Shane van Gisbergen makes NASCAR history in Chicago

                                                  Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images 

Shane van Gisbergen drove into the record books on Sunday with his win in the NASCAR Cup Series’ inaugural Chicago Street Race. The three-time Repco Supercars champion from New Zealand became the first driver in sixty years to win in his first start, the first “road course ringer” to claim victory in fifty years, and just the sixth foreign-born driver to score a W in a NASCAR Cup Series race. 

"Thank you so much to the Trackhouse team and Enhance Health, Project91," van Gisbergen said in the frontstretch interview. "What an experience in the crowd out here. This was so cool. This is what you dream of. Hopefully I can come and do more."

Delayed by rain and standing water on the track, the first-ever Cup street course race went from almost being canceled to delivering some of the most exciting racing of the season in just a few short hours. Spectators lined the streets and watched from buildings along the course despite the delay and the inclement weather that played havoc with the weekend schedule. 

NASCAR’s decision to shorten the race because of impending darkness, along with a late-race caution, allowed van Gisbergen, who’d been consistently running in the top 10 to close in. He and second-place finisher Justin Haley battled fiercely,  but the Kiwi’s experience on street circuits - along with fresher tires - gave him the lead on Lap 70 and ultimately the victory. 

"Coming back through the field, I thought, once the race got shortened we had to pit in order to make it on fuel, and I thought it was going to be difficult from 18th," van Gisbergen said. "Had some really good battles coming through. Some guys waved to me and some guys battled hard, which was really cool. Everyone was clean and I got a couple of taps. I tapped a couple of people. There was that crazy restart at Turn 11. The spotter was going off. I've never raced with a spotter before and I normally would have just barreled on and joined the crash. It was pretty cool to see how that side of it works."

Haley, who stayed up all night helping to rewrap the No. 31 Benesch Law Camaro after an encounter with the tire barrier on Saturday, was understandably disappointed in his finish after leading 23 laps. 

"It sucks, obviously, where we are right now - we aren't in a position to win every week, so coming that close obviously is not what you want," Haley stated. "But just really proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing and what an awesome event. Can't wait to come back next year."

Lurking behind Haley and van Gisbergen, Chase Elliott never quite challenged the leaders, but considering that he started in the rear in a backup car after stuffing the No. 9 Hooters Chevy into the tire barrier on Saturday, third was a good finish for a driver who needs all the points he can get after missing six races with a broken leg. 

"We were gifted an opportunity there at the end and I just could not comfortably out-brake someone enough than really putting myself in a vulnerable position," Elliott said after the race. 

"Huge congratulations to Shane (van Gisbergen), man, that was a clinic. He made us look really, really bad. He is going to go home and tell all of his friends how bad we are. So, I am looking forward to getting to work and hopefully we can figure out how to run with him at the next one he comes to."

Kyle Larson took care through the early laps with the track going from wet to dry. The No 5 team’s pit strategy, like many other teams, got derailed with the timing of the announcement of the racing being shortened, but rebounded to finish fourth. 

"A great points day for our team and we needed that," Larson said post-race. "So, had a lot of fun and congrats to the Trackhouse team. I mean, so much respect to them because that was really cool to watch him out my windshield making the moves he was making and taking us all to school. He is an extremely amazing race car driver and I hope the rest of the world notices that….Just a pleasure to get to race with him and battle with him a little bit.  I know all of Western Springs Speedway in New Zealand is pretty pumped up right now."

Fifth-place finisher Kyle Busch overcame the changing surface conditions and an encounter with the tire barrier on Lap 3. "Thankfully we didn’t have too much damage," Busch said. "We were able to come in and fix it; get back rolling, get back out there and work on passing some guys. Really wasn’t going too far forward, so we were able to pull a different card on strategy being back there, being back in traffic, and just thinking - maybe, just maybe the race would get cut short for darkness. We played that option and it worked in our favor."

Christopher Bell won the first two stages and led a race-high 37 laps, but got burned by the call to shorten the race. The No. 20 CRAFTSMAN Racing for a Miracle Toyota ended up 18th from having to pit at the end of the stage, while the 11 cars that had pitted under the previous caution got track position. 

Chevrolet swept the top five, with Austin Cindric in sixth the top Ford. Ty Gibbs, the top-finishing rookie, came home ninth, best among the Toyotas. 

NASCAR’s first street course event, despite the challenges and criticism, certainly seemed to have been a success overall. Ben Kennedy, Vice President of Racing Development and Racing Strategy, said, "I think certainly a remarkable weekend, a historic weekend for us. We talked about this a lot. First in 75 years to celebrate a special year for us, obviously cap that with a special moment. 

I would say first of all a huge thank you to the city of Chicago. The city showed up so well today from the backdrop on NBC to the energy among the fans in the city and the crowds. It was certainly remarkable to see…a neat event. Good to see a first-time winner in Shane, and as a fan, it was a lot of fun to watch."

While the Cup series moves back to an oval at Atlanta next week, Repco Supercars wasted no time in inviting NASCAR fans to watch van Gisbergen on another street course at the Reid Park Street Circuit in  Townsville, Queensland, Australia. 

Shane van Gisbergen makes NASCAR history in Chicago Shane van Gisbergen makes NASCAR history in Chicago Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Monday, July 03, 2023 Rating: 5