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The many surprise driver cameos of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season

The NASCAR Cup has featured a sudden spike in surprise appearances from drivers outside of the series joining the grid since the introduction of the Next Gen car in 2022.

Shane Van Gisbergen, Trackhouse Racing, Enhance Health Chevrolet Camaro, Kamui Kobayashi, 23XI Racing, Toyota Genuine Parts Toyota Camry

Shane Van Gisbergen, Trackhouse Racing, Enhance Health Chevrolet Camaro, Kamui Kobayashi, 23XI Racing, Toyota Genuine Parts Toyota Camry

David Rosenblum / NKP / Motorsport Images

As for why that may be, the new car itself has to be part of it. The addition of several more road courses, the NASCAR Garage 56 entry at Le Mans, as well as innovative programmes such as Project91 and others like it have all helped to lure several international racing stars into the world of stock car racing.

INSIGHT: Inside the adaptations needed to realise NASCAR's Le Mans return

This year, many drivers well-known in motorsport but completely new to NASCAR made surprise appearances and, in one case, even reach Victory Lane. As we reflect on the 2023 season, let's take a look back at these drivers, who came from every corner of the racing world.

Pastrana and Daly in the Daytona 500

Extreme sports athlete Travis Pastrana made a real attempt at going NASCAR racing a decade ago, but found little success as a full-time driver in the Xfinity Series. Pastrana has long dreamed of running in the Daytona 500, but never really found the right opportunity. 

But, with the help of 23XI Racing, he aimed to change that this year but there were no guarantees. With zero practice, he had to try and qualify for the category's biggest race - the Daytona 500. Somehow, he managed to do just that without any drama. He made the show on qualifying day and went on to be a surprise contender in the closing laps of the big race.

It looked like he might even come away with a top-five finish after escaping the chaos on Sunday, but one awkward push on the final lap sent him sideways down the track. A massive crash ensued, and Pastrana was in the heart of it. The incident ended the 500, but he still managed to regain control of his car and finish 11th in his one and only Cup Series start to date. 

Afterwards, Pastrana called it "one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done," and that's something coming from the guy who modelled his entire life path after Evel Knievel.

Pastrana was surprisingly among the frontrunners in the Daytona 500

Photo by: Lesley Ann Miller / Motorsport Images

Pastrana was surprisingly among the frontrunners in the Daytona 500

A veteran of over 100 IndyCar races, Conor Daly had already made his Cup debut in 2022. Like Pastrana, though, he was hoping to make his Daytona 500 debut in the 65th running of the event. His journey into the 500 was even more impressive than Pastrana's, considering what he was up against.

Daly had to race his way in and the car was not going to make it easy for him. He had issues before the start of his Duel race, his TMT Racing Chevrolet shaking violently as he exited the pits. Handling issues and a lack of a speed meant he fell off the lead lap, and yet, luck was on his side. A crash involving Austin Hill opened the door for Daly to sneak his way into the main event, going on to finish 29th in the Daytona 500.

Two F1 world champions 

Other drivers to join the NASCAR fray this year included two that had enjoyed success in Formula 1. The 2007 world champion, Kimi Raikkonen, returned to drive the Project91 entry for Trackhouse Racing after making his debut at Watkins Glen in 2022. He entered the Cup race at the Circuit of the Americas, the site of his final win as a Formula 1 driver. Raikkonen was joined by another F1 champion as Jenson Button entered the race in preparation for the Le Mans 24 Hours, where he was part of the driver line-up for the popular Garage 56 NASCAR entry.

The event was chaotic, to put it mildly. “It was an emotional rollercoaster" for Button, who nearly quit mid-race due to heat exhaustion. He even had contact with his fellow F1 driver at one point.

F1 champions Raikkonen (l) and Button (15) joined the NASCAR grid at COTA

Photo by: Motorsport Images

F1 champions Raikkonen (l) and Button (15) joined the NASCAR grid at COTA

Raikkonen gambled late during a caution and stayed out in a bid to gain track position, but it wouldn't matter much as he was collected in one of the many incidents that marred the finish. Raikkonen ended up 29th, while Button finished a respectable 18th on debut. 

Button made two more starts with a 21st-place finish at the Chicago Street Course and 28th at the Indy Road Course. 

Le Mans 24 winners take on NASCAR road courses

Both Mike Rockenfeller and Kamui Kobayashi have won overall at Le Mans, but stock car racing was an entirely new challenge for them. Rockenfeller was part of the driver line-up for the Garage 56 NASCAR entry as well, so he made his debut in 2022 as he looked to gain more experience in the Next Gen car.

He returned in 2023, running a total of five races over the past two years with a best finish of 19th. That result came at Watkins Glen, driving for the team owned by Garage 56 co-driver Jimmie Johnson and piloting the No. 42 Legacy Motor Club machine.

It was at Le Mans itself where Kobayashi announced his plans to give NASCAR a try, joining forces with 23XI Racing to drive the No. 67 Toyota as Pastrana did in the 500. He was to race at the Indianapolis Road Course, fulfilling a life-long dream of competing at the top level of stock car racing. Unfortunately, misfortune found him multiple times throughout the race and he finished 33rd. He was the first Japanese driver to compete in the Cup Series in 20 years, and Kobayashi hoped to pave the way for more Japanese drivers to race in NASCAR with his Indy debut. 

Kobayashi hoped to encourage more Japanese drivers to try NASCAR

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

Kobayashi hoped to encourage more Japanese drivers to try NASCAR

"It’s a dream world and, if a Japanese driver could win here, that would be awesome," said Kobayashi post-race. Super Formula drivers Toshiki Oyu and Kazuto Kotaka accompanied him to the race as spectators.

But, there is a third sportscar ace we need to mention, too.  IMSA star Jordan Taylor also made his Cup debut this year, subbing for an injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at COTA. He qualified in fourth position, but was ultimately involved in one of the many incidents that plagued the event. The two-time winner of the Daytona 24 Hours ended up 24th on his Cup debut.

Supercars invasion and history made

However, Shane van Gisbergen was easily the biggest story of the year when talking about these international racing stars joining the NASCAR fray. Trackhouse brought its part-time Project91 entry back for the inaugural running of the Chicago Street Course race and the three-time Supercars champion was chosen as the driver.

As the track conditions switched from wet to dry, he absolutely tore through the field. He drove from 18th to 1st in the final 30 laps, making history as the first driver to win a Cup race on debut in over 60 years. He was also the first New Zealander to win a NASCAR Cup race, and that day truly changed the trajectory of his entire career.

Later in the year, SVG announced plans to depart Supercars and pursue a full-time career in NASCAR with Trackhouse Racing. He will compete in select races across all three national levels of the category next year with the aim of being a full-time Cup driver in 2025. 

Van Gisbergen shocked the NASCAR regulars with Chicago win

Photo by: David Rosenblum / NKP / Motorsport Images

Van Gisbergen shocked the NASCAR regulars with Chicago win

Reigning F1 champion Max Verstappen was even watching SVG as he made that late-race charge, admitting that he was "literally screaming" when his fellow Red Bull driver claimed victory.

Van Gisbergen is not the first Supercars ace to tackle NASCAR and emerge victorious with Marcos Ambrose winning twice in Cup and five times as an Xfinity Series driver in a career spanning seven years. In fact, SVG was not the only Supercars driver to run a NASCAR Cup race this year!

Van Gisbergen returned for the Indy RC, and a familiar face joined him as current Supercars points leader Brodie Kostecki entered in the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. He showed speed, but the stars did not align for him as they did for SVG at Chicago. While van Gisbergen finished 10th at Indy, again making history as the first driver in 45 years to open their Cup career with back-to-back top-10s, Kostecki finished 22nd after gambling with a late-race pitstop.

But, with his past experiences while living in North Carolina, one has to wonder if Kostecki may one day follow SVG to NASCAR.

A dirt ringer

NASCAR has seen many road course 'ringers' over the years, but a dirt ringer? Kaulig Racing brought in someone who fits that description for NASCAR's lone dirt race on the 2023 Cup Series calendar. Jonathan Davenport, a three-time champion of the Late Model Series, entered the Bristol Dirt Race in the No. 13 Chevrolet.

His achievements on dirt are many, and there was a bit of buzz around Davenport ahead of this race. Unfortunately, he never saw the chequered flag in his debut, after being involved in a crash with just under 100 laps to go.

Dirt specialist Davenport joined the grid at Bristol

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

Dirt specialist Davenport joined the grid at Bristol

These were just a few of the names that brought added intrigue to the 2023 NASCAR Cup season, grabbing new eyeballs from fans of motorsport across the world and showcasing just how hard stock car racing can be for the uninitiated - unless you're SVG.

The Indy RC tied a record for foreign-born drivers in the field for a single Cup race at six, and that record may fall in the very near future.

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