Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: How High Is Shane van Gisbergen’s Ceiling?

“You had my curiosity. Now you have my attention.”

The infamous quote from Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 classic western film Django Unchained certainly paints a picture in the mind if you’re familiar with the film. It also encapsulates the post-race reaction of the NASCAR Xfinity Series competitors and fans after last Satruday’s (June 1) race at Portland International Raceway.

Shane van Gisbergen already had the accolades of three Supercars championships and a big debut win last year in the NASCAR Cup Series at the Chicago street course. But after the first 12 races of his Xfinity career, he was winless. Now, after a near-miss at Circuit of the Americas in March, he’s closed the deal and clinched a playoff berth.

Does a road course win, where van Gisbergen is obviously most comfortable, mean he could be a serious threat for a deep playoff run this fall? I am here to tell you not to count him out, there is evidence that suggests he can advance into the second round and beyond.

Anytime the series goes to a road course, we can now confidently project SVG as one of the favorites, if not the sole favorite. Even with his Cup win last year and a history of success across the pond, that wasn’t expected by many when the season began. The Cup cars are very similar to the Supercars he’s raced down under, and that Chicago race featured wet weather he has plenty of experience with. So, the expectation was that there would be a significant learning curve with the Xfinity cars.

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Not to mention, he has some pretty legitimate competition. To win he has to beat AJ Allmendinger in the same equipment. Allmendinger has been among the road course elite in NASCAR, as he’s got seven road course wins in the Xfinity Series since 2021 to go along with two Cup wins in the same timeframe.

What were the chances van Gisbergen would be able to come to the states, run tracks he’s never run before, in a car he’s never driven before, and beat the likes of Allmendinger in a team car? The time for curiosity is over: van Gisbergen deserves the attention of everyone in NASCAR for what he is doing, and what he is going to do during the rest of the season.

Allmendinger isn’t the only stiff competition. Portland was a Xfinity standalone race, but the rest of the road courses on the schedule will be companion events with the Cup Series. Look back to COTA, where van Gisbergen had driven out to a huge lead before a late caution. That race had Kyle Larson, John Hunter Nemechek and Ty Gibbs in the field. If not for getting dive-bombed by Austin Hill after the crunch-time caution, SVG would’ve easily beaten them all.

This weekend at Sonoma Raceway, there isn’t going to be a big infusion of Cup talent running the Xfinity race. Gibbs is the lone full-time Cup driver entered as of this writing. The Hendrick Motorsports No. 17 car, frequently driven by Cup stars like Larson, will instead be piloted by 61-year-old road-racing veteran Boris Said.

A quick glance at a sportsbook shows Allmendinger, Gibbs and van Gisbergen deadlocked as favorites at +300. Anything can happen with wrecks, mechanical problems or penalties, which is why betting on NASCAR is always a sketchy proposition. Still, how could you take Gibbs or Allmendinger over SVG on equal odds at this point?

Allmendinger has always been stronger at Watkins Glen International than Sonoma. In Cup he has eight top 10s at the former compared to just three at the latter. Gibbs has been strong at Sonoma, but it’s a small sample size with only one start each in Cup and Xfinity in Wine Country, each resulting in top-five finishes.

Van Gisbergen had COTA in the bag until he didn’t. He just won at Portland with a beaten and battered car, out-dueling and driving away from stage-sweeper Justin Allgaier on the final restart. He ought to be the outright favorite this weekend at Sonoma.

Looking beyond this weekend, there are many more reasons to be optimistic if you’re van Gisbergen. After Sonoma, there are still three more road courses on the schedule. If SVG isn’t the favorite to win at the Chicago street course on July 6, I will be curious as to what got into the drinks of the oddsmakers. On Sept. 14, the series will head to Watkins Glen, where Allmendinger might be the favorite, but SVG should not be far behind. Then in the playoffs, the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL closes out the first round, and that is a track that I expect SVG to do very well at.

Perhaps the craziest thing about his rookie season thus far, is that (whispers) he’s been pretty good on the ovals, too.

He finished sixth at Phoenix Raceway and third at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He’s also finished just outside the top 10 at Daytona International Speedway (12th) and Martinsville Speedway (11th). This illustrates a fact that should be scary for the competition. He has been competitive at every type of track. He hasn’t always shown great speed early in the race, but his veteran race craft has repeatedly allowed him to rise as the races have worn on.

For some more perspective on how he’s run, we must consider the reality that the team he is driving for, Kaulig Racing, has not exactly been at the top of their game this season. We recently covered this in Eyes on Xfinity, looking at the plight of Allmendinger. The ‘dinger has an average finish of 13.8 on the season. Josh Williams, another Kaulig driver, lays claim to an ugly average finish of 20.4.

SVG’s average finish? 15.4, ninth best among full-time drivers in the series. The fact that SVG is so soundly beating Williams and is not far behind Allmendinger says a lot about this super rookie from New Zealand.

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It’s easy to see a scenario where van Gisbergen enters the playoffs with two or three wins, which will provide a healthy supply of playoff points to help stave off an opening-round elimination. With Talladega Superspeedway and the ROVAL in that first round, another win is not out of the question. Honestly, it would be more shocking if he didn’t advance.

Then in the second round he’ll have a tougher assignment. It features Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Martinsville. He’s at least been to Vegas and Martinsville before, and based on what we’ve seen so far, you’d be foolish to think he won’t be better the second time than he was the first. With that 11th-place result in his first go-round at Martinsville, he could be a factor there. It’s absolutely within the realm of possibility that van Gisbergen could make it to the Championship at Phoenix.

With a finish of sixth in his spring debut at that venue, who knows? You could be looking at our future champion.

Do you think that’s some kind of crazy hot take? If so, what would you have said if you were told he was going to win in his first ever Cup start? How would you have reacted if someone told you that he would have a better average finish than Sam Mayer, Parker Kligerman, Sammy Smith and Riley Herbst after the first 13 races?

There is another concerning element of his efforts so far, besides the Kaulig mediocrity. We all know “rubbin is racin’,” but SVG has come in and gone toe-to-toe with a few drivers already, and some of that could come back to bite him as the season goes on. He had the scuffle with Hill at COTA and run-ins with Jeb Burton at Martinsville and Daytona. At Dover Motor Speedway it was Matt DiBenedetto who was on the receiving end of SVG’s contact that caused a flat tire and ended his chances of a competitive result. Most recently, van Gisbergen bumped Mayer from the lead in the opening corner at Portland.

We’ll have to keep an eye on how those dynamics progress as the season goes along. When we get into the playoffs, the intensity will definitely ratchet up. Drivers never forget when they’ve been wronged. Elements of revenge or envy could lead to some blowback for SVG, and at this point, getting sent into the wall by other drivers might be the most likely reason for an early playoff exit.

With Trackhouse Racing expected to secure a third charter for their Cup team in 2025, and the struggles of Trackhouse rookie Zane Smith, who’s currently on loan to Spire Motorsports, it looks like a foregone conclusion that van Gisbergen will be moving up to race on Sundays next year.

In the meantime, let’s sit back and enjoy the show.

About the author

Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023 and covers the Xfinity Series. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and and lives in Wisconsin.

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Woody

This is another really good, descriptive, and informative article. Since “finding” Frontstretch last year you have come to be our go to racing information source. We are also fans of NHRA Pro drag racing and hope to see coverage of that venue in the future if possible.
Thank You, Keep up the good work.

Bob

Very good article but let’s remember that Shane is hated by some fans because “He knows what he is doing on road courses ” and exactly zero car owners supported him during the All-Star race, zero. The story shared by the media was that it is too expensive to enter the All-Star race, then why the hell were the other cars there?

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