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.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!