Shane van Gisbergen well aware he has a target on his back

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 06: Shane Van Gisbergen, driver of the #97 WeatherTech Chevrolet, prepares to qualify for the NASCAR Xfinity Series The Loop 110 at Chicago Street Course on July 06, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

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.”