Photo: Walter G. Arce/ASP, Inc.

International Invasion Takes Over NASCAR Cup Series at Indianapolis

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

INDIANAPOLIS – The NASCAR Cup Series regulars will have some stiff competition when the green flag falls on Sunday’s Verizon 200 at The Brickyard, courtesy of a rush of drivers from various motorsports factions around the world that want to try their hand in stock cars.

Among those that are making an appearance in the 82-lap race on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile infield road course are some familiar names and some new to Cup Series racing as well.

Fresh off his win on the streets of Chicago during Fourth of July weekend, New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen is back in the Trackhouse Racing No. 91 Chevrolet looking to keep his winning streak intact.

Since that win six weeks ago, the V8 Supercars ace has been back to business as usual in Australia, but the noise only continues to grow about him making the move across the Pacific to come racing in NASCAR in some capacity.

Van Gisbergen kicked off his weekend back in the States with his first oval race at Indianapolis Raceway Park on Friday night before focusing on the task at hand at IMS on Saturday. Expectations are high for the 34-year-old, especially after qualifying eighth, but he has been taking it all in stride.

Fellow V8 Supercars driver Brodie Kostecki, who currently leads the Supercars points standings, returns to the US to contest in his first Cup Series race in a third Richard Childress Racing entry – the No. 33 Chevrolet Camaro.

Kostecki made a run at stock cars Stateside in 2013 and 2014, running 19 races in total during that stretch, but would wind up back home and eventually find his way into Supercars, contesting for his first championship.

Now that he’s back running in NASCAR, it’s a full circle moment for the 25-year old Australian.

Photo: Walter G. Arce/ASP, Inc.

“I spent around four to five years in America. I came over in 2012, I believe, and raced NASCAR late models, raced in the K&N East series, so it’s funny how the world works, and it’s come around full circle,” Kostecki said.

“I went back home and competed in Austrailian Supercars Championship, and leading up to this moment. To get this opportunity with everyone at RCR, and Richard (Childress), to get my Cup debut. I guess it’s sort of done full circle which is pretty cool.”

Kostecki was fast in qualifying, but did find himself in the wall on the exit of Turn 11 during his run, causing damage to the front fender and rear quarter panel of his Chevrolet in the process.

Prior to the impact, he had put up the 11th fastest time, but the team will have to go to a back-up car for Sunday, relegating him deep in the field for the start of the race.

Then there’s Kamui Kobayashi, the Japanese motorsports rock star, who has raced everything under the sun, from Formula 1 to Formula E to IMSA to WEC – and more. Among the victories that Kobayashi has been able to accumulate during his career are two wins in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, as well as four podiums in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Photo: Walter G. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Kobayashi, who will be piloting the No. 67 Toyota for 23XI Racing, has been able to get a crash course in Cup Series racing in preparation for Sunday with plenty of simulator time and some on-track time in the Next Gen car as well with a test at Virginia International Raceway in the weeks leading into Indianapolis.

If the rumors from the test are any indication, Kobayashi was a quick study to the way the Next Gen car drives, but will have his work cut out for him on Sunday as he starts all the way back in 28th place.

“I had a rookie test, so I knew the car and how it is heavier in terms of driving,” Kobayashi said. “I will say the car behavior is challenging for me because I’ve never driven such less downforce with the weight. I think weight transfer in the car is different than what I’m used to driving.

“When I did rookie test at VIR it was pretty good. Just after a couple laps I feel pretty confident. I think here after rookie test I would say it’s not too bad to be honest and with all the preparation helped my confidence level as well.”

He added that the challenges of the Next Gen car are unique and unlike anything he has driven elsewhere in his career.

“You’re driving and even you’re fighting on the straight,” Kobayashi said. “Be on the straight before braking because that’s quite important. When we’re racing in my race car on the straight it’s just you’re relaxed, but this car you’re still fighting on the straight.

“Obviously, it’s a new challenge for me but it’s still the racing is good with this kind of car because it’s like the drivers are fighting all the way.”

Last, but not least, are a couple of familiar faces in the NASCAR world – Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller.

Photo: Walter G. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Button, the former F1 world champion, returns to the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford for his third Cup Series race of the season, having previously raced in Austin and Chicago, as well as taking part in the Garage 56 program at Le Mans this summer.

During his Formula 1 career, Button raced on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course a number of times – albeit on a bit of a different layout, but the 43-year-old Englishman is ready to see what racing the Next Gen car at the Racing Capital of the World has in store.

“After Turn 4, you have that little chicane onto the back straight. We had a sharp right turn and then a sharp left turn, and then a sharp right turn. It’s opened it up a little bit, and it’s a little bit faster there,” Button explained of the differences between the F1 course and the current IMS road course layout.

“But then at the end of the lap where we had the banking, and when we had issues with the banking, they added the two corners. I kind of wish they kept that banking in the corner for NASCAR and for IndyCar, because I think it would be more of a spectacle, I guess. It gives us another overtaking opportunity into the third to last corner.

“They just changed the dynamics and idea around the circuit. But it looks like a good circuit to race on. I watched the Cup race last year, and there was quite a bit of overtaking. Turn 1 is obviously very difficult – heavy braking. There are a couple of places around this track where you can line someone up from three corners back and make the move. So, I think it’s a good racetrack.”

Much like Button, Rockenfeller has previous Cup Series experience under his belt, as well as time in the Garage 56 Camaro at Le Mans, having made two Cup starts last season at Watkins Glen and the Charlotte ROVAL.

However, this time around, the German-born driver is in a bit of a different situation, having gotten the call to drive the No. 42 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet only after the team’s former driver Noah Gragson departed from the team following an indefinite suspension from both the team and NASCAR.

Rockenfeller will have plenty of ground to make up when the green flag drops on Sunday as he starts in 37th place after struggling to get a handle on his car during Saturday’s short practice and qualifying session.

“I was hoping definitely to be in the mid-pack fighting for it and not being two seconds off,” Rockenfeller said. “Never been that far off in my life. It is what it is. We’ll get to know each other and we get to understand what I need from the car. I’m pretty confident from where we are, it only goes in one direction.”

Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances that led him to the driver’s seat, Rockenfeller explained that he is looking forward to being back in the Cup Series, not only this weekend in Indianapolis, but also next weekend at Watkins Glen.

“Stressful, but in a positive way,” he said of the week leading into Indianapolis. “I arrived Tuesday morning at 3:00 am in the Charlotte area and we were flat out every day to make sure we prepared as good as we can, hoping for a much better result today.

“The seat is good, cockpit is good. The team did a great job there to basically give me all of the stuff I need, I guess. I would say we just didn’t have the car you need to do better today. Definitely there was stuff I need to improve, but I would say realistically, we are a second off…

“It’s fun. I’m very competitive as everybody else in this sport and I’m really down after today, but I should just enjoy it. We’ll build on this for next week. Tomorrow is race day. Nothing is over yet. I think we can surprise from where we come from. That’s my goal, learn lap by lap and be better off in Watkins Glen.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.