Denny Hamlin wins inaugural Chicago pole but a Kiwi steals the show

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 01: Shane Van Gisbergen, driver of the #91 Enhance Health Chevrolet, drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 220 at the Chicago Street Course on July 01, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Denny Hamlin gets his name etched in the record books Saturday. He’s the first-ever Cup Series polesitter on a street course.

But that title almost ended up in the hands of a one-off driver. Shane van Gisbergen, an Australian Supercars star from New Zealand, was fastest in practice and carried that momentum into qualifying.

Hamlin stood on the provisional pole after his first lap out in qualifying before a great run by van Gisbergen knocked him off the top of the leaderboard.

“I messed up the first time,” Hamlin said. “I knew that I left a ton of time on the racetrack. I thought that the competition was going to let me get away, but Shane put up a really good lap. But three or four tenths, I felt like I could get that.”

His second time out was good enough for the pole.

“I still didn’t hit it perfect,” Hamlin admitted, “but it was just enough.”

Nonetheless, Hamlin was highly impressed with van Gisbergen’s performance.

“The guy is lightning fast in all the corners. I feel super uncomfortable using those extra inches next to the wall,” Hamlin explained. “He’s just got a feel for the variables. We’re not used to cut the corners that tight and he is. It’s been impressive what he’s done today for sure.”

Van Gisbergen himself wasn’t expecting to be so fast either, saying going into the race that he had no expectations.

“I’m surprised,” Van Gisbergen said of his result.

He says he still has no expectations, although he fully intends to race for a win. Though he added some stipulations to that.

“I have to be respectful of everyone,” Van Gisbergen admitted. “Everyone’s trying to get into the [Playoffs] and race for a championship, but I want to be here and do well.

“In Australia we have rules on what we can do: we can’t just crash each other into the fence. I’m going to be respectful and hopefully everyone’s nice to me too.”

He fully expects the race to be “full on” based on his brief experience in practice, but he thinks he’s ready for it.

“I felt comfortable, and prep’s been good this week. Did a lot of simulator and data study, watching onboards…I’ve done as much prep as I can,” he said.

“But the track’s been crazy,” he added. “I’ve never driven a street course so bumpy. It’s tough.”

Especially tough is the contrast between a NASCAR Cup car and his typical Supercar ride. While both are similar, compared to the open-wheel cars that Jenson Button, who will start eighth, is familiar with, they’re still “different.”

“You feel the weight of the car a lot,” he said. “When it slides, it really lets go. I had a few moments. And it’s difficult here. I was losing a lot of time in the braking on the data. It’s so intimidating here because there’s no runoff. There’s just a wall in front of you. I don’t really have confidence to make up the time on the brakes, so I need to keep building up to that tomorrow.”

“I got a bit to learn,” he admitted. “I was learning every lap, trying to push. Trying to get better every lap without making mistakes.”

And he expects the field to catch up.

“Once we got going, it was pretty tough. The guys got going pretty quickly and it was tricky for me to match it,” van Gisbergen said.

Either way, a third-place start is a strong statement by the Kiwi to the rest of the field to be on notice.

Starting Lineup (PDF)

Owen Johnson