The Return of Shane van Gisbergen

August 11, 2023

The return of Shane van Gisbergen to the NASCAR Cup Series in Sunday’s Verizon 200 at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway has created even more excitement for Trackhouse and its PROJECT91 entry.

On July 2, the Supercars star went from being a driver few NASCAR fans knew about, to one of the greatest sensations to hit the sport in years.

Van Gisbergen drove the PROJECT91 Enhance Health Chevrolet to victory in the Grant Park 220 Chicago Street Race – the first time a driver had won in his NASCAR Cup debut since Johnny Rutherford in 1963.

It was also the first-ever NASCAR Cup Series street race and made van Gisbergen an immediate sensation.

"I just think it's cool they all know my name now,” van Gisbergen said. “They didn't last time I was here."

The PROJECT91 driver has an old friend from his Supercar days help him get adjusted to the 14-turn, 2.6-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

It’s three-time Supercars champion and current NTT IndyCar Series star Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske. 

McLaughlin is from Christchurch, New Zealand, and van Gisbergen is from Auckland, New Zealand.

They both competed against each other in Supercars and have remained friends. In fact, McLaughlin showed his support of his old friend by posting social media posts as he watched van Gisbergen’s stunning victory in the July 2 Grant Park 220 Chicago Street Race.

“I watched Scott’s race that day at Mid-Ohio and this weekend they are on Saturday after our qualifying,” van Gisbergen said. “They have invited me to watch the IndyCar race on Saturday on the pit box. It will be awesome to cheer him on and Scott Dixon as well.

“It’s cool to be a part of it. I’ve watched IndyCar so much the last couple of years cheering him on. That series is awesome how competitive it is. Those cars are on top of their game and it’s going to be interesting to take a look at it.”

Van Gisbergen has worked with McLaughlin this week at the General Motors Racing Technical Center in Huntersville, North Carolina.

Trackhouse is located in nearby Concord, North Carolina and McLaughlin lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

McLaughlin will be competing in Saturday’s Gallagher Grand Prix IndyCar Series race.

“It would be cool to have Scott join us in a NASCAR race,” van Gisbergen said. “He was at the simulator when I was. They invited me in to sit in on his (IndyCar) session and I got to listen for a bit and watch how he was driving and how that side of things work.

“It was very cool to see. It’s awesome to be in a similar world to him again. He was encouraging for me to come over here and give it a crack.

“It’s going to be awesome to go and watch him and Scott Dixon race as well.”

A third New Zealander will also be in Saturday’s IndyCar race with Marcus Armstrong driving the No. 11 Chip Ganassi Racing entry.

New Zealand has a population of just 5.123 million, far less than Chicago and its surrounding suburbs at 9.5 million.

But it has created some outstanding racing talent including van Gisbergen, six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, McLaughlin, and Armstrong – all competing this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We are pretty competitive in our junior categories and on the world stage we have done so well in America and Europe as well,” van Gisbergen said. “It’s awesome to be helping add to that, not just in Supercars, but in the American side as well.

“We do pretty well, us Kiwis.”

McLaughlin had returned to his Charlotte home after competing in the IndyCar Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 2 and settled in to watch the Grant Park 220 on NBC.

He was mesmerized at how good the race was on the streets of Chicago and believed his friend from New Zealand could challenge for the victory in NASCAR Cup Series’ first race on city streets.

When van Gisbergen won, McLaughlin was ecstatic.

“I thought Shane had a good chance,” McLaughlin recalled. “That was his best chance if he was going to win in his first time. It was the first time everyone in NASCAR had been in a street circuit. Shane has driven on the streets for 15 years.

“He is very good in the rain. He knows those cars very well. It was a perfect storm.

“Shane took that opportunity, and he did.”

When Trackhouse owner Justin Marks developed the PROJECT91 concept, he had McLaughlin in mind for one of the team’s first opportunities. McLaughlin drives for Team Penske in IndyCar, and because of his contract, he had to pass on the PROJECT91, but remains in contact with Marks.

“I texted Justin Marks the weekend before and told him, ‘You have a Wheelman and I can’t wait to see how this goes,’” McLaughlin recalled. “It was awesome from a perspective of being a friend and knowing how hard he works and seeing him succeed was pretty special.

“Looking back, three years ago we were banging doors in Supercars in Australia and not many people knew who we were and what we did.

“Now, we have both ended up winning in America. That is what is really cool and emotional for me and I’m really proud of him.

“It was a big moment seeing him win at Chicago. My emotions at the time were crazy. He had an opportunity to win that race and he went out and got it. That’s what was really cool to watch. It was a good race, passed when he needed to pass and got it done.

“That is the Shane that I know. Shane is a really tenacious racer, and he studies a lot and that was really cool to see.

“New Zealand punches above its weight when it comes to racing.”

Van Gisbergen was able to guide his ship through the ‘Perfect Storm’ and win the race on the streets of Chicago. 

McLaughlin, however, believes his second NASCAR Cup Series race on the IMS road course will be a different challenge.

“I think going to Indy, it’s going to be difficult,” McLaughlin said of van Gisbergen. “He’s going to have a lot of pressure on himself. A lot of pressure from outside sources. And, he’s going to have a target on his back from the NASCAR drivers.

“I’m sure they are going to use him up. We know how they play. And there are a lot of people on that cutline driving to get into the Playoffs.

“I think he will be fast, but this will be a harder one to win. If he does win, it will put on ‘Full Stop’ on Shane racing here in the United States.”

Van Gisbergen has expressed great desire in leaving Supercars and coming to the United States to being a NASCAR career with Trackhouse.

The next step comes at the most famous venue in international racing – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The home of the Indianapolis 500 since 1911 has been a home to the NASCAR Cup Series with the Brickyard 400 from 1994-2020. Since 2021, the racing has shifted to the IMS Road Course, but to van Gisbergen, it’s still “Hallowed Ground.”

“I’ve never been there before and to see that race every year and getting to race on it, although it’s the front straight and a little of Turns 1, it’s going to be an awesome experience,” van Gisbergen said. “Seeing that track and that place and watching IndyCar there, it’s pretty exciting to go there finally.

“I’m really looking forward to it.”

Trackhouse owner Marks believes this weekend’s race is a logical next step for him. Marks believes in the “Proof of Concept” for PROJECT91 and reflected on that epic evening on the streets of Chicago.

Did he really think van Gisbergen could win in his first-ever NASCAR Cup Series race?

“I thought it was possible, but not likely,” Marks admitted. “It was the first time in 60 years that someone won in their debut in the NASCAR Cup Series. Even that one 60 years ago was a qualifying race.

“For all intents and purposes, it was really like the first time it had ever happened, certainly in the modern era of the sport.

“That seemed like a dream scenario and one where so many things have to go right for you on the day to make that happen.”

Marks revealed that before van Gisbergen landed in the United States, he thought a successful day would have been a top-15 finish with an outside shot at the top 10.

“But as the week went on, he practiced pit stops, did his shake down test,” Marks continued. “He did the sim work, the questions he was asking and the rate he was adapting, then we get to the race weekend and how he went through practice and managed qualifying, it became more of a thing in everyone’s mind, ‘We actually can pull off what is perceived to be impossible here.’

“Everything in the race lined up and he drove an amazing race. He drove from 18th to the lead in the last third of the race.

“We were all just watching in awe.”

Van Gisbergen’s awe-inspiring victory is what dreams are made. Marks is one of racing’s and entertainment’s biggest dreamers and he began to think ahead, as did the winning driver.

“On that flight back home to Australia, I think he was thinking about how much he would love to do it again,” Marks recalled. “After we won at Chicago, we immediately went back to work to see if Enhance would come back to support the program.

“I was pretty committed to not running Project91 any more this year, but when a guy comes in and wins, you have to find a way to do another one.

“Luckily for us, Enhance embraced it, sponsored it, I was able to call him and ask if he wanted to do this again and he didn’t even have to think about it.”

The stage is set for van Gisbergen’s PROJECT91 return in the Verizon 200. On Friday night, he will compete in the T-SPORT 200 race at Lucas Oil Raceway Park.

It will be van Gisbergen’s first ever start on an oval and it will help him be approved for oval competition on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2024.

The action shifts back over to the IMS Road Course on Saturday with the Verizon 200 on Sunday.

“It’s going to be an interesting next step for him,” Marks said. “He had been to a street race many times and nobody in the series had ever been to Chicago, so the playing field was very even. 

“Now, we are going to a track where everybody has a few years of experience on. They are comfortable with it, have a lot of data for setups and strategy. It will be more difficult for him to do what he did at Chicago, but that is exactly the environment I want to put him in and ramp up his experience as far as how difficult the competition is. 

“I remain supremely confident he is going to put together a solid day but it’s going to be harder work because everybody around him is going to be a lot more comfortable, a little less excited about the fact he is there, so they might end up racing him a little bit harder.

“I think it is the perfect next step for him in learning NASCAR and learning our sport.

“I expect it to be more difficult, but I remain optimistic he is going to have another great day and be able to deliver for the fans around the world that are going to be watching him.”

Marks is confident van Gisbergen will be wildly popular with the fans that come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend.

“You were watching a fan favorite happen in real time at Chicago,” Marks said. “The fact he is so charismatic and an interesting personality and put on such a show, he won a lot of hearts in Chicago. 

“I absolutely think he will be a favorite among the fan base at the Brickyard. 

“It will be really exciting.”

Van Gisbergen believes his success will help create a path for more racers from the Southern Hemisphere to consider NASCAR for a career.

“Hopefully my result at Chicago and how we do this weekend keeps opening the doors for us Kiwis and Aussies to come over and have a crack,” van Gisbergen said. “It’s a long world away and it’s hard to look outside your bubble sometimes, but there is a place here for us.

“Our series is very competitive and hopefully we can come and succeed here.”

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