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Friday 5: Inside the mind of a NASCAR driver

Despite all his racing experience before coming to NASCAR, oval tracks have tested Shane van Gisbergen in how to drive the car.

It’s easy to wonder what could be more difficult than winning in a Cup debut — as he did last year on the streets of Chicago. But oval racing is so different than what van Gisbergen has done that he has had to retrain his mind and other senses on how to drive those tracks in NASCAR.

Saturday, van Gisbergen will make his first Xfinity Series start at Martinsville Speedway, a historic half-mile track. This will mark his sixth series start on an oval, following races at Daytona, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Richmond. No track has been the same.

He’s scheduled to make his Cup debut on an oval April 21 at Talladega. Van Gisbergen also is scheduled to run there Oct. 6. Other ovals he’s scheduled to run in Cup this season are the Coca-Cola 600 on May 26 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and at Las Vegas on Oct. 20.

Van Gisbergen discussed the challenges and joys he’s found in ovals while trying to catch up to those who have more experience at those tracks.

Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney have much to smile about with Martinsville next on the schedule.

On going from a road racing background to learning how to race on ovals, van Gisbergen, a three-time Supercars champion in Australia, said:

“Probably the biggest thing that got me is the negative G. When you’re in a corner, how much you’re getting pushed into the seat. It’s feelings that I’ve never felt before and having to react.

“… Normally, my bum’s telling me I’m about to spin out, but that’s how they set the cars up to skew through the corner. I’m looking at the infield feeling like I’m sideways, but I’m not. Especially at Vegas I’m correcting slides, but the car’s not actually sliding. That’s just how they’ve got it set up.

“Just the way the car drives and the feelings that you get are so different to anything I’ve ever, ever gotten used to and then, stuff like restarts at Phoenix. They are crazy through the dogleg and everyone just, it’s freestyle, basically, to get to the first corner.

“The spotter is telling me I’m four-wide and (I’m like) which part of four-wide. Where am I? I have no idea where I am in the middle. So I just tried to go out into the corner. It’s mental stuff like that. I’ve never, never experienced that before.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but that kind of stuff is a massive challenge. Normally at a racetrack (road course or street course) I’m always on one line, trying to just follow the same line the whole time, whereas at Phoenix I had a good line and that went away. Then I had to go and drive up at the fence at (Turns) 1 and 2. Having to miss the apex to go faster is a completely different world to me.

“So, yeah, it took me a while to figure (that) out and get a different rhythm and find a different breaking point, reference point. Just how variable the race line is here and how much it changes. There’s a lot of little subtle challenges that all add up.”

NASCAR returns to the historic half-mile track for a weekend of short track racing.

On the challenges of having a different mindset while learning NASCAR and its tracks, van Gisbergen said:

“It’s been a big mindset adjustment because last year (in Supercars) I was expected to be top three and be in contention for a win every single race.

“Now, even when you see the top guys in the Cup Series, they’re not always in the top 10 even. It’s so competitive and so variable this sport. You watch Supercars or Formula 1, (they are) even more graphic examples of how dominant the top guys are.

“And you know, you see (Kyle) Larson wins on Saturday (in the Xfinity race at COTA). He’s 18th on Sunday (in the Cup race at COTA). … Then the next week he’s winning again or back. This sport is so competitive and (finding) margins make such a massive difference.

“So, yeah, it’s been a big adjustment not going out expecting to be out front every weekend. But that’s a challenge. It makes it so much harder to be good every week. You’ve got to be really on top of your game. On your bad days, you still got to try and get a top 10 as a good result.”

A grandfather clock is on the line for Cup drivers Sunday afternoon.

Entering this weekend, van Gisbergen is 13th in the Xfinity standings, one point out of the final playoff spot. He finished third at Atlanta and sixth at Phoenix. He crossed the finish line second in the Xfinity race at COTA but was penalized 30 seconds for short cutting a turn on the final lap, dropping him to 27th place.

With all that he is experiencing, NBC Sports asked van Gisbergen about a moment in the car this year that stood out as an example of how he’s learning to race on ovals.

“There’s lot of little things but, yeah, there was one at Phoenix when I did start to run up top,” he said. “I just had a massive moment and thought, ‘Crap, I’m hitting the wall here,’ and it just saved itself and gripped up and pulled out.

“And then the next couple of laps I was a bit tentative into the corners and then eventually built up to where I was having that moment every lap thinking I was going to crash and then it holds every lap. That’s a pretty cool feeling. Like, the wall is (so close) but then all of a sudden there’s just a magic bit of grip up there.

“So trying to find that every lap and having that small heartstopper was pretty cool. Everyone else out there, it’s normal. So, yeah, that’s the kind of thing I’ve got to get used to, putting myself through that every lap.”

2. What to do about restarts?

With NASCAR acknowledging that Denny Hamlin accelerated before entering the zone on the final restart last weekend at Richmond, what happens next?

Comments by Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio suggest that series officials may be less lenient in judging if the leader starts early in the near future.

Still, what is the solution? Should the beginning of the restart zone be absolute or should officials allow some leeway so the leader retains their advantage?

Hamlin noted on his podcast this week how he was judging when to go based on how Joey Logano, who was behind Hamlin, began creeping to the back of Hamlin’s car, and what Martin Truex Jr. was doing on the outside of Hamlin.

There has been some talk of using technology to judge restart violations instead of the officials making the call. That way it removes the human element. But Brad Keselowski noted the 40 penalties called throughout the Cup, Xfinity and Truck races last month at Circuit of the Americas for shortcutting the course.

“I think COTA was a perfect example of how this can go the other way, where you have technology to solve challenges, you create black and white and remove some of the gray judgment calls and people don’t like that either,” Keselowski said.

Josh Berry said he liked that NASCAR didn’t penalize Hamlin for the final restart at Richmond.

“I’ve raced a lot of short tracks, and I’ve raced a lot of different rules, restart lines, restart zones, all these different things, and it’s really easy to just completely handicap the leader,” Berry said. “I think there’s got to be some flexibility there. I think the leader is the leader for a reason. He needs to have the right to control the restart.”

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3. Supercars driver set for NASCAR debut

Following the NASCAR debuts last year by Shane van Gisbergen and Brodie Kostecki, fellow Australian Supercars driver Cam Waters is scheduled to make his NASCAR debut in tonight’s Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

The 29-year-old Waters, a two-time runner-up for the Supercars championship, will compete for ThorSport Racing. He will be in a fifth entry for the team and be a teammate to former Truck champions Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes, along with Ty Majeski and Jake Garcia.

“I want to get out there and experience NASCAR as a whole,” Waters said. “The whole weekend. I’m going to stick around and watch all the races and just take it all in.”

Waters was at Martinsville a year ago, as he sought to try NASCAR at some point.

“I definitely have a dream to one day get over here and race full-time NASCAR, but to get there it’s such a long journey and I’ve got a pretty cool thing going on in Australia racing Supercars,” he said.

“For me to do the odd NASCAR race like we’re doing this weekend is pretty cool, so we’ll go through this weekend and have a bit of fun and work out what NASCAR is all about and see what happens in the future.”

4. A new winner this weekend?

With two repeat winners in the first seven races of the Cup season, there remain many drivers seeking their first victory of the season.

Among the leading candidates are former Martinsville winners:

Martin Truex Jr. has won three times at Martinsville and enters this weekend as the points leader and having scored five consecutive top-10 finishes.

Reigning Cup champion Ryan Blaney won at Martinsville last fall in the most recent race there and has an career average finish of 9th at the track, best among active drivers.

Joey Logano, who is winless in the last 38 races, has nine consecutive top-10 finishes at Martinsville, the longest active streak. He won at Martinsville in 2018.

Chase Elliott is winless in his last 41 starts, but both his top-10 finishes this season have been at short tracks. His fifth-place finish last week at Richmond was his best result in his last 17 races. He won at Martinsville in 2020.

Brad Keselowski seeks to end a 105-race winless streak. He’s had top-10 finishes at both short tracks this season. His third-place finish at Bristol is his best result in the last 17 races. Keselowski has won twice at Martinsville, most recently in 2019.

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Dustin Long previews Martinsville, where Denny Hamlin looks to make it three straight short-track wins, drivers search for their first 2024 victories, and Hendrick Motorsports returns to the site of its first-ever win.

5. A streak that dates back more than 30 years

There has been a different winner in each of the last 13 Xfinity Series races at Martinsville, a streak that goes back to 1992.

The streak started with Bobby Labonte in 1992. After him, came Ward Burton (1993), Chuck Bown (1993), Terry Labonte (1994) and Kenny Wallace (1994) until the Xfinity Series left the track. The series returned to Martinsville in 2006 and that race was won by Kevin Harvick.

The Xfinity Series did not go back to Martinsville until 2020. The winners there since then are Harrison Burton (2020), Josh Berry (2021), Noah Gragson (2021), Brandon Jones (2022), Ty Gibbs (2022), John Hunter Nemechek (2023) and Justin Allgaier (2023).

Only Allgaier and Jones are entered for Saturday’s race.