Shane van Gisbergen wins Cup Series debut in downtown Chicago
When Shane van Gisbergen got the call from Justin Marks, it reignited his interest in the NASCAR Cup Series. He studied the races, the drivers and the cars.
Turns out he is a pretty good student.
Van Gisbergen won his Cup Series debut on a rainy Sunday in downtown Chicago, chasing down Justin Haley and Chase Elliott in a memorable finish to the series’ first street race.
After passing Elliott, van Gisbergen dueled with Haley in the final laps before the three-time Supercars champion moved in front for good. Haley held on for second, and Elliott was third.
“The racing, the battles were really fun,” van Gisbergen said. “But everyone was respectful and clean. It was really cool.”
The 34-year-old van Gisbergen, a New Zealand native, became the first driver to win his Cup Series debut since Johnny Rutherford in the second qualifying race at Daytona in 1963.
He got a chance to drive the No. 91 Chevrolet in Chicago as part of Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91. Trackhouse is owned by Marks, and the goal for the Project 91 program is to give international drivers a shot at NASCAR.
“This was a shower idea,” Marks said. “I mean it was me thinking I’m a huge fan of all different kinds of motorsports and I’ve raced in all different kinds of motorsports. I wanted to bring my love global motorsport to NASCAR.”
When van Gisbergen was credited with leading Lap 25, it was the first lap led for Project 91 in three starts. He became the sixth driver born outside the United States to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, joining Marcos Ambrose, Mario Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Earl Ross and Daniel Suárez.
“He’s going to go home and tell all his friends how bad we are,” Elliott cracked.
Van Gisbergen won his first Supercars championship in 2016 and added two more the past two years. He was helped in his NASCAR debut by Darian Grubb, who was the crew chief for Tony Stewart when he won the Cup Series championship in 2011.
Trackhouse Racing also won last weekend’s Cup Series race with Ross Chastain at Nashville Superspeedway.
“I was a big Tony Stewart fan, so working with Darian was pretty special,” van Gisbergen said.
Kyle Larson finished fourth in Chicago, followed by Kyle Busch and Austin Cindric. Christopher Bell won the two stages and led a race-high 37 laps, but faded to 18th.
The race was scheduled for 100 laps and 220 miles, but it was shortened because of fading sunlight after the start was delayed for more 90 minutes because of a historic rainfall that flooded the course. The last half of the Xfinity race, set to resume after it was suspended Saturday because of lightning, was canceled.
Right before the scheduled start, as the rain persisted, pole-sitter Denny Hamlin took to Twitter to lobby for a delay, and Noah Gragson posted video of one of his tires floating on pit road. NASCAR then decided to allow the drivers to return to their haulers.
Steve O’Donnell’s NASCAR’s chief operating officer, said they never planned to start at that point.
“What we wanted to do was get all the things that needed to happen to be able to fire the engines and get us going taken care of,” he said. “So that when we knew hey, the track is ready to go, you know we’re not going through the anthem and driver introductions and those sort of things.”
The weather eventually cleared up, but there were puddles on the course when the race began. Even as it started to dry out — and teams started breaking out their slick tires — water splashed everywhere whenever a driver slid into a tire barrier.
“Certainly added a dynamic to the race that isn’t super uncommon,” Elliott said. “We’ve been through that scenario before. But it was adding that to an already kind of new and different atmosphere and different circuit was a little odd.”
Gragson, Busch and Joey Logano all visited the rows of tires in Turn 6. Hamlin and Elliott got into the tire pack in Turn 2. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was hit by Bubba Wallace and got stuck in the tire barrier in Turn 1 late in the race.
There also was a massive pileup on the 50th lap involving 14 cars turning on East Jackson Drive from Michigan Avenue, clogging the course and almost assuredly drawing a smile from regular Chicago drivers familiar with the area.
“It definitely was a first-class event. I obviously enjoyed it and hope we come back tomorrow,” Haley said. “I don’t know about the back half of the grid, but yeah, very cool. Glad to be a part of it.”