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The unseen moments behind van Gisbergen win

IT was last Monday that Trackhouse Racing realised that Shane van Gisbergen had a very good chance of winning his debut NASCAR Cup Series race.

The three-time Supercars champion had spent the previous evening embedded with the team as it won the Nashville race with Ross Chastain, but he abstained from indulging in the victory celebrations and went to bed early – his first drive of a Cup Series car was scheduled for the next morning.

It was an act of professionalism noted by team owner Justin Marks, and a portent of what Trackhouse’s director of competition Darian Grubb would see when van Gisbergen finally hit the track at the Charlotte Roval.

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Marks dreamt up the Project91 entry as a showcase for NASCAR by bringing big-name international talent into the sport for cameo appearances, but it had been more curiousity than contender in its first two outings with former Formula 1 world champion Kimi Raikkonen.

Grubb, who was tapped to crew chief the part-time entry, quickly realised that the #91 Chevrolet could genuinely challenge for a race win with van Gisbergen aboard.

“Honestly, for me it was Monday when we did the test at the Roval,” Grubb said.

“We weren’t allowed to do any setup changes or anything with it. It was just going to make laps. But then that day, watching his disciplined approach of managing tyre wear. Let him do a long run. We did 26 laps there at the end of the test just to let him feel how the tyres would fall off.

“We were running part of the Legends course on the backstretch, so it’s nothing that even correlates to anything we do on the racetrack, but those are corners he felt like he could go attack and understand what it would be (like) for a 90-degree corner (at Chicago).

“Those things, you see his talent level and you see his questioning of his own ability; he wanted to go in there and try it five different ways. You just sit there and watch. We don’t have data on the car or anything, but you can see him learning with every lap. He could do consistent laps all day long.”

Testing at Charlotte. Pic: Shane van Gisbergen Twitter

The message was reinforced by van Gisbergen’s laps in Chevrolet’s simulator later in the week, where he impressed by taking just three laps to beat the times laid down by the NASCAR rivals he’d face in Chicago.

“We had a lot of hope and belief that he could be very, very competitive, but as soon as he landed, it was like his focus and his understanding of what we were doing was really, really impressive,” Marks said.

“He came to Nashville last weekend and sat in the box and was really plugged-in asking questions, really absorbing it all. And then as the week went on, it was like one of the best sim sessions these guys have had.

“He wanted to spend a lot more time on our static sim at the shop, he kept asking to go back to it and spent a lot of time on it. Then when we got here, through practice, it just started building.

“We all kind of were like, man, we’ve got a real shot here.”

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The union of van Gisbergen and Grubb was particularly fitting.

The Kiwi’s passion for NASCAR as a fan had been at its greatest over a decade ago, admitting to reporters after the Chicago win that he’d been a big Tony Stewart fan; Stewart’s final Cup Series title came in 2011 with Grubb as his crew chief.

Stewart isn’t the only stock car great that 47-year-old Grubb has seen up close. He was a core part of Hendrick Motorsports during its dominant period in the 2000s, and earnt his first two Cup Series wins as crew chief to Jimmie Johnson in 2006 when he deputised for a suspended Chad Knaus.

By the time he joined Trackhouse (then owned by Chip Ganassi) in 2020, Grubb had added another 21 Cup Series wins with Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Casey Mears and William Byron.

Van Gisbergen celebrates his victory. Pic: Getty Images / Michael Reaves

Now he’s added another with van Gisbergen, whom Grubb believes shares clear traits with the other NASCAR legends he’s worked with.

“I’d just say like professionalism and everything else, he’s very similar,” he said.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career to be able to work with (drivers like Tony Stewart), Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears… All those guys all had different qualities, and I think Shane has definitely got some of those qualities himself.

“He’s just a leader. He came in very studious. He wanted to know. He was excited about Nashville. The commitment level he had, they left early from the Nashville race even though the (Trackhouse-owned) #1 won.

“He didn’t do the party because he knew we had to do the Roval test the next morning. He wanted to be back and be fresh and stuff for that. Got him in bed about 2:00 in the morning for it, so it was still a long night.

“But that type of professionalism and the commitment to what he wanted to do to come in and prove himself and be prepared, he asked all the right questions.

“If he didn’t know what question to ask, he would say basically ‘what am I not asking?’, and we sat and talked a lot, and we ran through all the scenarios.”

Van Gisbergen will now return to Australia for the next round of the Repco Supercars Championship in Townsville, slated for July 7-9.

It’s expected the Chicago event will be his only NASCAR cameo in 2023, while Marks affirmed post-race that Project91 is not currently slated for any more appearances this season.

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