Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AUSTIN, TX – A large part of the intrigue to an exciting and revamped 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule was the addition of new races – specifically new road course races like Sunday’s EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – a place that traditionally has hosted Formula 1 Grand Prix events will for the first time, welcome NASCAR this weekend.
The 3.41-mile, 20-turn, multi-elevation road course offers as even a playing field as there is and because it’s a brand new venue for the series, there will be practice and qualifying for the race – something NASCAR is doing only eight times this season.
Despite the new challenge, the NASCAR Cup Series reigning road course master, Chase Elliott, has to be considered a favorite. A win this weekend at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) would not only be historic because it’s a maiden race venue, but it would also be season-revitalizing for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Elliott has a series best five wins on road courses – including four of the last five. But the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is looking for his first victory of any kind this season. He is the only member of the four-car Hendrick powerhouse that hasn’t visited Victory Lane in 2021.
In fact, Elliott joins current championship leader Denny Hamlin and 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick as the only members ranked among the championship top 10 still without a win in 2021. That trio combined to win 21 of the 36 races only a year ago.
Hamlin, who has a series best nine top-five finishes this season, has only a single NASCAR Cup Series road race win in his career – at Watkins Glen International in 2016.
Harvick, who will be racing in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race in addition to Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series event, has won on both of NASCAR’s most traditional road course venues, at Watkins Glen, N.Y. (2006) and Sonoma, Calif. (2017). Last year, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford earned a series best nine victories, but he comes to Austin, Texas ranked eighth in the championship points. His best finish is runner-up at Kansas Speedway early this month – one of only four top-five finishes in the 13 races to date.
He’s hopeful his first Xfinity Series start since 2018 will boost his preparation for Sunday’s show.
“I’m a huge visual person,” Harvick said of his decision to race Saturday and Sunday “The experience I have in going to these racetracks for a long time – I can tell you every crack, every curve and every marker in the wall and those are the things I want to have embedded in my mind before we get to Sunday.
“I want to make sure we’ve hit most of the curbs and know where you can take a risk, making a pass and where to make time and how to get on and off of pit road in a live situation, because the practices are short. The Xfinity car is going to be the best tool and just being able to make laps is the most important thing.”
One driver who has made laps at COTA – albeit in a street car – is Kyle Busch, who like Harvick, will also be competing in the Xfinity race on Saturday in preparation for Sunday.
Busch has four career road course wins in the NASCAR Cup Series – two each at Watkins Glen and Sonoma – and a victory at Mexico City in the Xfinity Series.
“It’s long,” Busch said smiling of his summation of the track. “It makes you really think and it makes you really work.”
The series winningest driver of 2021 – three-race winner Martin Truex Jr. also boasts four road course victories – three at Sonoma and one at Watkins Glen. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell earned his first NASCAR Cup Series win at the Daytona Road Course in February and has an Xfinity Series win at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. (2019). But he hasn’t earned a top-10 finish this season since Richmond, Va. five races ago.
Ryan Blaney (Charlotte, 2018), Joey Logano (Watkins Glen, 2015), A.J. Allmendinger (Watkins Glen, 2014) and Kurt Busch (Sonoma, 2011) are the other drivers with a NASCAR Cup Series road course wins to their name.
William Byron, who earned his series best 11th top-10 last week at Dover International Speedway has earned his highest ranking (second) ever in the NASCAR Cup Series standings. Ironically, the last time he finished outside the top-10 was the Daytona Road Course race in February. Although he has never won or earned a top-five on a road course in the three NASCAR national series, he has four top-10 finishes.
He and his three Hendrick teammates – Dover winner Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson and Elliott – scored the team’s first ever top-4 race sweep at the Monster Mile last week and come into the weekend on a huge positive note. Elliott participated in a Goodyear tire test at COTA months ago and Byron has run some practice laps there in a Trans Am car.
Many of the series drivers competed in an eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event at COTA this week – a race won by Rick Ware Racing’s James Davison, a former sports car racer from Australia who will be competing Sunday. Allmendinger, current NASCAR Xfinity Series championship leader Austin Cindric will also be road course aces on the grid Sunday.
“Anytime you go somewhere new, a fresh road is refreshing,” said Elliott, driver of the No 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “I feel like for race car drivers, I enjoyed the challenge during the test earlier this year. It’s a place that I haven’t made a ton of laps, so I was just really trying to understand the right way or the wrong way.
“It’s tough because when you’re new and you’re trying to get going, you might hit the first part of the track pretty good, then you might miss two spots somewhere else. Your lap time doesn’t tell the whole story. So you really have to splice that together and understand what you think you did good and what you didn’t, and then go put the pieces of the puzzle together and try to put the whole thing in the works.”
The NASCAR Cup Series will have one practice on Saturday morning and then qualifying for the race will be held at 11 a.m. ET – just before the 2:30 p.m. ET race start.
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES PREPARES FOR COTA
By all accounts, the NASCAR Xfinity Series competitors are eager to give the renowned Circuit of The Americas (COTA) a true “go” this weekend with championship contenders prepared to have to hold off NASCAR Cup Series regulars as well as a handful of sports car aces as the series debuts Saturday at the renowned road course.
The Pit Boss 250 (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) on the 3.41-mile, 20-turn, elevation-changing course has brought out big names and plenty of star power intent to be a part of this historic first race.
Five NASCAR Cup Series drivers – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Austin Dillon are entered Saturday. And a road course ringer group that includes Andy Lally, Spencer Pumpelly and one of the sport’s most popular drivers, Boris Said, who will be making his first NASCAR start since 2017; first Xfinity Series start since 2015.
However, they will be challenging an Xfinity Series championship contingent that has long established itself as a legitimate force to be reckoned with on road courses.
Reigning champion and current points leader Austin Cindric, is not only coming off a series best third victory last week at the Dover International Speedway, he’s an absolute favorite this weekend at COTA.
The 22-year-old began his career making a name with victories on road courses. In fact, the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has won at Watkins Glen, N.Y, Mid-Ohio, Road America, and the Daytona Road Course, where this year he answered his 2020 victory with an overtime runner-up finish.
Chief among Cindric’s competitors – especially on road courses – is the versatile A.J. Allmendinger – a race winner in NASCAR, IMSA and IndyCar. The 39-year-old veteran is running a full Xfinity Series season this year and brings with him previous Xfinity Series wins at Road America, Mid-Ohio, and the Charlotte ROVAL (twice) as well as scoring his only NASCAR Cup Series win on the famed Watkins Glen road course. The driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet is currently fourth in the Xfinity championship standings with a win at Las Vegas early in the season.
And then there are those NASCAR Cup Series drivers hoping to get some laps in and be better acquainted with the new track by their race on Sunday. Former NASCAR Cup Series champions Harvick and Busch will join former Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, last year’s NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year Cole Custer and two-time Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick.
Busch has four previous NASCAR Cup Series wins on road courses – a pair at Watkins Glen and a pair at Sonoma, Calif – and two Xfinity Series victories (2008 at Mexico City and 2017 at Watkins Glen). Harvick has won at Watkins Glen (2006) and Sonoma (2017) in the Cup Series and at Montreal (2007) and Watkins Glen (2007) in the Xfinity Series. Dillon, Custer and Reddick have never won a NASCAR race on a road course.
All year Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series driver Daniel Hemric has been one to watch, he has been ranked second in the championship points since March. Hemric doesn’t have a victory yet in the Xfinity Series, but he’s been close with a runner-up finish at Las Vegas and three third-place finishes in 2021. He’s coming off back-to-back top-10 runs at Darlington and Dover heading into Austin.
His best work on a road course is runner-up to Indy 500 champion Sam Hornish in the 2017 Mid-Ohio Xfinity Series race. The driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota has five career top-three finishes on road courses.
“COTA is unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen or raced on,” Hemric said. “We’ve all been using the simulator and our tools that Toyota provides us with to prepare, but it’s going to be a huge challenge. There are a lot of hard braking zones and long straights; just stuff we aren’t used to with our cars and heavy they are. Managing tires and brakes will be critical because the sharp corners lead onto long straights so that will be a huge opportunity to either gain or lose time with how long it takes to get around the track. I’m pumped up for it.”
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES GOES ROAD RACING
For years the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has been putting on compelling, exciting, dramatic road course races and the Trucks’ debut Saturday afternoon at the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) promises to be a worthy chapter in the road course annals.
The Toyota Thunder 250 (1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the second of four scheduled road course races for the Camping World Truck Series this season and the 3.41-mile, 20-turn course just outside Austin, Texas will undoubtedly be a must-see venue. A new challenge for everyone on the grid.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, the very drivers currently leading the championship have a road racing resume that makes them the favorite again this weekend at the Circuit of The Americas.
The seasons’ two-race winner John Hunter Nemechek, driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota, holds a 45-point edge over fellow two-race winner Ben Rhodes in the points standings. Reigning series champion Sheldon Creed is ranked third, having picked up his first 2021 victory in the last race at Darlington Raceway.
Those three drivers bring plenty of road course merit to COTA as well.
Nemechek, 23, won at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in 2016 and finished runner-up there in 2018. He was third in the only road course race of 2021 to date – at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course.
Rhodes, 24, driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Toyota, won at the Daytona Road Course this February and has a third-place finish at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (2019) to his credit. Four times this year, he’s finished first or second – winning both on the Daytona superspeedway and then the road course and finishing runner-up at Bristol, Tenn. and Darlington. He is particularly enthusiastic about this week’s stop.
“Ever since Daytona, I’ve been so eager to get back on a road course and I can’t think of a better place than COTA,” Rhodes said. “Knowing that everyone is learning it together will be fun and quite the challenge.”
Creed, 23, is not only coming off the Darlington win two weeks ago, but also looks like a favorite this weekend. He finished runner-up to Rhodes in the Daytona Road Course race – leading a race best 17 laps in the No. 2 GMS Racing Chevrolet. He won there in 2020 and also has a top-five at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (2017).
There are other storylines to watch as well. Former NASCAR Cup Series driver Paul Menard will be making his first Camping World Truck Series start since 2007, driving the No. 66 ThorSport Toyota. The former NASCAR Cup Series driver – and winner of the 2011 Brickyard 400 – last raced fulltime at the Cup level in 2019. This will mark his first NASCAR race since.
Driver/television analyst Parker Kligerman will make his fifth start of the year at Austin, driving the No. 75 Henderson Motorsports Chevrolet. And perennial championship contender Grant Enfinger will be back behind the wheel of the No. 9 CR7 Motorsports Chevrolet. He’s only competed in eight of the nine races in 2021 but sits eighth in the championship standings.
Several of the drivers – including rookie Hailie Deegan – took a road course refresher course with the Skip Barber Racing School to prepare for the weekend. Nemechek did laps with his boss Kyle Busch.
“I’m really looking forward to going to COTA this weekend,” said Christian Eckes, who will drive the No. 98 ThorSport Racing Toyota. “It’s a race track that I’ve watched F1 at for years and it’ll be fun to race. I’m not extremely experienced with road courses but I have had fun at them in the past. Hopefully we can put on a good show and get another good run for our No. 98 FarmPaint.com/Curb Records team.”