You could make a good argument that in Shane van Gisbergen’s brief NASCAR career he only knows about winning – trackside for his first NASCAR Cup Series race last week he experienced Victory Lane as his Trackhouse Racing teammate Ross Chastain celebrated the team’s first victory of the year at Nashville Superspeedway.
This week, the New Zealand super-talent gets a trophy shot himself, driving the No. 91 Project91 Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing on the streets of Chicago in NASCAR’s debut on the downtown course.
This will mark van Gisbergen’s NASCAR debut too, but the 34-year old is already one of the world’s best in this kind of competition and is a three-time – and the reigning – Australian Supercars Champion. He’s won 79 races and earned 46 pole positions in the top-line, high-action stakes of the Supercar Championship that also produced mega-talents such as Marcos Ambrose – who, by the way, came to the United States and won in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“He’s a good luck charm, one way or another,’’ his Project91 crew chief and Trackhouse Racing Director of Performance Darian Grubb said. “We’re trying to keep the expectation level high too, we want to perform and obviously know Shane is a performer. We’re coming off a really good, solid week so we want to continue that streak and keep everybody smiling and having fun with this.’’
Fun will be a component this weekend as the series tries something so new to the sport – racing on a street course in one of the country’s most iconic cities. But van Gisbergen, Grubb and the whole team still have high expectations despite van Gisbergen’s relative unfamiliarity with the car and the circuit.
van Gisbergen drives a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 in the Supercar Championship – which looks a lot like NASCAR’s brand of stockcar competition. But there is still admittedly, a learning curve. Grubb noted the team must be aware to turn inches into van Gisbergen’s metric system. And of course simply getting van Gisbergen used to the car – shifting with his right hand instead of his left as he’s used to.
“Well, the first thing is sitting on the other side of the car is tough,’’ van Gisbergen said with a smile. “And then climbing through the window. I’ve never done that before. So yeah, it’s quite different.
“But the technical side of things is pretty similar in the way the car is built. A big, heavy car. A lot of horsepower. It’s similar to what we have. It looks difficult. … but yeah, I’m just looking forward to it. I’m trying to keep my eyes open and try to learn this week and try to not have too many expectations about the street circuit. It looks so different to what NASCAR has done before.’’
On Monday, van Gisbergen got his first chance to drive the NASCAR Cup Series Chevrolet ZL1 – making three tire runs on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course – also having the opportunity to work in person with the former NASCAR Cup Series Championship crew chief Grubb. That pairing turned out to be especially significant for van Gisbergen, who was a huge Tony Stewart fan. Grubb was the crew chief on the NASCAR Hall of Famer Stewart’s 2011 championship team and won the 2006 Daytona 500 with driver Jimmie Johnson.
“I was a big Tony Stewart fan when he was racing and then of course, Darian was his crew chief, so now getting to work with him is very cool and getting to know him,’’ van Gisbergen said. “The few years, kept in touch. Then of course with the opportunity this year, I’ve been watching most races trying to study. Always been a fan of it, so to get to jump straight into the Cup Series is pretty exciting.’’
As both van Gisbergen and Grubb acknowledge, however, despite the similarities between the cars van Gisbergen is used to driving and the Trackhouse Racing Chevy he’ll steer this week – there are still some very real differences that they will have to handle in real time. Sitting on the left side of the car as opposed to the right as he’s used to, actually presents a multi-level adjustment for van Gisbergen. That made Monday’s test at Charlotte and the simulator time thereafter so crucial.
“Being able to put him in our car and learn all the controls, getting comfortable with the sight lines, the cameras, the mirrors, the actual shifter location,’’ Grubb said of the priorities. “Obviously he’s used to typically driving on the right side of the car versus where out cockpit is at so you’re shifting with the opposite hand and the pedals, brake adjusters are all different. So it’s about making sure all the systems in the car are familiar to him because you’re so busy at a street course you don’t have time to look down and figure things out, you have to be comfortable.
“So that acclimation time we were able to do with him, what he’s used to doing on street courses we are hoping now we’ve kind of bridged that gap and the performance factors that he can adjust, the brake bias and these other things too are all there for him and semi-familiar to him.
“He’s only got one shot at it so when he hits the streets of Chicago, so I hope that time pays off.
“I think the big win was him being familiar with the car and now it’s a matter of tuning up for an actual street course.’’
Van Gisbergen is equally optimistic about his chances driving for one of the premier teams in the series – and the most recent winning team.
“I just want to do my best,’’ he said. “I’ve prepared as well as I can and I know the Trackhouse team runs some awesome cars. Meeting everyone and seeing how motivated they are. There’s nothing wrong with the equipment or the preparation.
“I have no expectations, results-wise, but I’m prepared the best I can be. We can achieve anything.’’