Photo credit: Nigel Kinrade Photography

'The animal' headlines NASCAR drivers to watch in Chicago

Sunday's Cup Series race on the streets of Chicago will feature a packed lineup of drivers. Several have the opportunity to win, but Shane van Gisbergen will enter as a favorite.

"He is an animal when it comes to road courses and we've seen that with his two Xfinity wins already this season," Ross Chastain said about van Gisbergen. "He's that good."

There isn't a long history of Chicago performances to examine heading into the weekend. There has only been one Cup race and less than half of one Xfinity race. This doesn't exactly provide a lot of data.

However, van Gisbergen showed that he would be a contender at Chicago last season. He was the fastest in practice with a best lap of 89.419 seconds. He then qualified third behind pole-winner Denny Hamlin and Tyler Reddick.

Van Gisbergen, who has competed hundreds of times in street course races, was in the mix throughout his first-ever NASCAR race. He was third in stage 1 and fourth in stage 2. He then led nine laps and won the Cup race in his NASCAR debut.

This success doesn't guarantee a win this weekend for multiple reasons. First, van Gisbergen is in a Kaulig Racing car instead of a Trackhouse Racing car. He has a different crew chief and a different team helping him pursue the win.

The second reason is that the other drivers have experience on the streets of Chicago. They have actual knowledge about how their cars will handle the turns whether they race in wet weather or sunny conditions.

As Austin Cindric explained on Tuesday, they have data instead of Google Maps this time around.

"I mean, if we're talking about this from a perspective of Shane versus the world, I think we'd all be disappointed in ourselves if the gap wasn't narrowed," Cindric said. "So I think that'd be somewhat of the expectation.

"Field's got some pretty talented drivers in it so I'm not thinking there's just one guy to beat this weekend."

Cindric is another driver to watch heading into this weekend's Cup race. He has experience racing on street courses, and he won multiple road course races in NASCAR's lower series. Cindric also finished sixth in last season's Cup race in Chicago after starting 31st.

Cindric has 17 top-10 finishes in his NASCAR Cup Series career. Seven of these top-10s were on tracks where he had to turn left and right.

Cindric and van Gisbergen are not the only drivers who will have favorable odds to win this weekend. The list also includes two former Cup champions who are accomplished road course racers.

Chase Elliott finished third in last season's Chicago race. Kyle Larson finished fourth.

Elliott doesn't have a road course win in the Next Gen era, but he has top-five finishes at Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Road America, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Larson has a top-five finish at Road America in the Next Gen car. He has wins at Watkins Glen and Sonoma.