Race Weekend Central

Shane van Gisbergen ‘In League of His Own’ With Chicago Win

CHICAGO – Even a week ago, it was clear to crew chief Darian Grubb his new driver had a chance to win in his first NASCAR Cup Series race.

It was Monday (June 26) when Shane van Gisbergen, a 34-year-old New Zealand native who competes full-time in Australian V8 Supercars, got his first crack at a Cup Series Next Gen car.

With crew chief Grubb overseeing it, van Gisbergen made laps on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL and the Legend’s track on the facility’s backstretch.

It was the initial step in van Gisbergen’s experience as part of Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 program, as he prepared to compete in Sunday’s inaugural Cup Series race on the streets of Chicago.

The test came under strict limits.

“We weren’t allowed to do any setup changes or anything with it. It was just going to make laps,” Grubb said. “That day, watching his disciplined approach of managing tire wear. Let him do a long run. We did 26 laps there at the end of the test just to let him feel how the tires would fall off.”

Grubb said he could see Van Gisbergen “questioning … his own ability, and he wanted to go in there and try it five different ways. You [would] just sit there and watch. We don’t have data on the car or anything, but you [could] see him learning with every lap.”

Later in the week, van Gisbergen was practicing in a simulator after he had studied what other drivers had done.

Grubb said van Gisbergen being “able to go out there lap 3 and beat their lap times in most cases was pretty impressive.”

By Saturday, Van Gisbergen was putting everyone else on notice.

He posted the single fastest practice lap and then qualified third for Sunday’s race.

A day later, van Gisbergen put on a show.

“Holy shit, this guy is flying.”

That’s what Kyle Larson thought at one point Sunday when he looked in his rear-view mirror.

He knew van Gisbergen had been behind him as they raced through the streets of Chicago, laps ticking down.

But the proximity took Larson off guard.

“I felt like I pieced together a really good section and I thought for sure I’d look in the mirror and I was going to be like two car lengths or something in front of him,” Larson recalled.

Instead, “he was glued to my back bumper.”

SVG was on the march.

Following a pit stop under caution, which came after NASCAR shortened the race from 100 to 75 laps due to looming darkness, van Gisbergen restarted 18th in his No. 91 Chevrolet.

Over the previous week, he had to get accustomed to a lot, from braking points to having to drive on the left side of a car.

Luckily, he was more than familiar with street courses from his Supercar career.

“I guess this is my sort of bread and butter, the street circuits,” van Gisbergen said. “Almost half of our series races are street circuits. I’m comfortable with the walls. It took me a bit to learn the proximity of the car, having the car on the other side of me, so I was missing apexes turning left and struggling turning right to know where that side of the car was.”

That was on top of spending the first quarter of the race on wet tires after some parts of the Chicago area received upwards of seven inches of rain throughout the day.

“The wet tire was so different to anything I’m used to, but (other drivers) were straight into it and just into it,” van Gisbergen said. “When I got on the slicks again, I was probably a bit too timid and the guys were all over me.”

As van Gisbergen charged late, on 16-lap newer tires than a handful of the leaders, he continued to learn.

Specifically about who he was overtaking.

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“Coming back through the field, I thought, once the race got shortened we had to pit in order to make it on fuel, and I thought it was going to be difficult from 18th,” van Gisbergen said. “I don’t know the paint schemes that well or the numbers so I was kind of trying to read the numbers on the wind screen to figure out who people were when I come up on them and try to remember who’s good and who’s not.”

The names on those cars?

Larson, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch – with four Cup titles and 102 Cup wins between them – were just a few still in contention.

Van Gisbergen may have been making it up as he went, but it didn’t look like that to those he was racing against.

“He was in a league of his own, and in my opinion, put on a really big-time clinic,” said Elliott, a seven-time road course winner who finished third Sunday. “I don’t want to speak for everybody else, but he made me look bad.”

Larson took it as motivation.

“He put on a show and it was cool to see, and I think when a guy like that can come in and kick your ass at your own game, it shows that we all have room to improve,” Larson said. “I’m curious what he thinks about us. He obviously passed a lot of us, so I’m curious if he thinks we all suck or if we could actually like compete, if we weren’t really that bad.”

Busch wasn’t completely surprised.

Once a teammate of van Gisbergen in the 24 Hours of Daytona, Busch “knew he would be good when he came over.”

Busch said van Gisbergen is “probably … four, five, eight years ahead of us in (the Next Gen) car in the things that he’s done with the V8 Supercars. …

“He is no slouch.”

Van Gisbergen’s run to the front and the win didn’t come without its scares and some help.

He had to survive a “crazy restart” that resulted in an eight-car pile-up in turn 11 on lap 50.

“The spotter was going off,” van Gisbergen recalled. “I’ve never raced with a spotter before and I normally would have just barreled on and joined the crash. It was pretty cool to see how that side of it works.”

When he finally reached the front of the field, like many NASCAR drivers before him, SVG started hearing things.

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Thinkin' Out Loud at Chicago: Shane van Gisbergen Win May Save NASCAR Street Racing

“I got close to the fence and it echoes funny off the fence sometimes, and I thought it sounded funny,” van Gisbergen said. “I looked at the lap times. We went from doing high 29s to 31s on that last restart, and I wasn’t really pulling away that much where I felt like I was trying.

“Then the water pressure, I don’t really understand imperial (measurements) that much, so the settings are a little bit different to me, so I started stressing when they changed color.”

During the caution ahead of the overtime restart, van Gisbergen radioed Grubb, asking him if his engine was OK.

Grubb told him everything looked fine.

“I think I’m just being paranoid,” van Gisbergen told Grubb.

Grubb told him he wasn’t sure why, he was doing great.

SVG thanked him, calling his No. 91 car a “rocket ship.”

Less than a week after he first got in one, that rocket ship powered him to the checkered flag, making van Gisbergen the first NASCAR Cup driver in the modern era to win in their first career start.

Follow @danielmcfadin

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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4 Comments
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Christopher

In 50 years of watching NASCAR races that was perhaps the most astonishing drive through the field I have ever witnessed. Amazing.

TiminPayson

Bell whines SVG races. End of story.

DoninAjax

Bell isn’t the only one who whines. It’s part of the job description for Reverend Joe drivers and some others.

Thunder

That was an awesome display of talent by SVG! Dude should be in a Cup car sooner than later.

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