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Friday 5: Shane van Gisbergen’s Chicago win continues to make an impact for NASCAR

Shane van Gisbergen’s victory earlier this month has helped shape how NASCAR is viewed beyond the U.S. and makes the Aug. 13 race on the Indianapolis road course a significant event because of the influx of foreign-born drivers who will compete there.

Van Gisbergen, an Auckland, New Zealand native and three-time Australian Supercars champion, won the inaugural Chicago Street Race on July 2 in his Cup debut. While it’s not uncommon for road course specialists to compete in NASCAR events, van Gisbergen’s success raises a new level of interest among drivers from other disciplines.

“I love the fact that it’s bringing a level of creditability to NASCAR globally that we haven’t seen, I think, arguably ever,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said of van Gisbergen’s Cup win.

That victory came three weeks after NASCAR’s Garage 56 effort at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Those two events helped NASCAR reach an audience beyond North America.

Wilson said that van Gisbergen’s triumph already has made an impact between Toyota’s worldwide racing program and its U.S. motorsports program.

“We’re talking about sharing seats globally,” Wilson said. “We’ve never had those types of conversations before. It’s a reflection of the respect that the sport is getting. It’s a reflection of the respect TRD is getting relative to our investment and commitment to driver development and things like what’s happened with Shane and what’s going to be happening with Kamui (Kobayashi).”

Kobayashi, Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Team Principal and a driver in the World Endurance Championship, will make his Cup debut at Indianapolis with 23XI Racing. Wilson said that Toyota executives from Japan will be at Indianapolis for their first NASCAR race.

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Van Gisbergen and Kobayashi won’t be the only foreign-born drivers at Indianapolis.

Brodie Kostecki, who is from Perth, Australia, and competes against van Gisbergen in Supercars, will make his Cup debut with Richard Childress Racing. England’s Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula One champion, will make his third start of the season for Rick Ware Racing. They join Daniel Suarez, who is from Monterrey, Mexico, and is the only active full-time Cup driver born outside the U.S.

“I am looking more forward to Indianapolis than any other race on the calendar this year,” Wilson said, before correcting himself to note his anticipation for the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck finales in Phoenix.

The Indianapolis race is important to see how the road racing specialists do. Cup drivers are more versed on road course racing than they are to a street course. The Indy race could be more about physicality than finesse. How van Gisbergen, Kobayashi, Kostecki and Button fare could impact interest by drivers from other series to try NASCAR.

Kyle Busch says van Gisbergen will be fine.

“I would say he is the favorite going in,” Busch said. “I would say that the gap will be closer from Chicago to the rest of the field that he had. He had us all beat by six to eight tenths of a second a lap. I would say going into Indy we should all be within two to three tenths, but he will still be the best guy.”

After van Gisbergen’s win for Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car, team owner Justin Marks forecasted how that could impact interest in the program.

“It just puts fuel in the tank as far as we’re trying to build something here where the greatest drivers in the world have a place that they can call home if they want to try NASCAR racing,” Marks said.

NASCAR’s move to adding road course races and a street course race in recent seasons, is enticing for drivers from other series. The Cup Series will have six of its 36 points races on such courses this year. The Xfinity Series will have eight of its 33 points races on those types of courses this season.

Van Gisbergen noted how his victory could encourage others to try NASCAR.

“Hopefully this shows how good our Supercars drivers are and opens the floodgates and we can come over here and race,” he said. “There hasn’t been anyone from Supercars since Marcos (Ambrose) really come and have a go, but there’s plenty of good drivers now wanting to come try and expand and come over here. Any of the top 10 in Supercars are good enough to come and do what I just did.”

Wilson said Kobayashi might not be the only one from Toyota’s World Endurance Championship program to try NASCAR in the future.

“We hope to get one or two of them into some NASCAR opportunities as well,” he said.

2. A different approach

Sitting 17 points out of the final Cup playoff spot with five races to go, AJ Allmendinger will skip Cup practice and qualifying Saturday at Richmond — meaning he will start at the rear of the field Sunday — to compete in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America.

Allmendinger understands that chasing a win in the Xfinity Series and possibly impacting his Cup playoff hopes doesn’t seem to make sense.

“Some people won’t understand it, but at the end of the day we don’t care,” Allmendinger said. “This is what we want to do.”

He said this double had been planned for some time. Team owner Matt Kaulig, team president Chris Rice and Allmendinger discussed if they wanted to continue with the plan and agreed to do so.

Making the decision to allow Allmendinger to race at Road America instead of practice and qualify at Richmond seems even more peculiar when one considers Kaulig Racing’s struggles at the previous four short track races this season — Phoenix, Richmond, Martinsville and New Hampshire.

Allmendinger’s has an average finish of 23.3 at those four races, while teammate Justin Haley has an average finish of 25.3 in those events.

Allmendinger started 25th and finished 27th in the Richmond race in April. Haley started and finished 29th. Both were a lap behind winner Kyle Larson.

With Allmendinger at Road America, Derek Kraus, who had run full-time in the Truck Series the past three years and now does much of the sim work for Kaulig Racing, will practice and qualify Allmendinger’s car.

Allmendinger noted that the limited practice time at Richmond likely won’t make much of a difference for him.

“I laugh because me practicing there and helping with the setup hasn’t helped us,” Allmendinger said. “Maybe we give Derek a try and he nails the setup and I get in the car and love it.

“At the end of the day, this decision for us is about fun and trying to go win a trophy. If everything works out on Saturday and we go win a trophy, I’ll have way more confidence doing that than practicing for 20 minutes and starting wherever we start and dropping the green on Sunday.”

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3. Short track woes

Sunday’s Cup race at Richmond (3 p.m. ET on USA Network) will be critical for Kyle Busch and his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team.

In the four previous races on flat tracks 1 mile or less this season, Busch has not been a factor.

He’s not had an average running position better than 13th at Phoenix, Richmond, Martinsville and New Hampshire this season. Although he qualified in the top 10 in three of those events, he scored only two stage points and has an average finish of 19.8 in those four races. Teammate Austin Dillon’s average finish in those races is 15.5.

“We are just trying to figure it out,” said Busch, who has six career Cup victories at Richmond. “How many things we have tried, I can’t even comprehend to tell you. Obviously, we haven’t hit on it yet.

“We have Richmond coming up … so we have to find something that is going to work for us there. Definitely some conceptual ideas that are going around again, on what to do. We will just have to play it out and see how it goes.”

New Hampshire was a low point for a driver who has three wins and ranks sixth in the standings. Busch hit the wall in practice, qualifying and the race.

What was the issue?

“It was the same thing every time,” Busch said. “Just loose, no grip. I can’t feel the rear or back of the car getting into the corners, on entry, especially getting into the turn. Just tiptoeing and just trying to hold the steering wheel straight and not give it wheel.

“Anytime you give it wheel and ask for it to pull the car through the corner, the rear just steps out and the rear can’t hold it. So, that was our biggest issue. That has been our biggest issue on all short tracks.”

4. Holding steady

Michael McDowell’s crew chief, Travis Peterson, told NBC Sports earlier this month that the stretch of races with New Hampshire, Pocono, Richmond and Michigan “is our playoff stretch.”

McDowell had only three top-10 finishes in 80 combined starts at those tracks before this stretch started. If McDowell could get through those races well, Peterson was confident in his driver at the final three races of the regular season — Indianapolis road course, Watkins Glen and Daytona.

Halfway through this key stretch, McDowell continues to hold the final playoff spot. He trails Bubba Wallace by 10 points. McDowell has a 17-point lead on AJ Allmendinger.

McDowell has scored 48 points at New Hampshire and Pocono. That’s more than each of the four drivers directly below him in the playoff standings. Allmendinger has scored 44 points in those races, Daniel Suarez has scored 25 points, and Ty Gibbs and Alex Bowman have each scored 46 points.

McDowell leads Suarez by 23 points, Gibbs by 28 points and Bowman by 46 points with five races left in the regular season.

McDowell finished sixth at Richmond in the spring, his first top 10 there in 24 starts.

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5. Another new winner?

The Xfinity Series competes Saturday at Road America (3 p.m. ET on NBC). This will be the 14th time the series has raced on the road course in Wisconsin. There has never been a repeat winner.

Here is who has won there:

2010 — Carl Edwards

2011 — Reed Sorenson

2012 — Nelson Piquet Jr.

2013 — AJ Allmendinger

2014 — Brendan Gaughan

2015 — Paul Menard

2016 — Michael McDowell

2017 — Jeremy Clements

2018 — Justin Allgaier

2019 — Christopher Bell

2020 — Austin Cindric

2021 — Kyle Busch

2022 — Ty Gibbs