Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AUSTIN, TX – 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.