NASCAR Cup Series readies for the first of six road courses this season

AUSTIN, Texas — The NASCAR Cup Series‘ first road course race of the season, the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Circuit of The Americas will feature a highly anticipated new look — from its diverse driver lineup, new rules package and a variance to the stage format from recent years.

This challenging course will be a true test of skill — not only with the purpose-built 3.41-mile, 20-turn Circuit of The Americas road course but also because it features a dynamic first-of-the-season field that 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, who is making one of his limited 2023 starts at the track as well.

Trackhouse Racing driver Ross Chastain earned his first career win in last year‘s COTA race, besting Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman by 1.331-seconds in a dramatic final lap in overtime. Chastain led a race best 27 of the 46 laps, capping off his milestone victory with a watermelon toss at the finish line — a nod to his family‘s watermelon farming business in Florida.

“Last year‘s win was huge for so many people and so many different reasons,” said Chastain, who is currently ranked third in the NASCAR Cup Series standings, five points behind leader Joey Logano. “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.”

There are 12 active road course winners among the NASCAR Cup Series regulars this weekend. 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 Chastain round out the list of NASCAR full-timers with road course trophies. While Busch has an Xfinity Series win (2021) at COTA to his credit, he‘s never won in the NASCAR Cup Series there.

Since the new car‘s debut last year, Reddick leads all drivers with two road course wins (at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course and Road America in 2022).

Undoubtedly, the list of non-regulars hoping to earn a position in the field this weekend will keep the stock car set honest. Button, the 2009 F1 champion, who will drive the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford has four COTA starts in Formula One with a best showing of fifth in the 2012 inaugural race. The 2007 F1 champion Raikkonen, who will make his second start in the Trackhouse Racing‘s No. 91 Project91 Chevrolet, has 21 F1 wins and earned his final world championship victory at COTA in 2018.

Taylor, 31, will drive the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for Chase Elliott — the 2021 COTA race winner who continues to recover from a leg injury. The four-time IMSA sports car champion Taylor is a two-time IMSA race winner at the track — earning both victories from pole position. In four starts there he has two wins and a runner-up showing.

“Jordan is a world-class road racer and has recently been working with our Garage 56 team preparing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He‘ll be able to step in and do a great job at COTA.”

This will be both Johnson‘s and Daly‘s NASCAR Cup Series debut at COTA.

Beyond the talented and diverse entry field, there will be several new aspects to the race. Points will still be awarded for stage wins, but the race won‘t be stopped after each of those segments as done at other venues. And the cars will run a different technical set-up on road courses and short tracks — including a two-inch spoiler this weekend.

It all creates an exciting atmosphere for Sunday‘s race, which already boasts a tightly-bunched championship field. The top seven drivers are separated by only 24-points.

Last week‘s Atlanta race winner, Team Penske‘s Joey Logano holds a slight 1-point edge over Joe Gibbs Racing‘s Christopher Bell. Chastain is five points back, followed by Penske‘s Ryan Blaney (-16), RFK Racing’s owner/driver Brad Keselowski (-17), Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Kevin Harvick (-22) — who will be making his final COTA start before retiring at the end of the year — and Busch (-24).

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.

NASCAR CRAFTSMAN 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 (April 1), Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (April 15), Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (April 22) and Dover (Del.) Motor Speedway (April 29).

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.”

— NASCAR Wire Service —

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