NASCAR heads to Circuit of the Americas for road course racing with a twist

Tyler Reddick, driver of the No. 45 Toyota Camry TRD for 23XI Racing, on track Monday, January 16, 2023, during the opening day of the two-day Goodyear Tire test at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. Photo credit: NASCAR at COTA / Adam Davis.

It’s the first time for NASCAR’s best drivers to prove their mettle in a different style of competition. EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Circuit Of The Americas is the first road course on the Cup Series schedule this season.

And the change is not just heading to a 3.41-mile, 20-turn track, but also NASCAR’s biggest rule change this season. There will no longer be cautions for stage breaks at all road courses so that racing isn’t interrupted. Stage points will still be awarded, but pit strategy will play a bigger role.

Also challenging is the competition, which includes a pair of Formula One champions in Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen; an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship champion Jordan Taylor, an IndyCar Series regular in Conor Daly and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in a part-time start.

Twelve drivers in the field have won at a road course, though. That’s Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson lead the series with four road course wins each. Kevin Harvick, A.J. Allmendinger, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, championship points leader Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, Johnson and Ross Chastain, the most recent winner at COTA.

“Last year’s win was huge for so many people and so many different reasons,” said Chastain. “It was my first win, it was Justin’s [Marks] first win as a team owner, it was my crew chief’s first win in his position, my spotter’s first win, and some of the crew guys, it was their first win.”

“These people all put so much effort into making the car go fast and I have to execute to the car’s fullest extent, and when that happens and we win, there’s no greater feeling.”

As Chase Briscoe said, though, the challenge of finding victory lane again is ever greater with the new Next Gen car in its second season.

“I think the whole field has elevated their ability on road courses, between the teams putting in work to figure out what to do with the new car and the driver getting more comfortable,” he commented. “So, it’s going to be hard to have a big advantage where you would typically find it, in a braking zone or with straightaway speed, but the lower downforce will hopefully help some and allow us to find something we can work with to gain that advantage.”

Only Tyler Reddick has once twice on a road course in the Next Gen car.

As for Jimmie Johnson, though he has the championships credentials, it’s his first time at the track and his first time at a road course in this car.

“I’m really excited for this weekend,” he said. “I’ve personally always wanted to race at this track. To have an opportunity to come back and compete on this track, it’s so technical and really a lot of fun to drive around here.”

“I had a great time out there,” he added. “I’m trying to figure the car out. It has a lot less grip than I remember a Cup car having and certainly a lot less grip than what I’ve been driving over the last two years. Trying to dial that all in and also understanding what this car might respond to from an adjustment standpoint. So there’s still a ton of learning going on but a great experience today and excited about this weekend.”

Hill leads an exuberant Xfinity Series to Austin

The Pit Boss 250 presented by USA Today (5 p.m. ET, Saturday, March 25 on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the second race in the Circuit of The Americas triple-header weekend and a chance for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contenders to first, show something for Austin Hill who has won three of the season’s first five races and leads the championship by 46 points and secondly, to hold off a group of road racing aces on one of the sport’s premier road courses.

The 20-turn COTA track is the first of seven road course events on the 2023 calendar for the Xfinity Series. Hill, the driver of the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, has wins at Daytona, Las Vegas and last week at Atlanta holds a substantial 46-point advantage on both John Hunter Nemechek and Riley Herbst atop the standings. Rookie Chandler Smith (-77) and veteran Justin Allgaier (-84) round out the top five in points. But none of these drivers has won at COTA.

A.J. Allmendinger won last year’s race by 2.039-seconds over Hill and led a race best 27 of 46 laps and Allmendinger – now a NASCAR Cup Series full-timer – is back again to try for his second straight at the course.

Allmendinger finished second in the inaugural series race at COTA in 2021, behind two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch who led a dominant 35 of the 46 laps that day.

NASCAR Cup Series drivers Aric Almirola, William Byron and Ty Gibbs are also entered this weekend as are an assortment of talented road course drivers from other series. Brazilian Miguel Paludo will steer the No. 88 JRM Chevy and Argentinian Baltazar Leguizamón – the 2018 Atlantic Series champion is hoping to be the first Argentinian to earn a start in a major NASCAR series race.

Truck Series regulars Derek Kraus and Carson Hocevar are also entered in the Xfinity Series race.

The COTA race is of particular importance for the Xfinity Series full-timers – not only because it’s the first road course race of the year but because it will set the field for the first Dash 4 Cash foursome. The popular Dash 4 Cash incentive program will award bonuses to the top-finishing driver among the four eligible Xfinity Series drivers at Richmond Raceway, Martinsville Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Dover Motor Speedway.

The top four Xfinity Series regulars from each race will be eligible for the next race’s bonus. The Richmond foursome will be decided Saturday in COTA.

Guaranteed action in the CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race at COTA

The NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series returns to the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) road course hard-pressed to equal the dramatic closing laps of the 2022 race there – but absolutely up to the challenge. Zane Smith earned the second of his four wins in Austin en route to last season’s championship.

The 24-year-old Californian swept both stages in the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford and ultimately earned a 3.5-second victory over John Hunter Nemechek in a wild double overtime – both cars emerging from a frantic three-wide battle at the front of the field on the final restart. NASCAR Cup drivers Busch and Bowman and truck full-timer Stewart Friesen made contact out front on that last green flag run allowing Smith to navigate around  and eventually hold Nemechek and Busch off for the win.

It’s exactly the kind of spirited racing that NASCAR fans and their favorite drivers have come to expect on road courses. And COTA has not disappointed.

Christian Eckes heads into Saturday’s XPEL 225 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the 20-turn, 3.410-mile course with a slim five-point advantage on veteran Matt Crafton in the 2023 driver standings. Eckes won last week at the Atlanta Motor Speedway 1.5-miler, holding off rookie Nick Sanchez and Nemechek for the win – his second career victory.

The top seven drivers in the standings – after three races – are separated by less than 30 points. Eckes and reigning champion Zane Smith (Daytona) are the only full-timers with a win in 2023. Ty Majeski (-8), 2021 series champion Ben Rhodes (-12) and Zane Smith (-15) round out the top five.

This will be the first road course test of the season for the drivers – although Smith and Rhodes co-drove to an IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car win on the Daytona International Speedway road course in January. Last year’s CRAFTSMAN Truck Series’ road course race winners were Smith (Austin), Busch (Sonoma, Calif.) and Parker Kligerman (Mid-Ohio).

All three will be racing Saturday along with NASCAR Cup Series regulars Alex Bowman and last year’s NASCAR Cup Series race winner at Austin, Ross Chastain.

Smith’s win at COTA last year makes Front Row Motorsports 2-0 at the track; with Todd Gilliland earning the inaugural win for the team in 2021.

“Atlanta didn’t go as we wanted at the end, but we had speed,” Smith said of his 20th-place finish at Atlanta after winning the 2023 season-opener and finishing second in the next race at Las Vegas.

“We’ve still had a good start to this season and now it’s time to rebound at COTA. Last year was a lot of fun and we want to repeat it and keep this streak going.”

Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet Camaro for Richard Childress Racing, on track Monday, January 16, 2023, during the opening day of the two-day Goodyear Tire test at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. Photo credit: NASCAR at COTA / Adam Davis.

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix
The Place: Circuit of The Americas
The Date: Sunday, March 26
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $9,294,829
TV: FOX, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 231.88 miles (68 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 15),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 30), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 68)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Pit Boss 250 presented by USA Today
The Place: Circuit of The Americas
The Date: Saturday, March 25
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,695,270
TV: FS1, 4 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 156.86 miles (46 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 14),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 30), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 46)

Next Race: XPEL 225
The Place: Circuit of The Americas
The Date: Saturday, March 25
The Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $740,517
TV: FS1, 12:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 143.22 miles (42 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 12),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 26), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 42)

Owen Johnson