How is van Gisbergen flattening the NASCAR learning curve?

Darian Grubb is no stranger to working with talented race car drivers.

Grubb, a veteran of the NASCAR garage, has been the crew chief of record for some of the best the sport has offered, like Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and William Byron. He won the Daytona 500 in 2006 as Jimmie Johnson’s interim crew chief. He guided Tony Stewart to his third and final Cup Series championship in 2011, which came by winning five of the final 10 races of the season to beat Edwards on a tiebreaker.

Shane van Gisbergen doesn’t have a NASCAR resume like those aforementioned drivers, but his talent is undeniable. But to Grubb, his work ethic was even more impressive.


“A little bit of probably the prep, but just how he’s interested in every detail,” Grubb says. “We’d show him data of us versus our teammates. He wants to know the background in why some of the choices we made. We were a little bit oddball on our setup, but we could be because we’re not racing for anything; we can go do some research and development as we’re using that car.

“So he wanted to make sure we’re not out of bounds on some of the things. But a lot of it really worked, too. So there was good conversation and good banter back and forth on, ‘Why do you do this?’ ‘Why do you do that?’ He really wanted to be involved. He wanted to ask questions. He wanted to learn. He wanted to see what the sport was about what kind of tools we had, and if there was anything different from what he’s used.”

Although he’s no longer a full-time crew chief, Grubb is the guy Trackhouse Racing trusts atop the No. 91 pit box when running its PROJECT91 entry. Grubb and van Gisbergen pulled off what seemed like an improbable feat in July when they were victorious on the streets of Chicago in van Gisbergen’s debut. Last month, in a second Cup appearance, van Gisbergen finished 10th on the Indianapolis road course.

There are a plenty of differences between the Camaro Australian Supercar that van Gisbergen races in his current day job and the NASCAR Cup Series car that he drove to a memorable win on debut in Chicago – but there’s also enough overlap to help smooth out his transition between the two. Mark Horsburgh/Motorsport Images

“It was honestly a lot of fun, just the way he was prepared,” Grubb says of the van Gisbergen experience. “We really talked for maybe three weeks before he came over the first time, so we were only physically together for roughly a week before we were able to go out there to Chicago and pull off the miraculous story there. So, we learned each other a lot using WhatsApp and messaging back and forth for a couple of weeks beforehand, figuring out what he needed.

“At that point, it was all about logistics. We needed to have seats, steering wheels, earbuds, helmets, the safety equipment. All those things. That was more of what we were focused on, and then became focusing on the race craft, what he wanted in a race car, trying to organize the test at the (Charlotte) Roval. It became much easier once he got here, and we got him into the method of going to the racetrack to race.”

Chicago fell into van Gisbergen’s wheelhouse: a street course, a vehicle loosely similar to Australian Supercars, and wet conditions. It was also a course no one had ever competed on. Indianapolis, however, is not a traditional road course, and NASCAR drivers are very familiar with it, so van Gisbergen had a much taller task – and rose to the occasion.

But the transition to a new series wasn’t as hard as many might have thought. According to Grubb, the car was the easiest part for van Gisbergen, and neither side had to go to any extreme lengths to make it comfortable.

“Just because he had done so much studying of his own,” Grubb says. “He sat and watched… I don’t know how many hours of video. He watched all the old races. He watched the races from the Roval and COTA, all the races he was interested in, and he just studied how they went. So the acclimation to the car really just became him driving on the left side versus the right side and feeling how the car reacted differently compared to what a Supercar does.

“Obviously, he races many other types of series with sports cars, rallycross and winged sprint cars, so he’s used to having different feels. But this car is much heavier than a Supercar, it has much bigger tires and much more power; the way everything was laid out. So that adaptation just came from him and time and laps. The sightlines were pretty similar, I think, to what he could see out of the car. Everything else was creature comfort, learning the switches, and what he had to do.”

Having a talented driver behind the wheel is one thing. Feedback about what the car is doing is another. No surprise, van Gisbergen easily picked up on how he needed to communicate with the team.

The Kiwi still has a lot to learn about ovals, but earned a top 20 in his oval debut in the Truck Series at Lucas Oil Raceway last month. Matthew Thacker/Motorsport Images

“He did,” Grubb says. “It’s very obvious that his road and street racing background aspect, he described the car right off the bat going through every corner. Describing braking zones, describing cornering, describing acceleration, which is something you usually have to prompt someone for, especially once they’ve done it for a while. But he was very meticulous about how he broke down what he thought and what he felt, and he was looking to us like, ‘Is this normal? Am I asking for something that you’re not used to?’

“It was actually really good directions for the things he was asking for. We learned what he wanted to make speed and how he drove differently.”

Van Gisbergen’s future is still taking shape, but he was released from his contract in Australia by Triple Eight Race Engineering to pursue NASCAR. It’s expected that van Gisbergen will run a combination of the different series next year, and the learning curve will continue with NASCAR being predominantly oval racing.

In Indianapolis, van Gisbergen got his first taste of oval racing two days before the Cup Series event in the Craftsman Truck Series. It was perhaps his most impressive race, staying out of trouble and finishing inside the top 20.

Grubb can’t predict the future for van Gisbergen, but between his talent and passion, he’s eager to see it unfold.

“I think his excitement level, of course, will get tempered when you don’t have a good day,” Grubb says. “How do you deal with those situations? But watching him at IRP and how he just had a great time, and he was learning every single lap that was a very short, quick process to him go run an asphalt circle track, and he just had a smile on his face. He really wanted it, enjoyed it, and talked about it all week about how he could do better and what he could study.

“And he just went and did it. He wasn’t scared at all. You could tell he was apprehensive and wanted to make sure he didn’t affect the show, the guys running for a championship, but he went out there and was competitive. As he said, he learned every lap. It is a different thing to run circle tracks than road courses, for sure.”

Story originally appeared on Racer