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Five intriguing races in second half of Cup regular season

The second half of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season begins Sunday with the inaugural visit to Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Thirteen races remain before the Cup playoffs begin Labor Day weekend with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on NBCSN.

In years past, the run to the playoffs had a more diverse schedule than the playoffs themselves. Not anymore.

The 2020 schedule included a major overhaul to the playoffs. This year’s schedule saw the regular season get similar treatment.

We’ve already seen the first Cup race on dirt in 50 years and the return of spring racing to Darlington.

Up ahead? A steady diet of road course racing, plus a long-awaited return to the Nashville market and a potentially dramatic regular season finale at Daytona.

Here are five intriguing second-half races to watch...

Circuit of the Americas - 2:30pm ET Sunday, FS1

The 3.41-mile COTA road course is hosting America’s most popular motorsport for the first time. And with the caliber of NASCAR’s road racing product, there’s an entertaining time to be had with this state-of-the-art circuit.

But there’s something else that comes with NASCAR’s first visit to COTA: Shock value.

For almost a decade, COTA has been a haven for series that lead with speed and technology. Beyond Formula 1 and MotoGP, it’s also hosted IndyCar and sundry sports car series including IMSA and the World Endurance Championship.

NASCAR has speed and technology. But it carries them much differently. They are supplementary to the number one aim: Giving the fans a good show.

When Chase Elliott tested at COTA in March along with Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr., he noted that difference.

“We’re not going near as fast as those (Formula 1) cars do, but I feel the product and the competitiveness on track and us being able to race around each other is much more feasible with the speeds we’re going and how big and heavy these cars are,” Elliott said.

“I know it’s not the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ of going through the esses and however fast those guys go, but I do think the racing is better to watch. I think that’s what’s made NASCAR popular over the years, so I’m not sure why it wouldn’t be different here.”

Also, rain could be in the forecast this weekend, adding another element for NASCAR drivers.

Nashville Superspeedway - 3:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, June 20, NBCSN

While the drive to bring NASCAR back to Nashville’s historic Fairgrounds Speedway continues, the sport is heading to its revived concrete cousin in June.

The 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway hosted Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series from 2001-11 before being shut down. A decade later, it will finally host its inaugural Cup Series race on Father’s Day.

The Ally 400 will be the first Cup race in Middle Tennessee since July 14, 1984, when Geoff Bodine won a 420-lap race at the Fairgrounds.

NBC Sports also will begin its 2021 NASCAR coverage in Nashville, getting some help from country music star Brad Paisley. NBCSN will air the June 19 Xfinity race and the June 20 Cup race.

Tire testing was held there this spring. Kurt Busch, Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell took part in those sessions.

Road America - 2:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, July 4, NBC

The 4-mile road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin is another addition to the Cup schedule in 2021. But it has hosted NASCAR’s premier division before - 65 years ago.

On August 12, 1956, Tim Flock won Road America’s lone Cup race. The 26-car field featured many of the sport’s most important pioneers, including Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson.

This year, it returns on the 4th of July. It’s a fitting spot for one of America’s most challenging road courses, which boasts multiple passing zones, elevation changes, and a lovely woodland setting.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course - 1 p.m. ET, Sunday, Aug. 15, NBC

As it turned out, last year’s Brickyard 400 (won by Kevin Harvick in overtime) marked the end of an era for the Cup Series at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

After 27 years on the oval, NASCAR’s premier division has moved to the 2.439-mile road course at IMS. The race is part of a doubleheader weekend with the NTT IndyCar Series. IndyCar and the Xfinity Series will both compete Aug. 14 on the road course.

NASCAR surely hopes that the Cup Series’ first running on the IMS road course is as memorable as the Xfinity Series’ first running there last July.

That race came down to a electric four-car battle for the win between Chase Briscoe, A.J. Allmendinger, Austin Cindric and Noah Gragson. Briscoe, an Indiana native, survived to win.

Daytona International Speedway - 7 p.m. ET, Saturday, Aug. 28, NBC

Last year, NASCAR shifted the Cup Series’ regular season finale to Daytona in a move that was tailor-made for drama.

There was plenty of it. William Byron scored his first career win to make the playoffs. Matt DiBenedetto earned his first playoff berth. And a late crash ensured that Jimmie Johnson would not end his final season in NASCAR racing for an eighth Cup title.

Once a fun 4th of July tradition, the night race at Daytona is now perhaps the most intense race on the schedule thanks to the pressure of getting into the post-season.

Entering this weekend at COTA, 10 playoff spots have been spoken for. Six are up for grabs.

How many will still be when NASCAR returns to the beach?