One year later, is Chicago still SVG’s kind of town?

Chicago is SVG’s kind of town, but after winning last year, the Australian Supercars star has a different perspective and plenty of pursuers.

Shane van Gisbergen recently got his first real taste of Chicago.

During a media tour to leverage hyping the most stunning victory of the 2023 season, van Gisbergen also played Windy City tourist. He visited the Art Institute, Motor Row District and State Street. He checked out the Centennial Ferris wheel on Navy Pier. He attended Opening Day at Wrigley Field (Cubs win!) for his first Major League Baseball game.

It was an illuminating whirlwind for the driver who swept Chicago (and NASCAR) off its feet but barely explored its vast charms and wonders on his first weekend there.

RELATED: Learn more about the Chicago Street Race

“I’ve never seen buildings that big and close to each other before,” said the Auckland, New Zealand native, absorbing a metropolitan area whose population is nearly twice that of his home country.

But this isn‘t some tale of being overlooked in the big city. Nearly a year after showing up as a relative unknown, it was van Gisbergen who now was getting recognized in a town famous for sports idolatry.

“It‘s funny because we get questions about SVG and what he’s doing,” Chicago Street Race president Julie Giese said. “He has a fan base in Chicago.”

As he should, considering his milestone victory was a game-changing event with repercussions far beyond becoming the first driver in six decades to win in their Cup debut.

It was life-changing for van Gisbergen, who made his fame on Australia‘s Supercars circuit but returns this week for the second annual Cup race through the Loop as a full-fledged stock-car star in the making (and with a rivalry among NASCAR‘s best this year). After multiple victories in his full-time Xfinity season — as well as a new signature celebration — he is making steady progress on ovals and on track for a potential Cup ride as early as 2025.

And the “SVG” initials moniker has become ubiquitous — an amusing development considering his surname was butchered by countless Americans right up until he won the first street race in the 75-year history of the Cup Series.

That literally put SVG in the NASCAR Hall of Fame via a new exhibit unveiled three months ago.

“To have something like that here after my first race, it‘s pretty hard to put that into words yet,” said van Gisbergen, who was inducted into New Zealand‘s motorsports Hall of Fame two years ago.

It‘s uncertain if the phenomenon will continue to blossom into full-time Cup Series stardom, but van Gisbergen unquestionably still is having a moment.

He has won the past two Xfinity Series races on road courses (and might be unbeaten on right-turn tracks in 2024 if not for his entertaining feud with Austin Hill erupting on the last lap at Circuit of The Americas).

Sunday will mark only his sixth Cup start, but SVG is being hailed a favorite to repeat on the course through the heart of downtown — and arguably as the most feared road-course driver in NASCAR with a heel-toe technique for braking and shifting essentially impossible for even Cup champions to emulate (though some have pondered it).

“I rate him as one of the top 10 drivers in the world for that reason, no different than when he came into the race last year,” said Team Penske‘s Austin Cindric (who speaks with some authority having tested in Supercars). “I think everybody just learned who he is and how good he is.”

Several Cup champions weren‘t shy with slathering praise after van Gisbergen‘s victory last year.

Chase Elliott said van Gisbergen “made me look bad and the rest of us, too. He‘s going to go home and tell all of his friends how bad we are.”

Kyle Busch said van Gisbergen was “four (to) eight years ahead of us” on street courses. Kyle Larson wondered if van Gisbergen “thinks we all suck or if we could actually compete, if we weren‘t really that bad.”

They‘ll get another chance to prove their worth this weekend. While all are expecting to be better, SVG is regarded as the gold standard.

“I think he’ll be super good, again, for sure,” Elliott said. “And he’s had even more time driving (the Next Gen), which I think ultimately is just gonna make him better.

“Last year, he was lights out by far the best. But I do think everyone else will be better. I’m curious to see how we stack up against a guy that has that much experience with the second try.”

Shane van Gisbergen gives a thumbs-up sign after winning in 2023 at the Chicago Street Course.

He emerged like a lightning bolt in a race that started as a record-breaking monsoon receded, but there never was a master plan for van Gisbergen, 35, taking NASCAR by storm.

After winning his third Supercars championship (and second consecutive) in 2022, he had signed an extension with plans to remain long-term in the Australian-based series. But Supercars switched to a new Gen3 model, and the platform didn‘t suit van Gisbergen.

“I would have been racing in Supercars probably another 10 years until I was 45,” he said. “And then the way the car changed, I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I‘ll do something else,‘ and I had just signed a new contract, although I had second thoughts about it. But I had no intention of coming (to NASCAR).”

Meanwhile, NASCAR veteran Boris Said had given SVG a glowing recommendation that put him on the short list of Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks, who was seeking candidates for the team‘s Project 91 aimed at showcasing international stars in NASCAR.

While attending Australia‘s Formula One race in April 2023, van Gisbergen got a call in Melbourne from Marks that confirmed he‘d race Chicago.

“And then my life’s taken a 180 since,” van Gisbergen said with a laugh. “It’s been a pretty amazing opportunity and pretty thankful to Justin. I haven’t stopped smiling since Chicago and coming back over here. It’s been awesome. It‘s just perfect timing.”

Though he “doesn‘t really like talking that much,” van Gisbergen has seemed loose and relaxed in the States this year. He rents a house in Mooresville, North Carolina, and has found American culture appealing aside from commercial air travel and the Charlotte Douglas baggage claim. (“Airports suck; that‘s the worst part of being here. I’ve never had a flight on time all year. But it‘s first-world problems; everything else is cool.”)

It‘s a minor nuisance compared with the fishbowl existence he had come to dread in Supercars. In the absence of fellow three-time champion Scott McLaughlin (who departed for IndyCar in 2021), van Gisbergen was the unwitting focus of a series in transition.

“The cars have been awesome for years and then last year there just was so much negativity, and every news story was bad,” van Gisbergen said. “Everyone’s trying to get a bad quote, and I just always was thinking about how to say the right thing.

“It feels like a fresh start, and sometimes you just need that. I’m loving my racing and loving the challenge of all new tracks, new people and new cars every week.”

Austin Hill leads Shane van Gisbergen around a turn at Sonoma Raceway.

Perhaps most surprising is how van Gisbergen has been comfortable in the controversy with Austin Hill that started at COTA and carried over to Sonoma. “Here I feel like just a different person who can jump out the car and be myself,” van Gisbergen said. “Everything I said kind of came across the right way, whereas people would nitpick all your quotes in Australia, and you’d look like the bad guy.”

The hardest part has been learning the rules of engagement that are less polite than the “avoidable contact” decorum of Supercars and other road-racing series. Van Gisbergen‘s fender-banging battle with Hill in Austin marked “the first time I hit someone on purpose like that, so it‘s really weird. People saying, ‘You probably should have hit them here instead of there.‘ It‘s stuff I’ve never had to think about before or consider, but I guess I got to get better at it.”

His first two Xfinity victories both featured rough and tumble moments. At Portland, SVG unintentionally cleaned out pole-sitter Sam Mayer in the first corner.

“I thought, ‘Oh (crap), that’s a penalty straight away,‘ and obviously it’s not here,” van Gisbergen said with a laugh. “But then I spent the whole race feeling bad about spinning him. He was the first guy I went to apologize. Everyone’s like, ‘Just forget about it.‘ If it was in Australia what I did to Sam, I would have been sent straight to the back.”

Contending for wins has brought other teachable moments (he nearly drained the battery after accidentally toggling off the alternator at Sonoma), but his education largely has been on the ovals, where van Gisbergen still is learning the nuances of aerodynamics (“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”), double-file restarts and racing mid-pack (after 81 wins and 176 podiums in 508 Supercars starts).

His progress is being tracked to a captivating degree Down Under. Xfinity and Cup races now are available on major networks, and media outlets from Auckland to Sydney are paying attention to the exploits of van Gisbergen and other Supercars drivers — 2023 champion Brodie Kostecki, 2024 points leader Will Brown and race winner Cam Waters have started Cup races since van Gisbergen‘s Chicago breakthrough.

“To have the races broadcast back home, it’s awesome to help us get sponsors to be able to come over here and do these races,” Waters said. “Before Shane was even coming over here, I was trying to talk to teams and get a foot in the door. When he (won) at Chicago, it definitely sparked a bit more interest from this side of the world.”

Shane van Gisbergen poses behind home plate at Wrigley Field with the skyline in the background.

There is general appreciation among Cup stars for van Gisbergen opening the door to Australia for NASCAR. But some also still bristle with wounded pride at The Kiwi Who Conquered in his Cup debut.

William Byron said the Chicago dominance was “a little embarrassing,” spurring the Hendrick Motorsports driver to work hard on braking and shifting to match van Gisbergen‘s techniques to position his car with the last few inches of the concrete barriers lining Balbo Drive and Michigan Avenue.

“I think his awareness and feel for the walls and how close he can be is probably the biggest advantage,” Byron said. “I think our setups have evolved, and we‘ve probably learned some things, so I‘m sure the competition will be that much better and prepared to race against him. But he‘ll still be good.”

Denny Hamlin said van Gisbergen would be “starred on your timing and scoring” this weekend. “He‘s got the potential to be the fastest (again),” Hamlin said. “I heard during the (Cup) test for Chevrolet (at Sonoma) he was running ridiculously fast times. So I don’t think it’s ever been a question whether he’s going to be one of the best on road courses.”

And van Gisberen‘s advantage might be permanent because of his lifelong aptitude for the “heel-toe” method — using his right foot to control the accelerator and brake while relying on his left foot for shifting.

A craft employed by nearly all Supercars drivers, it‘s been a lost art for 30 years in Cup. NASCAR drivers predominantly have used their left foot exclusively for braking since transmission technology eliminated the need for the clutch while changing gears. The heel-toe helps modulate engine braking, allowing the car to “free roll” and giving a driver more options and better handling in the turns.

It‘s a technique that could take years to master the necessary muscle memory. Joey Logano and crew chief Paul Wolfe discussed whether it would be worth attempting before concluding it was virtually impossible with limited practice and testing.

“All of us are going to catch up in our own ways,” Logano said. “You try to take things that he’s doing and apply it to your craft. But he’s been doing (the heel-toe) really well his whole life. It’d take me forever to learn that. … I think we can still figure out how to beat him, no doubt, but we‘ve just got to do it in our way.”

Having experience with heel-toe downshifting, Cindric said he “put a lot of thought” into trying it in Cup but noted it wasn‘t a plug-and-play decision. “Am I going to be right foot braking on ovals? No,” he said. “Am I going to have a specific package in my car for road courses to where I can actually get my pedals to where I can right foot brake? It would take a large commitment from just an interior design standpoint. I don’t feel like it’s as much of an advantage as it is more of a comfort thing.”

Unfortunately for the competition, van Gisbergen might be uncomfortable only in Victory Lane, where he has been trying out a new celebration. Inspired by the unique winning trademarks of Trackhouse teammates Ross Chastain (watermelon) and Daniel Suarez (pinata), SVG booted a celebratory rugby ball after Portland and Sonoma.

It‘s a nod to New Zealand‘s All Blacks, the national rugby team with three world championships. Once an amateur blindside flanker, van Gisbergen loves the sport but is less confident in his chances at reaching the crow.

“I’m worried at a proper track when they have the high fences if I can get the ball over,” he quipped.

If he can clear Buckingham Fountain after another win, it‘ll prove Chicago really is SVG‘s kind of town.

Nate Ryan has written about NASCAR since 1996 while working at the San Bernardino Sun, Richmond Times-Dispatch, USA TODAY and for the past 10 years at NBC Sports Digital. He is the host of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast and also has covered various other motorsports, including the IndyCar and IMSA series.