Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: Shane van Gisbergen Has an American Rival

Add Circuit of the Americas to the list of tracks where the NASCAR Xfinity Series put on a better show than the Cup Series. The Xfinity race saw more lead changes, more cautions for cause, better racing and a more exciting finish than its Cup counterpart.

Kyle Larson pulled out a dramatic victory on Saturday (March 23), as he pitted prior to the first of two overtimes and restarted outside the top 20 before taking the checkered flag. Despite Larson’s superhero-like driving to come back and win, it was Austin Hill and Shane van Gisbergen who had fans buzzing after the race.

This column will not be an exercise in breaking down who is right and who is wrong. Frankly, I don’t know if one could even determine that in good faith. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the spectacular racing we saw throughout the race, but especially in that second overtime.

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Both drivers showed their strengths and lived up to their reputations in perfect fashion. Van Gisbergen was living up to his sky-high expectations. Much like his earth-shattering Cup win last year at the Chicago street course, the Kiwi improved as the race progressed. He finished 10th in stage one and fifth in stage two. With nine laps to go, he passed AJ Allmendinger for the lead. No small feat, as Allmendinger has been a dominant force anytime the series goes to a road course, proven by his 11 Xfinity wins on tracks with right turns.

Allemendinger and van Gisbergen drive presumably equal cars, both prepared by Kaulig Racing. The Cup win in Chicago was partially credited to the similarity of the Cup car to the Australian Supercars van Gisbergen is so familiar with. In Xfinity, that familiarity doesn’t exist. As regulation came to its final laps, SVG was driving away from Allmendinger, and his lead was over two seconds. There is no honest way to minimize how impressive of a run this was for van Gisbergen.

Hill meanwhile, wasn’t a factor for most of the race. But on the final restart, as he so often does, he found himself fighting for the lead. He lined up on the inside of the second row, pushed van Gisbergen into turn 1, and drove to a several-car-length lead after sneaking by in the turn.

Hill went on to do an admirable job holding the lead. He held it throughout the second-to-last lap, and even survived the calamity corner that is turn 1 at COTA on the final lap. He never made a mistake that gave van Gisbergen an opening. Part of what made SVG’s Chicago Cup win so amazing was that he came through the field with clean passes. In this case, Hill was too good for that to be possible.

It wasn’t until turn 15 that van Gisbergen got to Hill’s bumper. At that time, SVG had the fresh tires of Cup champion Larson right behind him. He had to eat or get eaten. He rammed into Hill’s back bumper in turn 15 and rode it all the way into 16, where both drivers then went wide and gave Larson his opening.

This was an unforgettable finish, and it sets the stage for a great rivalry this season. After the race, the two drivers offered some interesting assessments of what happened.

“For him to move us out of the way and take himself out of contention of winning was kind of dumb on his part,” Hill said. “You’re going for the win at the end of these things … stuff like that is gonna happen, and we’ll remember it for next time.”

“Austin kind of ran through me in turn 1 so I was just trying to get him back there,” van Gisbergen said. “I just gotta learn how everyone races here, that’s how it is and, gotta fit in.”

We won’t go to another road course until June 1, but there are two short tracks on deck: Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway. Will these two drivers tangle on track again? Both drivers could realistically end up fighting for the title at Phoenix Raceway in November. I see the potential for one of the best rivalries we’ve seen in the series.

In one corner you have Hill, in his third year of full-time Xfinity competition. A good ole boy from Georgia, nicknamed ‘Big Country.’ A winner of four races last season, who is well known to come out of nowhere and win races even if he doesn’t have race-winning speed until the end. A dominant force on Superspeedways who often runs around fifth everywhere else.

He’s developed a reputation for whining about post-race interviews, deflecting blame to other drivers even if fans might disagree. Skilled on road courses, and just about everywhere, Hill can serve as a sort of gatekeeper for SVG during his time in the series. Plus, this season probably won’t be the end of their time racing together; both drivers have aspirations to race on Sunday week in and week out.

In the other corner you have SVG: a New Zealand driver who achieved instant legendary status with his Cup debut victory. He’s a driver who could give off the impression that this Xfinity season is only a formality, with a cup ride sure to be on the horizon for any team lucky enough to employ him. An 81-time winner in Supercars, his talent in undeniable.

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But how will the established veterans of NASCAR take to SVG coming across the pond and beating them at their own game? How much motivation to beat him, or to simply keep him from winning, was curated when he put on that clinic in Chicago? Newcomers have often been raced with little respect throughout the sport’s history. How will SVG navigate that as he acclimates to NASCAR? Will he earn respect or pour gasoline on the flames of patriotic and prideful drivers and fans?

There’s no clear hero or villain here at this point. Both drivers have reasons fans could love or loathe them. I’m just thrilled with what we saw on Saturday from both drivers, and also from Larson. I couldn’t stop you from choosing sides if I wanted to, but I don’t want to. Choose away, buy some gear, tell a friend and get ready for some fun ahead.

But for now, keep your eyes on Hill and van Gisbergen as the series heads to Richmond.

About the author

Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.

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Everybody is Austin Hill’s enemy. He loves to dish it out, but can’t take the heat. He’s basically the Kyle Busch of the series.

Last edited 21 days ago by Ted

The key thing to remember about Austin Hill is that he is never wrong. He’ll tell you.

Just like Martinsville at the end of last season, Austin opened the door to be raced a certain way and then whines when someone gives it back to him instead of just happily settling. Regardless of SVG’s penalty, he’s probably at least somewhat pleased that he ensured Hill didn’t win either. If you’re going to take the lead the way Hill did, you better make sure they can’t get to your bumper. If they do, there’s not really much you should be complaining about unless they flat out wreck you, which didn’t happen here.

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