Justin Marks’ PROJECT 91 for his Trackhouse Racing Team in NASCAR’s Cup Series took a giant leap in Chicago this weekend, as guest racer Shane van Gisbergen (SVG) schooled the balance of the Cup Series field with his magnificent victory in NASCAR’s first street course race. Marks has admitted PROJECT 91 was an idea he had in the shower. It’s worked out pretty darn well, with drives by Kimi Raikkonen and now with SVG.
Van Gisbergen’s Sunday evening drive made him the first racer since Johnny Rutherford to win in his NASCAR debut. Lone Star JR did it in 1963 at Daytona International Speedway, making this victory an even bigger deal. He’s the sixth driver born outside the USA to win in the Cup Series, a feat accomplished by his Trackhouse Racing teammate Daniel Suarez, one of the first to congratulate van Gisbergen in Victory Lane, at Sonoma Raceway last year.
With a final caution period for a first turn incident on lap 74 with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s first street-course race went into overtime, with green, white, checkers for the final three laps. Van Gisbergen was never challenged, not even by second-place finisher Justin Haley, who’d led 23 laps, second only to Christopher Bell’s 37 laps led (he won both the first and second stages in the No. 20 Toyota, but a late spin into a tire barrier had him 18th at the close).
Haley crashed his Kaulig Racing No. 31 Camaro on Saturday and started at the rear on Sunday; he was running midfield but the car felt good and he began to move up with the decision to shorten the contest. He gave plenty of props to the winner after failing to catch the Kiwi by 1.259 seconds. “Shane was just better,” Haley admitted. “He’s just a world-class racer, very precise and very smooth.” Having a great view from behind, “He wasn’t overdriving it; he was very calculated. For someone to come in and race like that, just incredible.”
Behind Van Gisbergen and Haley, Chase Elliott – who also started at the rear after a Saturday crash in his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Camaro – was third, followed by the Chevys of Elliott’s teammate Kyle Larson and Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch. Austin Cindric, Michael McDowell and Joey Logan took sixth through eighth places in their Fords, with Ty Gibbs’ Toyota and Chris Buescher’s Ford completing the top 10. Denny Hamlin who started on pole, finished 11th in his Toyota. Former FIA Formula One champion Jenson Button brought his Rick Ware Racing Ford Mustang to the stripe in 21st place after starting eighth.
The Grant Park 220, coming in NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season, had plenty of issues in its two-day race meeting. NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race, set for Saturday, was shortened and run primarily on Sunday prior to the Cup Series contest. The weather was horrible, unless you’re a duck, and standing water was around the track, a 2.2-mile, 12-turn ribbon primarily in Grant Park was an issue until very late in the going.
Some drivers didn’t want to race in the rain. Pole sitter Hamlin begged NASCAR not to hold the race. It’s not normal for NASCAR but Goodyear, the sanction’s tire partner was prepared with wet tires and the series has had wet races on road courses in the past. Like the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, NASCAR doesn’t race in the rain on oval tracks.
While the lousy weather made many think this would turn out to be a debacle, this Grant Park 220 was a shortened, albeit terrific contest. Originally set for 100 laps, the race was shortened to 75 as dusk crept toward the Chicago area. That change ruined the contest for some of the 37 entries yet helped give NASCAR the race it both wanted and needed in its first foray on city streets.
As it was, there were nine cautions yet only three retirements. Alex Bowman’s No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was out after a single car accident on the 41at lap; Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Childress Camaro suffered a similar fate after 62 laps were completed while brother Ty Dillon was the final retiree, with suspension failure. There were spins and shunts aplenty but with tire barriers throughout the course, there wasn’t nearly the damage to cars that many expected.
Van Gisbergen gave clues early that he was going to be a force in this race. Trackhouse gave the driver some seat time at Charlotte Motor Speedway before heading to Chicago and it paid off for a driver who’s accustomed to entering a car from the right – through a door of all things, sitting on the right – but here he was, having to climb in through the window, sitting on the left, shifting with his right, rather than left hand. The adjustments were plentiful but SVG handled them like chess pieces.
While he was 18th with 20 laps to go, SVG used his wiles to make his way to the front as the laps wound down. He’d been caught out during pit stops around the 47th lap and knew it was “go time”. Kyle Busch, who has raced with SVG in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in a Lexus GTD sports car knew the New Zealand native, a three-time Australian Supercars champion, would be exceptionally tough. “That’s what he’s grown up doing,” the Richard Childress Racing driver said. “Fortunate for him, he’s done it in bigger, heavier stock cars, not lighter weight GT cars.”
It helps that SVG’s Supercars mount is also a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. He practiced well and finished third and fourth in the first two stages after starting third in the race. By the time the checkered flags flew for him, SVG was nearly speechless in victory. Even hours after the formalities of the hat dance in Victory Lane were complete, all he could muster was, “No words right now!!!” While he’s determined to spend one more year in the Australian Supercars, SVG’s victory in his first NASCAR race gives him 2025 opportunities he might not have had a few days earlier.
When he was stuck in 18th, van Gisbergen did worry a bit about Trackhouse’s strategy calls. But he put his head down and moved the car forward. “What an experience in the crowd out there. This was so cool,” he said. “This is what you dream of. Hopefully I can come and do more. With the full stands and the really good racing, and with everyone (meaning his competitors) so respectful, it was tough but a lot of fun. I’m doing one more year in Oz and then I’d love to come over here,” he said.
If he does come to the United States to race in NASCAR, SVG wouldn’t be the first to do so, following Aussie Marcos Ambrose who came to the US to race in 2006. He ended up winning two races, both at Watkins Glen International, in 2011 and 2012. The current Cup Series cars are more attuned to the Australian Supercars than they were when Ambrose was racing and winning; Shane van Gisbergen would have an easier time adapting to the cars and, hopefully, to the ovals where NASCAR predominantly races.
After the victory was complete, the cheers came in for Marks, for PROJECT 91, for van Gisbergen and the entire Trackhouse Racing team. After all, it was the second straight victory for the team after Ross Chasten took the checkers at Nashville Speedway a week earlier. And fans across the full spectrum had mountains of praise for NASCAR in choosing to race on a street course in its 75th anniversary season, for trying a different type of racing, for running this event efficiently and well and for bringing a new victor to the series. People who never watch NASCAR saw this race and, for the most part they were impressed. Looks like trying something new can be a good thing.