On wet pavement or dry, Christopher Bell a threat in Chicago

With the vast majority of drivers hoping for sunshine in Chicago, Christopher Bell may be the most notable exception.

Understandably, Bell would be just as happy to race on wet pavement in Sunday’s Grant Park 165 Chicago Street Race (4:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Bell recently demonstrated his comfort level on a wet track in winning the June 23 rain-interrupted NASCAR Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led the final 64 laps on wet-weather tires to score his third victory of the season.

That win, however, didn’t constitute the only successful wet work Bell has done in the Cup Series. In last year’s Chicago Street Race, he led a race-high 37 laps, won the first two stages and at one juncture built a lead of almost nine seconds.

But Bell’s performance was all but lost in the hoopla surrounding New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen’s victory in his NASCAR debut. As the Chicago streets began to dry, the driver known as “SVG” drove like lightning and stole the thunder from the Cup regulars with a late charge from 18th to take the checkered flag.

So don’t blame Bell for hoping for wet conditions on Sunday, despite a forecast that promises mostly sunny skies and a minimal chance of rain throughout the weekend.

“Yeah, I think at this point, I’d probably prefer the rain,” Bell said. “Going into the Chicago Street Race (last year), we had a really good practice, and I was looking forward to a dry race. And then the wet, and when we started the race, we just took off and were really good.

“The track is very, very technical, very high-risk and high-reward. I think it’s Turn 4, which is a very fast section of the race track, gets very tight and you have to push hard there to make some lap time. And I don’t know the turns very well, after we come through that half-circle (Turns 8, 9 and 10) on the backside of the race track, that’s another section that’s super-fast, super-rough.

“Really easy to throw it into the wall there. The race track is filled with a lot of very high-risk, high-reward corners, and if you want to do good, you have to push the car hard and be right on the edge.”

It’s not that Bell hasn’t been fast on both wet and dry tracks this season. He won decisively at Phoenix earlier this season, by 5.465 seconds over runner-up Chris Buescher.

In last Sunday’s Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway, Bell won the first two stages to take a one-point edge over regular-season leader Kyle Larson in Playoff points before spinning out in the final stage.

Joey Logano’s five-overtime victory at Nashville shifted the Playoff bubble to Alex Bowman in the last Playoff-eligible position. Heading for Chicago, Bowman holds a 51-point edge over Bubba Wallace, the first driver below the current cut line.

Bowman hopes to preserve his standing with better luck than he had in last year’s Chicago Street Race.

“Chicago’s honestly pretty fun from the driver’s seat,” said Bowman, who fell out after 40 of 78 laps last year and finished 37th. “We had a failure there last year, so I’m excited to go back there and run that whole race, hopefully, and have a good day, ‘cause we were pretty good there, I felt like.”

van Gisbergen is a slight favorite over Larson and Bell entering Sunday’s race, but if the Kiwi hopes to repeat his success, he’ll have to do so with a different team. Last year, SVG won in the No. 91 Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing. This year, he’s driving the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Camaro.

Shane van Gisbergen goes for third straight NASCAR Xfinity road course win

Last year, New Zealand’s Shane van Gisbergen won the NASCAR Cup Series’ Chicago Street Race in his NASCAR debut.

This year, the three-time Australian Supercars champion will try to add a NASCAR Xfinity Series victory to his resume in The Loop 110 on the 2.14-mile, 12-turn course on the streets of the Windy City (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“I’m looking forward to racing the Xfinity car on this Chicago Street Course,” said van Gisbergen, who is competing full-time in the series for Kaulig Racing. “Obviously, I have already raced the Cup car here, but these cars (Xfinity and Cup) are not comparable.

“So, it’s going to be another massive challenge for me but (crew chief) Bruce (Schlicker) and my 97 Kaulig Racing team always bring fast cars to the track. Happy to have (sponsor) WeatherTech on board with us this weekend in their home city and hopefully park it in Victory Lane.”

van Gisbergen is seeking his third straight Xfinity victory on courses with both right and left turns, having won back-to-back races at Portland (June 1) and Sonoma (June 8). With the two triumphs, van Gisbergen is guaranteed a spot in the Xfinity Playoffs in his rookie season.

van Gisbergen will have plenty of competition in Saturday’s race. Defending series champion Cole Custer also is the defending race winner, having led all 25 laps in last year’s inaugural race, which was shortened because of drenching rain.

The Xfinity event also features a handful of excellent road course racers doing double duty, among them Xfinity regular AJ Allmendinger and full-time NASCAR Cup drivers Kyle Larson, Ty Gibbs, John Hunter Nemechek, Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez.

–Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media