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'Under the radar' suits Shane van Gisbergen amid rookie season

Three-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen made a splash in his NASCAR debut by winning the inaugural Cup Series race on the streets of Chicago. So why did he take on the second-tier Xfinity Series for his first full-time season?

The answer is simple -- Xfinity provides an opportunity to learn away from the larger spotlight.

"It is good to go to a place kind of under the radar in Xfinity -- on the eyeballs -- and just learn the tracks, learn how it all works, and spend a year just studying and learning everything to be better next year," van Gisbergen said Tuesday during a media session at the NASCAR Production Facility.

Under the radar is exactly where van Gisbergen found himself last July when he made his Cup Series debut.

He showed up to Chicago and climbed into the No. 91 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet for his first NASCAR start. He said no one really knew who he was.

"To me, that's perfect. Just flew under the radar and I could just prepare and go racing just for fun, it felt like. And then that changed pretty quick after practice."

Van Gisbergen was the fastest Cup driver during practice at Chicago. He then qualified third for the Cup race. He only led nine laps of the race, but he was inside the top five throughout the day before ultimately taking the lead and winning.

This race put him on the path to a full-time ride in NASCAR.

"It all exploded (after Chicago)," van Gisbergen said. "Pretty overwhelming all the media stuff, but it's led to getting this opportunity to come here this year."

Van Gisbergen had no shortage of success in Australian Supercars before moving to the United States. He won 80 races and he celebrated three championships. However, NASCAR presented an entirely different challenge to the New Zealand native.

"Road courses, that sort of side has never been a problem for me," van Gisbergen said. "But the ovals are. A new track is hard to pick up. It's only two corners, four corners, but there's so many little intricate details on an oval that make such a difference.

"It's not just one line. There's three or four grooves and it's always changing. So one of my strengths in road racing is consistency, hitting my marks all the time, and doing the same thing every lap. And you can't do that on an oval normally."

Learning how to properly tackle an oval in NASCAR has been a process for van Gisbergen, who won his first Xfinity race last weekend at Portland International Raceway. He finished 12th and third in drafting races at Daytona and Atlanta. He finished sixth at Phoenix.

Van Gisbergen also had days where he struggled to contend for a top-10 finish. This includes Texas, Darlington, Charlotte, and Dover.

There are multiple reasons why van Gisbergen has not been as consistent. Learning the intricacies of each oval plays a role, as does the art of restarts. There are "games" that van Gisbergen sees the other drivers play when they are heading into the restart zone. This is an area he has identified in which he needs to improve.

Van Gisbergen has also realized that he's not yet willing to put himself in some situations that could damage his car.

"I seem to have more self-preservation than most," van Gisbergen said. "Everyone gets excited when they see a crash and goes flat out into it. It's very different.

"It's a lot of learning and the 50-50 situations are more conservative, I think, than most whereas everyone here just takes the chance. I just need to -- not be more aggressive -- but not be afraid to get my nose dirty."

Van Gisbergen will continue to have opportunities to grow more comfortable in these 50-50 situations as he closes out a busy racing schedule.

He has 20 more Xfinity races, as well as four more Cup races. He will compete July 7 at the Chicago Street Race, Sept. 15 at Watkins Glen, Oct. 6 at Talladega, and Oct. 20 at Las Vegas.

Van Gisbergen can use all of these scheduled starts to continue gaining experience before making his planned full-time move to Cup next season.

Of course, now that he's won in multiple series and punched his ticket to the playoffs for the first time, under the radar may no longer be an option.