CHICAGO — Everything appeared lined up for Shane van Gisbergen to win on Sunday. Here he was, a world-class driver leading the NASCAR Cup Series race on the Chicago street course with clearly the fastest car, only a few laps remaining, on the cusp of becoming the first driver in NASCAR’s modern era to win in his debut race.
Then, van Gisbergen, a three-time Australian V8 Supercars champion from New Zealand, heard something that raised suspicion as he rode around under caution. Something sounded off with his engine. Immediately, he radioed his Trackhouse Racing team to alert them.
There was no need to worry. The engine was fine, crew chief Darian Grubb confirmed after checking and rechecking the data. The 34-year-old van Gisbergen was being paranoid.
“I think he was hearing the gremlins in his own head, realizing I’m leading the race and have the potential for the win there,” Grubb said.
With his concerns assuaged, van Gisbergen delivered a star-making performance by besting NASCAR’s top talents in the inaugural race through the streets of downtown Chicago.
And for a contingent of his fans in attendance, they never doubted that van Gisbergen could make history.
“He’s a ripper,” Darren Forrest said.
Pardon, he’s a what?
“He’s a ripper. It’s Australian for someone who just does incredible things,” Forrest explained. “A ripper.”
Forrest, an Australian, knows what he’s talking about. He and good friend Wayne Sheerman traveled to Chicago from Melbourne to watch van Gisbergen make his NASCAR debut as they are both big fans of his, evident by them each wearing T-shirts supporting their favorite driver.
“Lap after lap, he’s a magician,” Sheerman said. “He is just incredible.”
And as van Gisbergen performed a smoky burnout during a festive post-race victory celebration on the frontstretch, Forrest and Sheerman took part in the proceedings. They even sneaked onto the stage where van Gisbergen and his team were spraying champagne and snapping photos to get their own picture with NASCAR’s newest winner.
“I’ve never done 50,000 photos on the podium before,” van Gisbergen said. “But there was some guys with SVG shirts that came from Australia and came to watch the race. They snuck up onto the podium and (I) took some photos with them. The support we’ve had and the interest from people in Australia and New Zealand, it’s overwhelming and so cool to see how interested people are in this race.”
Forrest and Sheerman were among a contingent of Australians who trekked to Chicago to watch van Gisbergen make his NASCAR debut. At one point, a group of fans standing on the track below the stage began chatting — “SVG! SVG! SVG!” — which was then picked up by a crowd standing in suites that overlooked victory lane. Another group huddled around a cell phone where someone had pulled up van Gisbergen highlights on YouTube so he could show his buddies clips of why van Gisbergen had such a legion of fans.
“Watch this, this guy is just a total badass,” said the guy holding the phone.
As “You’re The Best” played loudly over the track’s sound system, Tim Pattinson beamed as he watched van Gisbergen celebrate. The 34-year-old from Melbourne works in the motorsports industry designing liveries, and he already had a six-week trip scheduled to the United States when Trackhouse announced van Gisbergen’s entry in the Chicago race. Not wanting to miss it, he rearranged his itinerary. He flies back to Australia on Monday.
“Pretty special to see him get the win,” Pattinson said. “This was definitely worth coming to see.”
Not every van Gisbergen fan had to travel from Australia or New Zealand.
A self-described hardcore Supercars fan, Caleb Paul calls Colorado Springs, Colorado, home, and while he was always considering attending the Chicago race weekend, van Gisbergen’s entry sealed the deal. He was among those chanting below the stage.
“It was awesome to watch him come to the States and win,” Paul said. “I am loving this. So cool. He’s amazing to watch.”
What Forrest, Sheerman, Pattinson and Paul have in common beyond being van Gisbergen super fans who travel here to watch him race was that they had no such paranoia over the final laps whether their driver could close out the win.
Many, many times they had watched van Gisbergen win in Supercars, including that series’ biggest races, and they never thought there would be a different outcome on Sunday. This is just what van Gisbergen does. Now NASCAR was going to experience it.
“I’m not totally surprised because he’s a freak in Supercars,” Pattinson said. “I’ve seen this so many times it was like watching a replay. He’s a street-racer master.”
Throughout the weekend, van Gisbergen dazzled, especially Sunday when, in wet conditions, he turned in a near-flawless performance. He did so despite dealing with a host of new challenges, like this being his first time in a Cup car, which required him to sit on the opposite side of where he sits in a Supercars vehicle, and adapting to different terminology and an unfamiliar numeric system.
“The most difficult thing on a street track was the car on the other side, having that meter-and-a-half of metal on that side instead of the left, it just took a little bit,” van Gisbergen said. “I probably left a bit on the table with that.”
Yet, not once did van Gisbergen look out of his element. Quite the opposite.
“Man, that was a clinic,” said Chase Elliott, the 2020 Cup champion. “He made us look really, really bad. He is going to go home and tell all of his friends how bad we are.”
Maybe van Gisbergen will go home and brag about his NASCAR exploits. He certainly earned that right. He also doesn’t need to; his admirers will gladly do it on his behalf.
“Some of the stuff he does in a car is superhuman,” Pattinson said. “The way he makes the car dance around and the lines he picks, no one else can do that.”
(Top photo: Sean Gardner / Getty Images)