Van Gisbergen learning NASCAR ropes by 'driving a forklift'

Last summer, three-time Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen shocked the NASCAR world by winning his debut in the top-level Cup Series. It was the first time anyone had done so in 60 years, and it kicked off his whirlwind of a career change: moving to the United States to pursue NASCAR full time.

This summer, he's four months into his tour as a full-time driver in the second-tier Xfinity Series, where he's preparing for his eventual move to Cup. What has he learned about the car so far?

"Sometimes it feels like you're driving a forklift," he told ESPN.

Van Gisbergen's NASCAR switch is fascinating for many reasons, including the car. His debut NASCAR victory came on the Chicago Street Course, which he ran with Trackhouse Racing's "Project91" team, a part-time star car for drivers from other series. It was the perfect storm: It was NASCAR's first time at a street course, and it happened in the rain -- two things that come naturally for Van Gisbergen. That helped level the playing field between him and the drivers who race NASCAR every week.

The Chicago race was meant to be a one-off, and Van Gisbergen told ESPN that he didn't expect to win, but "stuff just snowballed so quickly" after he did. He soon signed a development contract with Trackhouse, which included running the 2024 season with Kaulig Racing in Xfinity to adapt to NASCAR's oval-heavy schedule.

"I had the perfect opportunity to come in and be on a reasonably equal playing field at Chicago, since street circuits are sort of my deal," Van Gisbergen said. "America's a massive place, and there are so many young, talented drivers coming through. It's hard for people to come over here and break into it, so I'm pretty lucky."

Perhaps the biggest factor in Van Gisbergen's win was the new Cup Series race car, called the "Next Gen," which debuted in 2022. It's less like old NASCAR cars (built to go fast and turn left) and more like a sports car (built to go fast, plus turn left and right), making it easier for non-NASCAR drivers to be competitive.

That adaptability hasn't trickled down to NASCAR's top development leagues. So while Van Gisbergen adjusts to the NASCAR schedule in Xfinity, he's doing so in a totally unfamiliar car -- and he's already won in it twice.

"[I've learned] a huge amount of things, like just how funky the Xfinity car is to drive," he said. "The biggest thing is that the Cup car, it feels like a race car. It feels like every other car I've driven around the world, with the aero and the rear end. It's a huge evolution of a NASCAR, I guess, to go the whole different route that they have. Even on the oval, it kind of feels like a normal car.

"Whereas the Xfinity car, it's only specific to oval racing, basically. The style of car that has been designed and developed for years, that NASCAR type of stock car. The rear end is really, really interesting, how it moves around. I've never driven a car like that."

Since the arrival of the Next Gen, the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup cars are fundamentally different vehicles. The Xfinity car is old-school NASCAR: 15-inch wheels with five lug nuts each, a solid rear axle, and a four-speed manual transmission. The Next Gen car is in line with the rest of the world: 18-inch wheels with large single lug nuts, an independent rear suspension and a five-speed sequential transmission.

Those changes manifest themselves in many ways. When talking about the old Cup car versus the new one last year, 23XI Racing Cup Series driver Tyler Reddick told me the new car is especially durable on road courses.

"Where a lot of drivers would have issues under braking with the [last] car was with the old-school truck arms, and just how much those flex and wheel hop," Reddick said. "Once you had axle hop -- wheel hop -- you were more than likely crashing. The more you had that axle hop, if you didn't crash the car, you would just shake all the parts loose. You had to really go into the approach of: 'If I'm going to push this car, I'm going to save it for the end of the race, because I don't want to just rip the car apart.'

"With the Next Gen car, that's totally different. With independent rear suspension, all the beefy suspension parts it has, you don't really have situations where the car falls apart like the other car did. You can launch it across curbs as hard as you want."

Van Gisbergen's first Xfinity win came at Portland International Raceway earlier this month. On the first lap, the wheel hop got him.

"I got into Sam Mayer," he said. "The rear end just starts locking up and doing whatever it does. It's certainly an interesting thing. I haven't really felt that in many cars, so it's weird, to say the least."

But the car is only one challenge in Van Gisbergen's NASCAR switch. Another is the tracks; he comes from a background of sports cars, endurance racing, rally and more, but much of the NASCAR season happens on ovals.

So far, both of Van Gisbergen's Xfinity wins are on road courses. He has an average finish of 15.7 so far this season, and on ovals, his best result so far is third in Atlanta.

"The ovals are very, very, very difficult," Van Gisbergen said. "But I feel like I'm getting better and better, finishing the races with straight cars and starting to get more and more competitive. Road courses are [my] strength, but I don't know if ovals are a weakness. We're obviously not running at the very front, but getting better and better and learning a lot. So it's kind of about where we expect it to be."

One of the main voices in Van Gisbergen's decision to come Stateside was Marcos Ambrose, who moved to NASCAR as a Supercars champion nearly 20 years ago. He was always a standout on road courses in the Cup Series, even with the old car, but ovals didn't come as easily.

Right now, Van Gisbergen thinks he just needs time to adapt.

"I've had some great people helping me, with Kevin Harvick and Marcos Ambrose, and then my teammates A.J. [Allmendinger] and Josh [Williams] as well," he said. "They're always open to anything I ever ask.

"A.J.'s a good yardstick. He's obviously capable of winning on the ovals, and we're in the same equipment. If I can be matching him or running near what he's doing in the races, that can only be a good thing. I'm trying to learn what he's doing with the car to make it faster to try and match him."

Van Gisbergen's NASCAR switch is compelling on a number of levels. He's 35 years old, around the age when longtime NASCAR drivers near their performance peak, and he had a career for the history books overseas. If he'd continued that career, he would've been a threat to win Supercars championships for years to come.

Instead, he's giving himself a new challenge in America. He told ESPN that his Chicago performance probably makes NASCAR more appealing for other drivers, but that once they get here, "it's certainly not easy."

"Everyone here is very, very good," Van Gisbergen said. "They've been doing these tracks for so long, and driving these cars every week. It's been a huge change and challenge in life, moving here and the career. It's been a lot of new skills to learn. But most of all, it's been a lot of fun."