. There’s just been a few incidents where I feel like I’ve been run out of space a little more than maybe someone else would put me into that situation. But, yeah, I guess that could just be considered racing sometimes.”

Michael McDowell: NASCAR Cup stars have gained on SVG

Last year, even some of the most experienced NASCAR Cup Series veterans were awestruck by some of the moves Shane van Gisbergen made in wet conditions to win the inaugural Chicago Street Race.

But Michael McDowell, winner of last year’s road course event on the Indianapolis Grand Prix Course—a race in which van Gisbergen finished 10th—doesn’t concede that the New Zealander is head-and-shoulders above the Cup competitors this year.

“The gap has definitely closed,” McDowell said. “Obviously, you can’t rule him out as one of the contenders, but I think it was a perfect storm for him last year—literally.

“So, is he going to be a challenge and a threat? For sure, but I also feel like, beyond the Chicago Street Course… he wasn’t (as strong) at Indy and some of the other places we went to. I feel like it’s still Cup racing. It’s really tough, but he’s definitely a guy that everyone will have to contend with.”

McDowell mounted a successful challenge on Saturday, qualifying third behind pole winner Kyle Larson and Ty Gibbs—and two grid positions ahead of van Gisbergen. 

All three Team Penske cars now qualified for NASCAR Cup Playoffs

Though it took a few months into the season, the three-car Team Penske organization is the first multi-car team to secure 2024 Playoff berths for all of its entries.

The newest member of the team, 25-year-old Austin Cindric won Penske’s first race of the year June 3, at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Illinois—ironically as teammate Ryan Blaney ran out of gas while leading on the next-to-last lap. 

 Blaney, the reigning series champion, got his win two weeks later, claiming the trophy at Iowa Speedway, and two-time series champ Joey Logano finally got his win last week in a five-overtime Nashville Superspeedway finish.

“It is definitely something to be proud of, no doubt, it’s hard,’’ Logano said in Chicago, where he finished eighth in last year inaugural race. “This NextGen car, I’m telling you, it isn’t like it used to be where you can just count on the Penske cars to be in the Playoffs. There are really solid teams that are going to miss the Playoffs this year. It is just what it is not with this NextGen car.

“It is hard to get a huge advantage and if you have a few things that just don’t go your way time after time, you find yourself behind the eight ball on the outside looking in pretty quickly.

“It’s just different than it used to be where you would look at Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske and on a bad day they would finish 10th to 12th. Now on a bad day, you finish 25th just off of raw speed. It’s a different game that it used to be. Because of that there are more players in the game and it makes it harder to get through the rounds and get in the Playoffs for sure.’’