Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – PLYMOUTH, WI – What matters most at mammoth Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin? Road course racing skills or experience?
Perhaps a combination of both?
That’s certainly the case for reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion and acknowledged road course star Chase Elliott, who fashioned a pair of fourth-place finishes in 2014 and 2015 when he raced at Road America in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Elliott will be one of the heavy favorites when the Cup Series visits the 4.048-mile road course for the first time since Tim Flock beat Billy Myers to the finish line by 17 seconds in 1956 in the only previous Cup race at the track.
Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kyle Larson, is almost certain to be a contender, too. Larson had his run toward four straight Cup victories foiled by a flat tire on the last lap of last Saturday’s event at Pocono, but he rallied to run second on Sunday.
Included in Larson’s series-best four victories this season is a win at Sonoma in June. His only start at Road America—in the Xfinity Series in 2014—resulted in a seventh-place finish. But Larson has been using simulations to get a feel for the track.
“Kyle has raced there before, and I did in Xfinity as well, but there’s not much you can pull from those past experiences,” says Cliff Daniels, crew chief on Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet. “It’s been such a long time, so we’re trying to take a fresh look at understanding the race.
“We’ll go back and watch some Xfinity races from the past couple of years to try to get a feel for what is important there, what we need to attack and what we need to tune.”
AJ Allmendinger is another likely contender in Sunday’s Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). In three NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at the road course that winds through the Wisconsin countryside, Allmendinger posted a victory for Team Penske in 2013 and a second place for Kaulig Racing last year.
Allmendinger, who also scored a Champ Car victory at Road America in 2006, will be pulling double duty for Kaulig Racing this weekend, augmenting his full-time Xfinity role with a start in the Cup race. One of Allmendinger’s two Xfinity victories this season came on the road course at Mid-Ohio.
“I’m always looking forward to getting on a road course,” says Allmendinger, whose only Cup Series victory came at Watkins Glen with JTG Daugherty Racing in 2014. “Road America has always been such a cool race track for me, and I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to win there in Champ Car, win there in Xfinity…
“I think having the doubleheader with Cup is going to be an awesome weekend—the Fourth of July weekend. When I think of Road America, you think of camping, Fourth of July, fireworks, things like that. What a perfect venue for it. Overall, pumped up to go there, knowing how we ran at Mid-Ohio and the success we had.”
Other double duty drivers include Kyle Busch (last Sunday’s Pocono winner), Austin Cindric (who led four laps in the rain-drenched inaugural Cup race at COTA before Elliott took control) and Kevin Harvick (who is seeking his first Cup victory of the season after running eighth and fourth in last weekend’s Pocono doubleheader).
Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell and Daytona Road Course winner Christopher Bell are two other drivers who have posted Xfinity Series victories at Road America.
Austin Cindric seeks second straight NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Road America
In compiling a series-best four NASCAR Xfinity victories so far this season, Austin Cindric has won on four distinctly different tracks—the Daytona superspeedway; the flat, one-mile asphalt Phoenix; the high-banked, one-mile concrete Dover; and the 2.5-mile triangular Pocono, with its three distinct corners.
A surprising absence from Cindric’s resume this year is a road course win—given that road course racing generally is acknowledged as his forte. But the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford hopes to correct that omission in Saturday’s Henry 180 at Road America (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The defending winner of last year’s Xfinity Series race at the 4.048-mile circuit, Cindric also will race in the Cup event there on Sunday.
“It’s just a classic race track,” Cindric says. “There’s no two ways about it. I’m excited for this weekend, mainly because Road America always pulls a great crowd. It’s a great atmosphere.
“It’s Fourth of July weekend, and I feel like there’s a really passionate short-track racing fan base in that part of the country, and that part of the country hasn’t had a Cup race in I don’t know how long. So I’m excited to see the turnout. It should be a really fun weekend.”
Cindric will face stiff competition if he hopes to go back-to-back at Road America. Road course ace AJ Allmendinger and JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier are Xfinity Series regulars who have won at the track.
In addition, NASCAR Cup Series stars Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are competing in the lower series to get additional track time. Busch won his 100th Xfinity Series race June 19 at Nashville Superspeedway, extending his own series record.
“Being able to come to a new track—when everything was announced that we were coming here—I wanted to run there as much as I could,” says Busch, who has never raced at Road America. “We were able to work it out so both myself and Ty (Gibbs) can run here, as well, so I think it’s beneficial for both of us.
“He loves road racing, too. It was kind of a perfect scenario—being able to get in the Xfinity Series and be able to practice in both of those races. I’m hoping it will be a really good weekend for us.”
Gibbs has posted seven top fives in eight starts in a part-time role this year. He won at the Daytona Road Course in his first start in the series and picked up a second victory on the Charlotte oval. Because both Gibbs and Busch are competing in the Xfinity race, Gibbs will drive the No. 81 Toyota instead of the No. 54, which Busch will drive.