Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Shane Van Gisbergen Rocks the NASCAR World

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

If you’re a fan of NASCAR history, Sunday (July 2) was a good day. It was NASCAR’s first Cup Series race on a true street course during the modern era, the first time a road course ringer has won a Cup race in 50 years and the first time a driver has won his Cup debut in 60 years.

Fans love an underdog, and two of them racing for the win on the streets of Chicago made the event a popular one.

Shane van Gisbergen, making his Cup debut in the No. 91, showed why he’s a three-time champion in Australian V8 Supercars. He started third and maintained that top-three spot until the first round of green flag stops, during which he led briefly before pitting for slick tires. SVG came back on track in second spot, and then held on until the caution flew for Noah Gragson’s third encounter with the tire barriers. He lost a few positions on the restart as the field got more aggressive. 

SVG was one of the drivers that got the short end of a pit strategy game. Several others, including Justin Haley, pitted under caution outside the expected pit window, banking on the race being shortened for darkness, which it ultimately was. Van Gisbergen had been racing Christopher Bell for the lead before the pit changeup, but he fell to 18th after his own final stop under caution.

From there, van Gisbergen put on a masterclass in street racing. He avoided damage in a multi-car pileup that damaged several cars, including Bell’s. He then stalked his way through the pack past drivers who had come out on top in the earlier pit gamble.

SVG picked them off one by one, up to second-place Chase Elliott. Just after he got by Elliott and was about to make a move on Haley, the caution flew again, but van Gisbergen still easily took care of leader Haley, who put up a solid fight on older tires. Haley had one more chance when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun into the tires, but van Gisbergen nailed the restart and drove away from Haley, who finished second.

With the victory, van Gisbergen became the first driver in Cup since 1973 – when Mark Donohue won at Riverside Raceway – to win as a road course ringer and the first driver since Johnny Rutherford in 1963 to win in his first Cup start. 

Van Gisbergen hinted that he’d be interested in a full-time Cup ride in 2025, which might be perfect timing if Justin Marks decides Trackhouse Racing is due for an expansion. Everything Marks has touched so far has turned into trophies, if not gold, and adding SVG to the fold might be another winning move.

And don’t forget Haley. While he fell short of the win, Haley showed he could race with the best of them, holding off road-course ace Elliott and the rest of the field for 23 laps before van Gisbergen got by. He then held the rest of the field off for the final nine laps (including overtime). Haley is a talented driver who hasn’t quite had the opportunity to be consistently competitive. But he’s a very good superspeedway driver, and with momentum on his side and Atlanta Motor Speedway next on the docket, he could find victory lane again soon.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

The race had a lot to live up to. NASCAR had hyped it up more than any race in recent memory other than maybe the Daytona 500, and there are implications for the future. The current deal with Chicago officials is for two more races, in 2024 and 2025, but should NASCAR continue street racing after the deal is up?

It’s certainly true temporary street courses could bring NASCAR to some markets without permanent tracks. But that doesn’t mean every city could or would want to host an event, and not every city has the right configuration of wide enough streets to make it happen.

Also, how good was the racing, really? Yes, the wet weather meant we didn’t get the best picture of how it played out, but there weren’t a lot of passing zones, and the racecar has struggled on flat tracks and road courses. It was a good race, but the slipping and sliding in the wet made it more interesting than it would have been in the dry. A lot of the actual racing was average; van Gisburgen’s late charge and racing Haley for the win gave it a storybook ending. That’s not a bad thing, because it’ll make people remember a race NASCAR desperately wanted to be memorable. 

Street racing is a fun diversion, but maybe it’s time to get the car right on the known tracks before adding new ones. And when NASCAR does get to that point, there are better tracks to add than a street course. Short tracks should be first on that list, particularly North Wilkesboro Speedway. Because of a lack of short tracks, NASCAR resorted to more road courses, but if a deal can be done to add Nashville Fairgrounds and if the mile oval at Rockingham Speedway can be resurrected again, those should take priority over road and street courses. Three or four road races is enough.

See also
Shane van Gisbergen Shocks the World With NASCAR Chicago Street Race Win

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Denny Hamlin was vocal before the race, questioning whether NASCAR should have started on the wet track. His concern wasn’t unfounded, as several cars spun during the opening laps … including Hamlin. He slid into the turn 2 tire barrier, but was able to continue.

After his misadventure, Hamlin wasn’t much of a factor. Another spin relegated him to deeper in the field, but he rallied back to 11th, taking advantage of several late cautions.

Defending Cup champion Joey Logano started ninth but fell back early on. He was running mid-pack for much of the early going, but he was one of the drivers who gambled on pit strategy, coming in early and banking on NASCAR calling the race early. When they did, another caution and round of stops for most of the field left him inside the top five.

Logano also made it through a couple of close calls when Jenson Button spun in front of him coming to pit road, then later when a William Byron spin led to a bottleneck and eventually a full-on traffic jam. Logano didn’t take home any stage points, but he finished a respectable eighth. 

Former F1 champion Button had a solid start to the day, running inside the top 10 early. He maintained that position until getting spun while trying to reach pit road for the first stop of the evening. He fell back late in the race after a couple of close calls and finished 21st.

When… was the moment of truth?

What made the finish memorable wasn’t really the racing itself, though van Gisbergen’s final charge for the lead and Haley’s tenacious attempt at a comeback was exciting to watch.

What made it memorable was who was battling for that win. Though van Gisbergen is an accomplished racer and in a very good car with Trackhouse, he was an underdog. Road course ringers don’t often win, as the 50-year gap between Donohue’s win and van Gisbergen’s shows. Haley’s Kaulig Racing team isn’t quite a weekly Cup contender yet.

Had the same battle taken place between, say, Elliott and Kyle Larson, people wouldn’t be talking about the race like they are this Monday morning at the water cooler.

NASCAR’s about people as much as it is machines. Due to the people involved, fans will remember this race. That’s great for NASCAR in the short term.

In the long term, though, the racing every week has to be compelling enough to make people talk no matter who’s winning. This weekend was ultimately successful, but it was two drivers away from just another Sunday.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

If you liked the early chaos in Chicago, then the next race might be right up your alley as the Cup Series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway. Part intermediate, part tiny superspeedway, Atlanta has provided its share of chaos in the last couple of years since its reconfiguration.

This spring’s race was tamer than the events last season, but look for the intensity to ramp up. Not only will the track be slicker in the heat of summer, but with the playoffs getting closer and chances to earn a spot dwindling, the stakes will be high.

Atlanta is a track where a driver could make an unexpected play for a playoff spot. Drivers like Haley or Corey LaJoie, who excel on superspeedways could steal a win, especially if things get wild and they bide their time.

How… do you react when there are no words?

You react with your heart. The outpouring of care for Chandra and Jimmie Johnson and their family after the tragic loss of Chandra’s parents and nephew last week is the very best of NASCAR. It’s why the NASCAR community is family. It’s the good in a terrible situation.

Continued thoughts go out to the Johnson family in the coming days and weeks.

Follow @Writer_Amy

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

12 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Echo

I called this one on frontstretch, in a column this past week. Didn’t shock me at all.

RCFX1

You picked Van Gisbergen? Well done!!!

Jason

3 races in the southeast over racing in cities throughout the country? I’m good on that. Plus is there enough fans to actually support all those tracks…idk

RCFX1

It should have been an exhibition race, not a points race. Nascar screwed the teams with the late call. The strategies were already in place and they gave the race to a separate group on lap 31.

DoninAjax

“Haley had one more chance when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun into the tires”

Really? Doesn’t tell the whole story. It should read:

Haley had one more chance when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was t-boned by Bubba and knocked into the tires.

Echo

Funny how they left that out. Thanks, I didn’t watch it, no tv reception. I’m high in the northern Rockies of Montana Bitterroot valley. The trout are biting and nobody else is up here.

Bill B

Yeah I noticed that glossing over of the facts too.

randy

This may be common knowledge to some, but not me – why is SVG not listed as a playoff qualifier by NASCAR this morning? Must one start a minimum number of races? In that case, Marks should get him in a seat NOW!

DoninAjax

Why can’t SVG get a waiver since the Daytona brain trust make up the “rules”? Like I’ve been saying for years when I use the Indiana Jones quote from Raiders:

“I’m making this up as I go!”

KAVA

Does SVG quilify for the championship?

Shyne

“Win and you’re in” should be applied to the Trackhouse team. NASCAR needs to fabricate another historic moment and allow the #91 to run the remainder of the season and make good on a well-earned spot in the Chase.

Of course, that will never happen. Waivers are used by NASCAR to manipulate circumstances beyond their normal control. Did NASCAR pull a fast one on Sunday in an attempt to get their waivered driver a shot at the win and into The Chase?

Unfortunately for the Cup guys, SVG made them look more like celebrity drivers instead of the greatest drivers in the world.

Share via