Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: A Renaissance of International & Diverse Flavor

Fifteen or so years ago, NASCAR was a hotbed for the world’s best drivers.

OK, yes, you had the goliaths of the sport like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart beating and gouging each other every week for supremacy. But notice how I said the world’s best drivers, not just the best good ol’ stock car boys.

During the mid- to late 2000s and on into the early 2010s, many accomplished racecar drivers from other disciplines came to NASCAR in droves to try their hand at stock cars. There were whole contingents of them, too, like the NTT IndyCar Series one of Dario Franchitti and Danica Patrick that was slotted alongside the Champ Car World Series group of Canada’s Patrick Carpentier, America’s AJ Allmendinger and Mexico’s Michel Jourdain Jr — not to mention the Formula 1 interlopers, made up of Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya, America’s Scott Speed and Brazil’s Nelson Piquet Jr.

Also, Australian Supercars Championship legend Marcos Ambrose competed alongside sports car aces Max Papis, Andy Lally and Miguel Paludo. And what wouldn’t be the most diverse driver lineup with some action sports icons thrown in thanks to Travis Pastrana, Ricky Carmichael and Steve Arpin?

This onslaught of drivers not necessarily accustomed to the discipline gave NASCAR a diverse and international flair. But as all fads do, the trend quickly fell off as most either underperformed or left to go back to their native discipline.

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In the years since, NASCAR has lacked big racing names from other circuits subsequently rendering the race grids almost exclusively American with drivers primarily from one of two backgrounds — asphalt stock cars or dirt — with Australian James Davison being the lone exception at the Cup ranks.

But the pendulum is swinging back, and it may be accredited to one man.

When Trackhouse Racing’s Justin Marks‘ unveiled his Project 91 program last year, his goal was to give international racing superstars a shot at NASCAR in a competitive entry. Marks went big, tabbing former Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen for a couple of races.

But Supercars ace Shane van Gisbergen‘s historic and heroic win in the No. 91 entry last weekend at the Chicago street course may have truly just signaled that an international invasion is here. With van Gisbergen’s success, rumors are flying about his future in the sport.

Van Gisbergen’s Supercars team has already announced that he could void his contract a year early if he wanted to go NASCAR racing full time. Fellow Supercars competitor Brodie Kostecki has also been rumored to make the transition to American racing like his countryman Ambrose did many years ago.

They would be joining a list of international superstars from other disciplines who are trying NASCAR this year — and that doesn’t just include Raikkonen. Seeing the success of the Project 91 program, other organizations have filled their seats with world-renowned talent. 23XI Racing opened a third team for Pastrana and Japanese sports car ace and former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi to each make their first Cup starts.

Hendrick Motorsports tabbed Jordan Taylor earlier this year, while Rick Ware Racing in conjunction with Stewart-Haas Racing is fielding F1 champion Jenson Button in select road course races and another entry for a returning Lally.

Conor Daly has been paired with The Money Team Racing in select superspeedway and road course races, while fellow IndyCar driver Marco Andretti was just announced for a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend after making his NASCAR debut last year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

And speaking of the Xfinity Series and IndyCar, multi-time Indianapolis 500 starters Santino Ferrucci and Sage Karam have made some noise on NASCAR’s second-highest circuit. Then there is SpecMazda champion Preston Pardus and NHRA victor Tanner Gray who are trying to make a go at NASCAR careers.

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Doesn’t it feel like 2008 again?

Van Gisbergen left us with no question that outside success is very achievable, something that seldom occurred during the first international renaissance. It could propel even more accomplished drivers to come to NASCAR.

Rumors are flying about former SuperCars racer and current IndyCar star Scott McLaughlin jumping ship into stock cars. Even Lewis Hamilton‘s name has been tossed in the ring to come over.

As last Sunday proved, the more diverse the NASCAR schedule gets, the more likely that NASCAR outsiders will come and have success. One could only imagine what Ambrose or Montoya could have done on a street course during their NASCAR primes.

And while we can’t go back in time, we can enjoy the present. Van Gisbergen, Raikkonen and their counterparts have put a lot of eyes back on NASCAR (just look at the TV ratings from last week). If you are a motorsports fan, it is a good time to be watching stock car racing.

About the author

Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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I was watching Dale Jr.s podcast yesterday and he was discussing Shane VG. He was saying that the Supercars were what the Next Gen cars were based on. Check out this video: https://youtu.be/jSLE15t-3B0

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