By Dustin Albino

CHICAGO — After practice and qualifying for the Chicago Street Race, there stood a sweaty and optimistic Shane van Gisbergen. He didn’t have a coolsuit inside of his Project 91 firesuit on a near 90-degree afternoon in the heart of downtown Chicago.

Not realizing how toasty it could get inside of a NASCAR vehicle, the three-time Australian Supercar campion van Gisbergen was a sponge, as it was his first day at the office in NASCAR.

Leading into the weekend, van Gisbergen prepared for the weekend by running the simulator, as well as getting a few hours of practice earlier this week on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. His biggest adjustment was the driver’s side of the car being positioned on the left compared to the right.

But nobody could have expected how well the day would go for van Gisbergen.

“He‘s a hell of a racecar driver and has a lot of experience on street courses,” Daniel Suarez, van Gisbergen’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, said. “Not with this car, but he has a lot of experience with heavy, powerful racecars. I‘m not surprised. I was going to be surprised if he wasn‘t there.”

Out of the gate, van Gisbergen was quickest in the 50-minute practice session. The No. 91 Chevrolet was on the proverbial pole position until Denny Hamlin and Tyler Reddick made a last-ditch effort in the final round of qualifying to pass the No. 91 car.

When the session was complete, van Gisbergen sat third on the board.

“It was awesome,” van Gisbergen said of his day at the track on Saturday. “The attitude of the team and the racing, it‘s relaxed but intense. We‘re about to go out for practice and we‘re all chilling and joking. Normally, we would be fully focused and, in the car, early. It‘s a very different dynamic here.”

Hamlin, who won his second consecutive pole on a road course — albeit this is a street course — took notice of van Gisbergen.

“The biggest thing I noticed is the guy is lightning fast in all of the corners that I feel super uncomfortable,” he said. “Using that extra three inches against the wall, where the track is the narrowest. He‘s got a feel for those barriers and the car control that he has. That‘s his advantage right now.

“We‘re not used to having to cut the corners that tight as he is. It‘s been impressive what he‘s done.”

When the announcement was made that van Gisbergen would be the second driver to pilot the Project 91 entry, he had no clue what to expect. Unlike years ago, it’s rare that there’s a road course specialist who enters the sport and be at the top of the chart immediately.

“I had no idea how I would fit in,” van Gisbergen stated. “I studied the racing a lot more. It‘s not like 15 years ago when there were only a couple of road courses and a few good guys. There are so many road courses now that you have to be good at them. I knew that everyone is fast here, but I‘m stoked to be at the front.”

Being the racer that he is, van Gisbergen won’t get ahead of himself. For the 100-lap, 220-mile race, he won’t label himself as a favorite for the checkered flag.

That’s how he races every race.

“I never race with expectations, but it‘s a nice feeling to be at the front,” he said. “If I was in 20th or midpack, I would be worried about how the race was going to be. These top guys are good.”

Now, van Gisbergen just has “to do the job.”

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