New Zealander Shane Van Gisbergen paid America a visit on July 4th weekend, the recipient of a one-race NASCAR Cup Series vacation out in Chicago.
Boy, did this tourist show the locals a thing or two about driving.
The Australian V8 Supercars Champion, affectionately known as SVG, rewrote history by capturing the first NASCAR street race in the sport's modern era (1972-present). He's the first road course "ringer" to come in and beat NASCAR's top competition at a right-turn track since Mark Donohue in 1973.
Even more impressive:
- SVG won in his first time driving a Cup car, a feat not accomplished since Johnny Rutherford way back in 1963.
- That event was just a 40-lap Daytona qualifying race. you have to go back even further, over 70 years, to find another one.
How in the world did this thunderous talent from Down Under catch lightning in a bottle his first time out?
The driver himself doesn't even know the answer.
"No," SVG said when asked whether he thought he could win on Sunday. "Of course not, but you always dream of it."
A difficult task seemed near impossible when mid-race pit strategy robbed SVG of a top-5 position in the field. Dropping to 18th with roughly 30 laps remaining, he had to pass on a one-groove racetrack still filled with puddles, limiting opportunities to run side-by-side.
But somehow, the Project 91 driver for Trackhouse Racing, one by one, picked drivers off, beating the leaders a good half-second per lap while utilizing years of championship experience running street courses in Australia.
"He is no slouch," Kyle Busch, a former teammate of SVG's in sports cars at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, said. "He always kept probably the quickest time for the team the whole time we were down there... I knew he would be good when he came over."
After a run like that, it sounds like this race won't be a one-off appearance from SVG much longer. The 34-year-old driver has one year left on his contract overseas and then said he'd be willing to pursue NASCAR full-time.
"[SVG] is going to go home," Chase Elliott said, "And tell all his friends how bad we are."
Green: NASCAR -- Sunday morning, Chicago was a code word for catastrophe. The sport's Xfinity Series race was made official before it was halfway done due to a controversial lightning delay the night before, short-circuiting a shot at going the distance. Then, it looked like the Cup race was doomed as a record-setting three inches of rain blanketed the area. The decision by officials to start as downpours continued was gutsy, but it worked. Wet-weather tires held up, the track dried out and tens of thousands of fans, many of them first-timers, stuck around to cheer through the end.
#NASCARChicago race weekend...— Tom Bowles (@NASCARBowles) July 3, 2023
- Giant balloon of momentum builds Saturday
- Lightning pops balloon
- Balloon fills w/water Sunday
- Starting race feels like throwing water balloon out window
- Somehow, race ends with largest momentum balloon possible
What a #NASCAR rollercoaster
Who knows what Chicago does from here; concerns from City Council persist surrounding a three-year contract that has NASCAR taking the bulk of any profits. But after proving that they can put on a street race worth watching, expect plenty of potential replacements to line up.
"We can take the Cup Series anywhere we want," NASCAR COO Steve O'Donnell said after the race. "The race we put on today would... be embraced globally."
Yellow: Justin Haley and Chase Elliott -- Both men had top-three finishes, bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for each. It's just that second place is still the first loser, right? These two are likely in win-or-else postseason territory, sitting 45 and 55 points out of the final spot, respectively. You'd especially think that Elliott, one of the sport's most accomplished road racers, would have found a way to get out front.
Red: Noah Gragson -- The rookie was swept up in a turn 6 crash before the end of lap 1. He'd become pretty familiar with that corner, causing two of the race's first three caution flags and wrecking a total of four times overall. It capped off a dismal weekend for Legacy Motor Club after team co-owner Jimmie Johnson pulled out of the event.
Speeding Ticket: Subjective timing -- NASCAR officials had no choice but to cut the race from 100 to 75 laps after rain delayed the start by 90 minutes. It was a decision they knew had to be made once the race went green (sunset isn't a time that changes on a whim).
Unfortunately, officials didn't make their move until the end of stage two. By then, several backmarkers had pitted early, hoping to gain track position by gambling they wouldn't have to make it to lap 100 on fuel. It caused leaders like Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and others to lose precious track position once race control cut the distance and forced their hand.
In the end, both Bell and Reddick crashed in traffic, ruining potential winning efforts. There's no reason NASCAR couldn't have made the call earlier and prevented a Lady Luck gamble that scrambled the running order.
The weirdest incident of the day came when Corey LaJoie and Kevin Harvick made contact trying to avoid a crashed-out William Byron in turn 11. Landing sideways, their cars blocked the track and created the type of Chicago traffic you'll see when the roads return to normal this week.
Among those in the carnage: Larson, who was still able to rally through and climb to a fourth-place finish. LaJoie also wound up with a solid run (14th) while Harvick slid back to 29th by race's end.