Ambrose’s Guidance Aiding SVG’s NASCAR Learning Curve

van Gisbergen

Shane van Gisbergen (Nigel Kinrade/NKP photo)

DARLINGTON, S.C. - NASCAR fans, drivers, and media alike have coined the hallowed grounds of Darlington Raceway as the Track Too Tough to Tame. 

However, one driver is looking to tame The Lady in Black in his very first attempt.

Auckland, New Zealand’s Shane van Gisbergen set the NASCAR world on fire last summer after winning the Chicago (Ill.) Street Course in his NASCAR Cup Series debut, becoming the first driver to win in his first start since Johnny Rutherford did so six decades earlier in 1963.

That launched a sequence of events which led to SVG departing the Australian Supercars Championship at the end of last year after three series titles, moving to NASCAR full time with Kaulig Racing in an alliance with Justin Marks’ Trackhouse Racing operation.

His schedule this year includes all 33 NASCAR Xfinity Series races and select Cup starts as well. It’s a sizable load that has come with a steep learning curve.

“I struggle at the moment with the skew of the cars…how the car yaws out…that’s 30 years of racing telling me that the car is spinning out,” Van Gisbergen said Friday afternoon while discussing his progression in the Xfinity cars and with racing on ovals.

“My bum’s telling me that I’m about to crash and I’m facing the infield, but the side force of the car holds it in. I’m still learning that the car’s not sliding and the ‘Hand of God’ - as Ross [Chastain] is telling me - is stopping me from spinning out. It’s one of the craziest things to just ignore that you’re having a spin, but you’re not.”

So far this season, Van Gisbergen has earned a season-best of third at Atlanta (Ga.) Motor Speedway and an additional top-10 finish at Phoenix (Ariz.) Raceway.

It’s a sign of early progress for the 35-year-old as he continues to adjust to American stock car racing.

“It’s been pretty tough, lotta fun, lotta learning, loving racing every week and a different challenge every week,” van Gisbergen noted. “This stretch of races is what we’ve probably singled out as the most difficult; Dover (Del.), Texas, and [Darlington] and then [racing] the Coke 600 (at Charlotte Motor Speedway) in a couple weeks. 

“I’ve got some pretty tough weeks ahead of me … but we’ve been getting top 20s, completing every lap, and getting straight cars, so that has been really good. In my first time at these tracks, that’s sort of [been] the goal.”

So far, SVG has been meeting that benchmark. He has just three finishes outside the top 20 in his brief Xfinity Series tenure, and only one of those was on a pure lack of pace.

“Toward the end of the year when we start coming back to these places is when we’ll try and push for better results. [But I’ve] been enjoying it, having some great races with people, and ending most weekends with a smile on my face.”

In terms of Darlington, specifically, Van Gisbergen’s main concern is tire management.

“Getting used to that feeling and understanding how these tires work, they’re very different [in] how they come on and the pressures they run here,” he explained. “Every week I’m pretty conservative with my racing; [it] always takes me a while. Normally [I’m] coming good by the third stage, but it’s too late [to contend] by then”.

Van Gisbergen isn’t totally alone in his journey, however. In addition to the support he receives from Marks and his Xfinity Series owner, Matt Kaulig, the Kiwi’s main mentor is fellow Supercars champion and former NASCAR Cup Series race winner Marcos Ambrose.

Ambrose won twice in the Cup Series and five times in the Xfinity Series over his eight years in the sport, marks that van Gisbergen hopes to chase as his career in the U.S. grows.

van Gisbergen

Shane van Gisbergen's throwback scheme at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway honors Marcos Ambrose's 2012 colors. (Kaulig Racing photo)

“Marcos has been pretty influential to me,” van Gisbergen said. “He was one of the first guys I rang when the Chicago race was gonna happen … and he told me what to expect and how to approach things.”

Their contact didn’t end after Chicago either.

“Now we speak most [weeks]; especially when we’re going to a new type of track [is when] he’s really good to talk to. When I speak to other people about what to expect, they tell me stuff that they think is basic, but Marcos sort of breaks it down,” van Gisbergen noted. 

“Having those conversations with Marcos has been invaluable.”

Van Gisbergen is running a special paint scheme at Darlington as part of NASCAR’s annual throwback weekend, paying homage to the Stanley-DEWALT paint scheme sported by Ambrose in 2012 when he won at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.

“It’s been awesome,” he said. “It’s our first race with QuadLock as well, an Australian [smartphone mounting] company, so to have them on the car … it’s pretty cool to honor Marcos and when I told him last week we were doing it, he was pretty stoked to see it.”

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