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July 4, 2023

Acing the project: Project 91’s Chicago breakthrough highlights Trackhouse innovation

Shane van Gisbergen celebrates by spraying champagne after winning inaugural NASCAR Chicago Street Race
Michael Reaves
Getty Images

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, some may describe Trackhouse Racing team owner Justin Marks as NASCAR’s latest visionary. It sure is hard to deny it two-and-a-half years and now five wins into NASCAR Cup Series team ownership.

Long before the sport’s sanctioning body determined a street race was feasible anywhere — let alone the roads of downtown Chicago, of all places — Marks was adamant stock-car racing needed to be brought to the people. Long before Shane van Gisbergen sat behind the wheel of NASCAR’s Next Gen vehicle — after two starts in the same car by 2007 Formula One champion Kimi Räikkönen — Marks believed motorsports’ elite global talents from outside the stock-car ranks deserved a competitive opportunity to contend in a Cup race.

Not only have those things now occurred, earning their rightful passage in the history of NASCAR’s 75-year lore, but Marks and his astounding team at Trackhouse Racing find themselves at the forefront of their intersection after van Gisbergen drove the team’s Project 91 Chevrolet to a stunning triumph in his Cup debut Sunday in the series’ inaugural Chicago Street Race.

MORE: Relive historic Chicago Street Race | NASCAR dazzles the Windy City, sparks optimistic future

“It’s so amazing and important and meaningful for Trackhouse to be the company to win the inaugural street race,” Marks said, “because obviously it’s a huge moment for the sport, and it’s incredibly important for the company to be able to be the winners of the inaugural race. I think we’re all just incredibly humbled to be the ones standing in Victory Lane.”

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Marks had visions for a Cup team that appeared so out of the box they didn’t seem realistic. A road-course ringer hadn’t won a Cup Series race since Mark Donahue was victorious in Riverside, California in 1973.

That, in part, is the beauty of Trackhouse’s Project 91, an open entrant into Cup competition designed to attract only the world’s best drivers into NASCAR headed by the team’s performance director, Darian Grubb, previously a longtime and title-winning crew chief.

“As far as Project 91 goes, this was a shower idea,” Marks explained. “It was me thinking, I’m a huge fan of all different kinds of motorsports, and I’ve raced in all different kinds of motorsports. I wanted to bring my love of global motorsport to NASCAR and put a brand around it and create sort of a landing spot for the elite talent globally that wanted to come and try NASCAR instead of just putting them in a car and crossing our fingers and watching them do that but actually building a program that’s catered to elite motorsport talent and have a training protocol and preparation protocol so we can be successful. A lot of work went into that.

“For us to be in Victory Lane with Project 91, it’s hard to find the words. It’s incredibly, incredibly humbling. Kimi Räikkönen and Chevrolet were a big part of getting this thing going, and for us to be able to grab a guy like Shane, who I’m a huge fan of and have been a fan of for a long time, to put him in this position and watch him do his thing was not just great for our company, but an incredibly compelling thing for the fans and for the industry and for everybody that was here this weekend.”

RELATED: Who is Shane van Gisbergen?

Van Gisbergen wasted no time getting up to speed. The three-time Australian Supercars champion was granted an orientation test on a variation of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on June 26, practiced pit stops at the shop just up the road in Concord, North Carolina and was eager to continue readying for Chicago however best he could since arriving in the United States.

“His feedback in the car matched exactly what we were expecting with simulation programs and everything we do with Chevrolet, having their background over there and what we have here with Chevrolet,” Grubb, crew chief of the Project 91 car, said of the Charlotte test. “It was really awesome to see that feedback all match up.”

The buildup culminated in the single fastest lap of Cup practice Saturday afternoon ahead of a third-place qualifying run. And after strategy and the subtraction of 25 scheduled laps due to impending darkness altered the running order, van Gisbergen charged from 18th to the lead in the final 26 laps.

Shane van Gisbergen, left, is congratulated by Trackhouse teammate Ross Chastain after winning the inaugural NASCAR Chicago Street Race
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Disruptors indeed: Led by Mexico native Daniel Suárez and Florida’s Ross Chastain as its Cup regulars, Trackhouse has accumulated five victories since the start of 2022, which began the sport’s Next Gen era and a new world for Marks and Trackhouse after the purchase and acquisition of Chip Ganassi Racing. The organization has now won with drivers from three different countries at a variety of race tracks: Chastain’s triumphs at Circuit of The Americas, Talladega Superspeedway and most recently Nashville Superspeedway just one week before Chicago; Suárez’s breakthrough win at Sonoma Raceway in June 2022 and now van Gisbergen in the Cup Series’ inaugural street race.

“A lot of what we’re trying to do at Trackhouse is new and different and exciting for the sport,” Marks said. “We’re trying to inject something into the sport that it hasn’t seen before, that the fans haven’t seen before. So I think it’s really important because it comes out of that creativity that we all share and the passion that we have in trying to put something out on the racetrack that’s really unique and compelling.

“(Project 91 is) kind of a — it’s not a crazy idea. People have done this before. But to put a brand on it and to actually build a group around it that Darian leads and go to the company and say, this is an idea that we want to do, and it’s actually like a unit within the company, I mean, to put that into Victory Lane is — I mean, it’s hard to find the words for it because it’s so different.

“It doesn’t put anybody in the playoffs. It doesn’t really do any of that. But it’s an incredible moment for the fact that we are trying to be a special team that’s different and compelling and exciting for the fans. For an idea, a concept that I came to these guys with and said, would you take this on? Would you do the extra work and take this on? And for them to embrace it and to put it in Victory Lane is really — it’s sort of like anything’s possible. If you can dream it, you can do it.”