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NASCAR Chicago Winner Shane van Gisbergen Opened the Floodgates

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Shane van Gisbergen Opened the FloodgatesJared C. Tilton - Getty Images

Yesterday, Shane van Gisbergen became the first driver to step into a NASCAR Cup Series car and win on debut since Johnny Rutherford did it in 1963. He also became the first road course specialist to win a race on a schedule oriented around those tracks since Mark Donohue did it for Team Penske in 1973. Those records are relics from an era where the great drivers of the world more freely tried everything available to them and often won in cars nothing like what they ran for championships. Those days are long gone, but van Gisbergen's win suggests that the tools exist for them to come back.

In the past three decades, a driver crossing over between racing disciplines typically had to commit themselves fully to a switch and abandon their original series in the process. Dario Franchitti's NASCAR excursion meant that he would abandon IndyCar at the peak of his abilities. In order to go to IndyCar, Scott McLaughlin left Australian Supercars behind. Juan Pablo Montoya set a record in this department through his long career: he left IndyCar for F1, then F1 for NASCAR, then NASCAR for IndyCar, then IndyCar for a full-time run in sports cars.

Endurance racing has long been an exception, thanks to additional open seats in 24 hour races. At Le Mans, the most notable examples in recent years are winners Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg, who were each able to race in a factory car while also running full-time in F1. While this year's race did not overlap with IndyCar, F1, Formula E, or American sports car racing and saw more factory entries than any race in decades, only Scott Dixon and a small handful of Formula E drivers were able to take advantage of the opportunity to race in a competitive car entered in the event's top class.

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The 24 Hours of Daytona has seen a few more notable success stories, thanks in no small part to its January date. Shane van Gisbergen is among the group that was able to race in GT cars at Daytona in various years. Many IndyCar racers appear in the top class in the race every year, and NASCAR Cup Series drivers like Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson have had shots in recent years, too.

But those are sports cars, not single-seat race cars in championships meant to showcase individual drivers. Those championships have long resisted one-offs of note, and outliers like Fernando Alonso and Kurt Busch's Indianapolis 500 attempts have required major sacrifices on behalf of their full-time employers. Alonso even missed an F1 race in Monaco, making him the first driver to voluntarily step out of a Formula 1 seat for a mid-season round without an injury or illness in recent history. NASCAR, IndyCar, Australian Supercars, and the World Rally Championship all have mechanisms to allow extra entries for major events, but they rarely go used and even more rarely result in a winning car being opened up for a big-name driver.

Shane van Gisbergen's NASCAR shot was different because Trackhouse very intentionally changed that trend. Ignoring the category's "charter" franchising system and the hunt for the championship that NASCAR pushes as its greatest prize, Trackhouse chooses to occasionally enter a third car for the sole purpose of getting big-name drivers from other disciplines into a NASCAR entry capable of winning a race. the program has so far run three times, twice with Kimi Raikkonen and once with van Gisbergen. The strategy has already produced a historic win, and, although further appearances are expected to be rare situations, drivers from around the world will surely see the value of the opportunity now.

It is not the only opportunity of its sort in Cup, either. Stewart-Haas Racing was able to effectively enter 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button in three races this year through its alliance with Rick Ware Racing. Travis Pastrana ran the Daytona 500 for a Toyota factory-affiliated program thanks to a third entry by 23XI Racing that will also be used for Gazoo Racing sports car ace Kamui Kobayashi later this year. Any other team on the garage could use similar tools, either an additional entry in an unchartered car or an alliance with a lesser chartered team that does not employ a full-time driver, to enter a wild card of their own.

The idea is already catching on. Now that Project 91 has actually won a race, the hope is that similar mechanisms get put to use in other series. In theory, Arrow McLaren could bring Lando Norris to any given IndyCar race and let him experience American open wheel. Daniel Ricciardo could return to Australia and give the Bathurst 1000 a try for Triple Eight Racing. Joey Logano could step into a World Rally Championship event with M-Sport and see if his speed on NASCAR's temporary dirt track at Bristol translates to gravel. Events like these have occasionally happened as oddities and novelties, but van Gisbergen proved yesterday that they can result in top-level wins, too. Teams, drivers, and racing championships just need to align their interests and work toward making these things happen.

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