NASCAR Weekend Preview: Circuit of The Americas
NASCAR returns to Austin for first road course race of the season
AUSTIN, Texas – Sunny skies and warm weather are forecast to greet the NASCAR Cup Series as it arrives in Austin, Texas for Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Circuit of The Americas. Race teams are eager to check out the new 2022 racing package on the first road course event of the schedule – only the second time the series has competed there.
And judging by the racy performance of the new Next Gen car in the opening five races of the season, there are high expectations. Five different drivers – all under the age of 30 – have won the opening five races; rookie Austin Cindric (Daytona), defending series champion Kyle Larson (California), Alex Bowman (Las Vegas), Chase Briscoe (Phoenix) and William Byron (Atlanta).
A decade ago the fact the series was competing on a road course might have narrowed down the list of genuine trophy contenders, but that’s not the case in modern day NASCAR.
Four different drivers hoisted trophies at the seven road races in the NASCAR Cup Series last year. The 2020 series champion Chase Elliott is the defending winner at 20-turn, 3.41-mile COTA course, and he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson are the only two-time road course winners last year. The pair combined to finish first and second in three of the seven races (including at COTA) and both earned top-five finishes in five road course races.
Elliott is extra motivated for the victory this weekend – eager to match his three Hendrick teammates with 2022 wins. He shows up in Texas as the championship leader – by seven-points over Team Penske’s Joey Logano. Elliott’s seven road course wins is already third all-time to a pair of NASCAR Hall of Famers, Hendrick Motorsports executive Jeff Gordon (nine wins) and Stewart-Haas Racing team owner Tony Stewart (eight wins).
And the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet knows he’ll have plenty of highly inspired competition from veteran A.J. Allmendinger, who is racing in both the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series this weekend, to an assortment of sportscar racing aces like Andy Lally and Joey Hand. Allmendinger won six road course races as an IndyCar driver and has a combined eight road course wins in the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series.
They will have plenty of competition from the series top rookie Cindric, who competed in road courses making his way up the racing ranks. The former Xfinity Series champ has five NASCAR road course wins in that series and another in the Camping World Truck Series.
Former NASCAR Cup Series champions such as Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick must feel optimistic about scoring their first victory of 2022 on a road course as well. All these veterans are multi-time road course winners with Busch and Truex each earning four career victories on that type of track.
Another of the 11 NASCAR Cup Series road course winners entered this weekend is Denny Hamlin. And a victory at COTA this week would certainly go a long way toward righting that team’s uncharacteristically slow season start.
The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has yet to score a top-10 in 2022 – only a few months removed from challenging for the 2021 season championship. Hamlin, who comes into the race ranked 26th, has suffered three DNFs in the first five races, including last week at Atlanta and led laps in only two races (32 laps total). But since 2019, Hamlin has the third highest average finish on road courses (8.92).
“For our team, with how these first five races have gone, we’re ready to get to the track and get our season going in the right direction,” Hamlin said. “We’ve had good speed almost every week and almost nothing to show for it.
“Plus, being the first time racing these cars on a road course, there’s a lot to learn because road courses play such a big part of our season now, so this will be a big weekend and another opportunity to get things turned around.”
Both practice and qualifying for the race will be held on Saturday. Practice starts at 10 a.m. ET followed by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 11 a.m. ET. Both sessions will be televised on FS1.
NASCAR Xfinity Series prepares for first road race of 2022
Only five races into the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series season and Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs are making the early portion of the schedule look like a trophy duel. The 23-year-old JR Motorsports driver Gragson has a win (at Phoenix), four top-three finishes and holds a 19-point edge over the 19-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver Gibbs and last year’s regular season champ A.J. Allmendinger.
Gibbs shows up for Saturday’s Pit Boss 250 (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) in Austin with two wins already in the five-race season start. He’s never raced at the Circuit of The Americas road course; however, he does already boast a pair of road course victories in his brief career – at Daytona (2021) and Watkins Glen, N.Y. (2021). His win at Daytona came in his first series start.
Gragson is especially eager to return to COTA after suffering a DNF in the series debut there last year. He has proven to be adept on the road course venues with seven top-five finishes, including a best of runner-up at the Charlotte ROVAL in 2020. He’s still looking for that first road course win.
“COTA did not treat us well last year, but we have had plenty of speed this year and now we’re going to a road course which fits my driving style,” Gragson said. “I have a lot of fun at these places and I know [crew chief] Luke [Lambert] will give me a fast car so that we can compete for another win.”
Gragson will need all he can get. Even with only 23 series starts, Gibbs has the two victories and another third-place finish (at Mid-Ohio) on road course venues. And the 40-year-old Allmendinger’s entire professional background comes from road course experience. All five of the former IndyCar Series driver’s open-wheel victories came at street or road courses. And he has consistently shown the way in NASCAR when it comes to this genre.
Allmendinger’s first NASCAR Cup Series victory came in 2014 at the famed Watkins Glen (N.Y.) road course and he answered it with another Cup win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last year. Six of his 10 career Xfinity Series wins have come on road courses – 14 of career 31 top-five finishes.
The driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet is the only driver in the series with top-10 finishes in all five of the season’s races and is the race favorite heading to Austin this week.
Not to be overlooked this weekend, is JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier, who has three road course victories in his career and 12 top-five finishes, including third place at COTA last year.
For sure, Saturday’s winner will be a first at COTA with defending race champion Kyle Busch not competing in this year’s Xfinity race. Popular NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace will be getting some extra laps this weekend, driving the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota at COTA.
NASCAR goes Truckin’ in Austin
Three races into the 2022 season and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship standings reflect the kind of highly competitive atmosphere expected again this weekend in the first road course race of the year, the XPEL 225 at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The defending race winner, Todd Gilliland is now a NASCAR Cup Series rookie contender and won’t be competing in the truck race, but Zane Smith, the driver who took over that seat in the No. 38 Ford looks poised to continue the team’s momentum at the 3.41-mile circuit. He’s already got a victory (at Daytona) this season.
In fact, only one of last year’s three road course winners in the Truck Series will be competing in Saturday’s race, 2021 series champion Ben Rhodes. John Hunter Nemechek, also a title contender, is the only other series regular with a road course trophy – taking the win in a dramatic race in Bowmanville, Canada back in 2016. He has four top-10 road course finishes including two last year – the best, a runner-up at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Both Rhodes and Nemechek – neither of which has a victory yet in 2022 – could use a good outing this weekend. Rhodes is ranked fifth in the standings, 27 behind championship leader Chandler Smith; Nemechek is eighth in the rankings, 52 points out.
Series regulars Tyler Ankrum and Grant Enfinger turned in top-five efforts at Austin last year. The 2020 series champ Sheldon Creed led the most laps in the race 14 of 41, but he is now racing fulltime in the Xfinity Series.
Fellow championship contender Zane Smith scored a pair of top-10 finishes in three road course races last year and has shown he is adept at this style of racing. Chandler Smith leads the points standings – by 13 over Tanner Gray – but has never had a top-10 finish in the series on a road course.
This week may well be a good opportunity for former NASCAR Cup Series star Matt DiBenedetto in the No. 25 Rackley W.A.R. Chevrolet. He had five top-10 finishes – including a best of fourth (at Sonoma, Calif.) – on NASCAR Cup Series road courses. He’s still looking to lead his first lap of 2022, but has a pair of top-10 finishes in the first three races – 10th at Daytona and sixth at Las Vegas. By Holly Cain/NASCAR Wire Service
NASCAR at COTA Tripleheader Weekend Fact Sheet
WHAT: All three of NASCAR‘s national series – Cup Series (NCS), Xfinity Series (NXS) and Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) – make their second appearance at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. This will be the Cup Series debut of the new Next Gen car on a road course layout and the first non-oval event of the season for all three series. The NASCAR tripleheader will be highlighted by the NCS EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix, one of six road courses on the 2022 schedule. The weekend will also feature the NXS Pit Boss 250 and the NCWTS XPEL 225.
WHERE: Circuit of The Americas (COTA), located just south of Austin, Texas, near the town of Elroy, is a 3.41-mile purpose-built road course with 20 turns and an elevation change of 133 feet. COTA has hosted many of the other most prestigious racing circuits in the world, including Formula 1, MotoGP and INDYCAR.
WHEN: Friday – Sunday, March 25-27, 2022
TV AND RADIO:
- EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix NASCAR Cup Series race (TV: FOX | Radio: PRN, SiriusXM | 2:30 p.m. CT Sunday)
- Pit Boss 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race (TV: FS1 | Radio: PRN, SiriusXM | 3:30 p.m. CT Saturday)
- XPEL 225 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race (TV: FS1 | Radio: MRN, SiriusXM | 12 p.m. CT Saturday)
RACE LENGTH AND STAGES:
- The NCS EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix is a 68-lap event that covers a race distance of 231.88 miles. Under NASCAR’s race stages competition format, the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix will feature three stages: 15 laps (stage one), 15 laps (stage two) and 38 laps (stage three).
- The NXS Pit Boss 250 will have three stages of 14, 16 and 16 laps for a 46-lap race of 156.86 miles.
- The NCWTS XPEL 225 will have three stages of 12, 14 and 16 laps for a 42-lap race of 143.22 miles.
RACE COURSE: COTA is the only FIA-certified Grade 1 track in the United States. NASCAR’s three national series will use the full 3.41-mile race course for their respective races. The 20-turn course, which features an elevation change of 133 feet, runs counterclockwise across the rolling hills of Texas. The course begins with a steep uphill climb into the iconic turn one that finishes with a hairpin left turn. The field then descends from the turn one hill to navigate a series of fast, sweeping esses in turns three through six into a blind corner at turn 10, taking them to the far end of the circuit and another hairpin at turn 11. The course then offers a more than half-mile straightaway back toward the pit and paddock area before entering the final technical section of the track, where drivers will weave through a series of corner turns in 12-15. That section is followed by a downhill, multi-apex corner with limited run-off before the final two corners of the circuit, a pair of left-hand bends that return the field to the main straightaway.
WEEKEND SCHEDULE AT A GLANCE (all times Central/local):
Friday, March 25
9 a.m. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series garage open
11 a.m. NASCAR Xfinity Series garage open
2-2:30 p.m. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice
2:30-3:30 p.m. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series qualifying
4-4:30 p.m. NASCAR Xfinity Series practice
4:30-5:30 p.m. NASCAR Xfinity Series qualifying
Saturday, March 26
6:30 a.m. NASCAR Cup Series garage open
9 a.m. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series garage open
9-10 a.m. NASCAR Cup Series practice
10-11 a.m. NASCAR Cup Series qualifying
11:30 a.m. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver introductions
12 p.m. XPEL 225 NCWTS race (Stages 12/26/42 laps = 143.22 total miles)
12:30 p.m. NASCAR Xfinity Series garage open
3 p.m. NASCAR Xfinity Series driver introductions
3:30 p.m. Pit Boss 250 NXS race (Stages 14/30/46 laps = 156.86 total miles)
Sunday, March 27
11:30 a.m. NASCAR Cup Series garage open
2 p.m. NASCAR Cup Series driver introductions
2:30 p.m. EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix NCS race (Stages 15/30/68 laps = 231.88 total miles)
2021 NASCAR AT COTA RACE WINNERS:
- NASCAR Cup Series – Chase Elliott | Hendrick Motorsports
- NASCAR Xfinity Series – Kyle Busch | Joe Gibbs Racing
- NASCAR Camping World Truck Series – Todd Gilliland | Front Row Motorsports
2021 NASCAR AT COTA POLE WINNERS:
- NASCAR Cup Series – Tyler Reddick* | Richard Childress Racing
- NASCAR Xfinity Series – Kyle Busch | Joe Gibbs Racing
- NASCAR Camping World Truck Series – Tyler Ankrum* | GMS Racing
* – First career series pole
MOST ROAD COURSE WINS (CUP SERIES):
- 9 – Jeff Gordon
- 8 – Tony Stewart
- 7 – Chase Elliott
- 6 – Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace
- 5 – Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip
- 4 – Tim Richmond, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
2022 NASCAR CUP SERIES RACE WINNERS:
- Austin Cindric – Daytona
- Kyle Larson – Auto Club
- Alex Bowman – Las Vegas
- Chase Briscoe – Phoenix
- William Byron – Atlanta
2022 NASCAR XFINITY SERIES RACE WINNERS:
- Austin Hill – Daytona
- Cole Custer – Auto Club
- Ty Gibbs – Las Vegas
- Noah Gragson – Phoenix
- Ty Gibbs – Atlanta
2022 NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES RACE WINNERS:
- Zane Smith – Daytona
- Chandler Smith – Las Vegas
- Corey Heim – Atlanta
- NASCAR CUP SERIES:
- Chase Elliott won last year’s rain-shortened inaugural EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix last year for his first win of the season and sixth career road course win. Elliott led once for five laps, and it turned out to be the final five of the race. Due to heavy rain and visibility issues, race was red flagged and discontinued after 54 of the 68 laps were completed before being deemed official and Elliott the winner. Kyle Larson was second, Joey Logano third, Ross Chastain fourth and J. Allmendinger fifth. Elliott added another road course win at Road America later in the season for his seventh road course victory, giving him sole possession of third on the all-time list.
- The EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at COTA will serve as the road course debut of the Next Gen Cup car. It should set the tone and provide some insight on which drivers/teams could perform well on the remaining five road courses (Sonoma, Road America, Indianapolis road course, Watkins Glen and the Charlotte ROVAL™).
- Last season, the Daytona International Speedway road course served as the first road course of the season and second race overall. The EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix, which was run May 23 last year, was the second road course race of the season and 14th overall on the schedule.
- COTA hired consultants to review asphalt designs and diagnose the parts of the track in need of resurfacing. Ground penetration radar and laser mapping equipment and software was used to map the track and identify the different repairs needed. From there, COTA worked to repave turns 12-16 and build a concrete pad to reinforce the areas at turn two and 10. Additionally, COTA worked with contractors to ensure the new asphalt and concrete foundations were even and flush, creating an ideal track for upcoming races and events. The work was done in January of this year.
- Of Larson’s series-high 10 victories last season, he also had the most road course wins in the series with three. He won at Sonoma, Watkins Glen and the Charlotte ROVAL™, and they were the first three road course victories of his Cup career.
- With Elliott and Larson combining for five of the seven wins on road courses in the 2021 season, the other two were won by Christopher Bell (Daytona) and Allmendinger (Indianapolis).
- RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher is the only fulltime Cup competitor from Texas. Buescher grew up in Prosper, which is about 34 miles north of Dallas.
- William Byron won Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway to become the fifth different winner in five races this season. Of the five, three have been Hendrick Motorsports drivers with Byron, Larson (Auto Club) and Alex Bowman (Las Vegas).
- Two of the first four victors of the Cup Series season are first-time winners: Austin Cindric in the season-opening Daytona 500 and Chase Briscoe at Phoenix. Briscoe’s win was a milestone for the sport, as he became the 200th different winner in the NASCAR Cup Series.
- By finishing sixth at Atlanta on Sunday, Elliott moved atop the Cup Series points standings and unseated Joey Logano. Logano, who finished ninth at Atlanta, fell to second (-7) and Briscoe is third (-15).
- NASCAR XFINITY SERIES:
- NASCAR Cup Series regular Kyle Busch dominated last year’s Pit Boss 250 Xfinity Series race, leading 35 of the 46 laps en route to an 11.024-second margin of victory over runner-up J. Allmendinger. Justin Allgaier finished third, Kevin Harvick fourth and Austin Cindric fifth.
- The Xfinity Series ran seven road course events in 2021, with Busch (COTA, Road America), Ty Gibbs (Daytona, Watkins Glen) and Allmendinger (Mid-Ohio, Charlotte ROVAL™) winning two each. The other 2021 road course winner was Cindric (Indianapolis road course).
- The Pit Boss 250 at COTA will be the first of six road course races this season. The others are Portland, Road America, Indianapolis road course, Watkins Glen and the Charlotte ROVAL™.
- Austin Hill, running his first fulltime Xfinity Series season with Richard Childress Racing, got off to a great start with his first series victory in the season opener at Daytona.
- There were three different winners in the first three races before Gibbs became the first multiple winner of the season. The 19-year-old grandson of NASCAR Hall of Famer and Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs won at Las Vegas and added a second this past weekend at Atlanta.
- Noah Gragson leads the Xfinity Series points standings and is followed by Gibbs (-19) and Allmendinger (-19).
- NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES:
- Todd Gilliland took the lead from polesitter Tyler Ankrum with six laps remaining in the 2021 NCWTS race at COTA and coasted to a 7.941-second margin of victory over runner-up Kaz Grala. It was the second career NCWTS win for Gilliland. Ankrum finished third while Grant Enfinger was fourth and Sheldon Creed
- The 2021 season yielded three different road course winners with Gilliland, Ben Rhodes (Daytona) and Austin Hill (Watkins Glen).
- The XPEL 225 is the first of three NCWTS road course races on the 2022 schedule. The others are Sonoma and Mid-Ohio.
- Creed didn’t win last year, but he has been victorious at COTA previously. He won a gold medal in Stadium Super Trucks at the 2015 X Games held at the venue. At the 2014 X Games, the then-16-year-old Creed won a silver medal to become the youngest car or truck driver to medal in the event’s history.
- The series has had three different winners in the first three races, including Corey Heim securing his first career NCWTS win last weekend at Atlanta.
- Chandler Smith leads the NCWTS points standings over Tanner Gray (-13) and Ty Majeski (-17)