Two-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen has pulled off a measured yet miraculous win on debut in NASCAR’s top tier Cup series, claiming a brilliantly controlled win on the streets of downtown Chicago.
With just limited simulator time and a single day of testing under his belt, the 34-year-old Kiwi qualified his Team 91 Chevrolet Camaro in third, before negotiating the treacherous concrete canyon in wet/dry conditions with cool, calm and disciplined precision to claim the victory after just 75 of the scheduled 100 laps.
Team 91 is a racing program that offers champions from other motorsport disciplines the chance to slot straight into the top tier of America’s most popular categories, and the previous driver roster includes such storied names as Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button.
“Of course not, but you always dream of it,” said an elated van Gisbergen in victory lane, when asked if he though a win was possible on debut. “What an experience! This crowd out here… this is so cool.
“Hopefully I can come and do more.”
The race was delayed by torrential rain for almost an hour, before the 40-strong field took the green flag. Unlike previous generations of NASCAR racers, the newest iteration of the 75-year-old stock car formula now offers a wet tyre option, which van Gisbergen used to his advantage.
His race craft was measured, mature and mistake-free for the duration of the event, and he ran in the top five of the field for the majority of the first half. His Camaro was fault-free, too, aside from a faulty radio that didn’t hinder his progress.
As the laps wound down and the track dried up, van Gisbergen calmly and cleanly drove his way from double digits up into contention
A yellow-flag pitstop cycle during green-flag running on lap 47 – foisted upon the field in part by the decision by NASCAR to shorten the race - dumped the three-time Bathurst champion down as low as 18th, and he also barely escaped a late-race melee that almost blocked the entire track.
As the laps wound down and the track dried up, van Gisbergen calmly and cleanly drove his way from double digits up into contention for a fairy-tale win with ten laps to go, challenging and then passing Chase Elliot for second, before hunting down Justin Haley - who had himself leapt up 36 places to be in contention for the win - for the lead of the race.
He slid the #91 up to first spot on lap 73 for just a moment as a caution flag flew, before relinquishing the place back to Haley under the safety car.
With just two laps left to run, van Gisbergen calmly lined up Haley on the restart, passing him twice in two corners before simply marching away from the US’s best stock car racers to claim an emphatic victory.
He is only the seventh driver in the 75-year history of the sport to win on debut, and the first to do so in 60 years.
While van Gisbergen is a NASCAR rookie, he has raced in the United States on multiple occasions, most notably at the Daytona 24-Hour. His comprehensive racing resume includes GT racing in Europe, rallying in Australia and New Zealand, speedway, a New Zealand Grand Prix win and more.
The reaction of NASCAR teams, drivers and fans to van Gisbergen’s maiden appearance has been nothing but positive, and this emphatic win will surely set his mobile ablaze with offers to join what is one of the most lucrative championships on the planet.
“I’m doing one more year in Oz, and then I’d love to come over here,” said van Gisbergen, affirming previous comments that he would serve out this year and next in the Supercars series with current team Red Bull Ampol Racing and the Triple Eight Engineering stable.
However, the affable Kiwi has expressed his frustrations with Supercars in interviews this week, suggesting that he is currently “not enjoying it that much”. He has raced in the series since 2007.
The three-time champion was sensationally scrubbed from the results of the Supercars’ opening round of 2023 in Newcastle after a technical infringement, and subsequently snubbed media commitments in response to a perceived muzzling order from Supercars officials.
Van Gisbergen currently sits fourth in the series, which resumes its 2023 season this weekend in Townsville.