NASCAR viewer’s guide: Circuit of the Americas
The Next Gen car makes its official road course debut at Circuit of the Americas on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).
Five races at five unique tracks have provided five different winners, a list most recently dotted by William Byron, who won at Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend.
The inaugural Cup Series race in Austin, Texas was run in sopping wet conditions in May 2021. This weekend’s forecast is vastly different and should make for a more accurate test of Cup drivers’ ability around the 3.41-mile, 20-turn course than a year ago.
How will the Next Gen perform on a road course?
By all accounts, the newest generation of car in the Cup Series is meant to handle much better on road courses than its predecessor.
With rack-and-pinion steering now in play along with independent rear suspensions -- both of which contrast from all previous iterations of NASCAR vehicles -- drivers expect a completely different feel around COTA.
“This car is absolutely designed more for a road-course race type situation,” Aric Almirola said in a press release. “It’s a more symmetrical car. Our cars used to be offset, and they were more designed to go just left-hand only, so it was more of a big deal to swap over to go road racing. Now, these cars are more symmetrical. So because of that, it is more specifically designed to go left and right, which suits it very well for road racing.
“The car is a very capable car. It handles well, it brakes very well. It’s got much bigger brakes than what we used to have on the old car, so it stops way better and the brake zones are way more compressed. It is a little bit more thrilling of a car to drive on the road courses.”
That agility was something most drivers were able to experience in a two-day test session at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval in October. During that test, Byron noted what sort of difference the brakes could make in passing zones.
“With this (Next Gen) car, it’s just go as fast as you can into that braking zone, be as aggressive as you can, get the downshifts done whenever you have time to,” Byron said. “It’s going to make for a lot more aggressive passing because I think guys are going to dive-bomb. If you’re close to a guy you’re, obviously, going to try to out-brake him.”
Hendrick Motorsports’ dominance continues
The new car has brought many new faces to the front of the field, including but not limited to Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick and Ross Chastain. But the powerhouse that is Hendrick Motorsports still reigns supreme.
Byron’s Atlanta victory is Hendrick’s third win in five races this season, leaving Chase Elliott as the lone winless driver in the four-car stable. Kyle Larson went to Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway and Alex Bowman won at Las Vegas.
Larson (three) and Elliott (two) combined to win five of the seven road-course races on the schedule in 2021, and the organization has won nine of the past 11 such events. Elliott, who has won seven of his 19 starts on road courses, was the winner at COTA in its inaugural event a season ago and Larson finished second. The Next Gen may change some things, but expect members of the Hendrick foursome to be in the mix for the win.
Kurt Busch on the rise
Not only has Kurt Busch snuck his way into two consecutive top-five finishes (fifth at Phoenix, third at Atlanta); he’s also notched the best average finish in the series after five races at 9.6.
His high finishes come as the whole of Toyota struggles. Joe Gibbs Racing has earned only one top-five finish among its four drivers this season, scored by Kyle Busch’s fourth-place effort in Las Vegas. Two of JGR’s drivers sit outside the top 25 in points -- Denny Hamlin (26th) and Christopher Bell (30th).
Kurt Busch has yet to show significant, consistent bursts of speed to make the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing feel like a threat to win. On average, NASCAR’s loop data statistics show Busch has generally run toward the back-half of the top 20 through the majority of the race.
But his finishes are carrying the team -- and the manufacturer -- forward, sitting fifth in points as the highest Toyota in the standings.
As a whole, past Cup champions are off to a slow start in 2022.
Of the eight active title winners competing, Larson is the only one to have won a race this year. In total, the past champions -- Larson, Elliott, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch -- have combined for six top fives (of a possible 25) and 19 top 10s (of a possible 50).
The season is young, and the notebook on the Next Gen car is small. But perhaps the historic parity on display this season is in part thanks to drivers’ collective inexperience, taking away the advantages of long-time veterans who spent decades driving the previous generation’s style of cars.
As the new car harkens features from the sports-car world, familiar names from other road-racing disciplines can be found scattered across the Cup Series’ 39-car entry list for COTA.
AJ Allmendinger, who won the Cup Series’ inaugural race on the Indianapolis road course last year, is back behind the wheel of the No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. Andy Lally, the 2011 Rookie of the Year, will pilot Live Fast Motorsports’ No. 78 Ford. Kaz Grala finished seventh in his Cup debut at the Daytona road course in 2020 and returns to wheel the No. 50 Chevrolet for The Money Team Racing, owned by famed boxed Floyd Mayweather.
Other road racers in Sunday’s field include Joey Hand (No. 15 Ford), Boris Said (No. 66 Ford) and Loris Hezemans (No. 27 Ford).
Forty-three cars are on the Xfinity Series entry list. Auto Club winner and Cup regular Cole Custer returns to the No. 07 Ford for SS Green Light Racing, while Parker Chase, a Texas native, makes his Xfinity debut in the No. 26 Toyota for Sam Hunt Racing. Bubba Wallace will pilot the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Miguel Paludo will attempt to make his season debut for JR Motorsports in the No. 88 Chevrolet. Five cars will fail to qualify.
Forty trucks make up the entry list for Camping World Truck Series. Alex Bowman will make his first series start since 2017 driving the No. 7 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports. Kyle Busch will drive his No. 51 Toyota, and NBC Sports broadcaster Parker Kligerman returns for his first race since the season opener at Daytona in the No. 75 Chevrolet. Four trucks will fail to qualify.
Road-course practice and qualifying procedures take on a new form in 2022.
Cup Series teams will have a 20-minute practice session and will practice in two separate groups -- Group A and Group B -- based on a calculated metric that factors results and fastest laps from the previous week in addition to points position. Those groups will then prepare for qualifying, with each group receiving one 15-minute timed session. The five fastest drivers from each group will advance into the second round of qualifying, a 10-minute timed session in which the fastest lap earns the pole.
Xfinity and Truck series teams will each get a 20-minute practice session for all entries, but their qualifying sessions will mirror the Cup procedures. Groups A and B will qualify in separate 15-minute sessions, and the top five from each group advance to the next round to compete for the pole.
This weekend’s schedule and forecast
(All times Eastern)
Friday, March 25
Forecast: Sunny, high of 83 degrees, low of 48 degrees
- 3 – 3:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
- 3:30 - 4:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)
- 5 -5:30 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
- 5:30 - 6:30 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
Saturday, March 26
Forecast: Sunny, high of 84 degrees, low of 54 degrees
- 10 - 11 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1)
- 11 a.m. - 12 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1)
- 1 p.m. — Truck race (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
- 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
Sunday, March 27
Forecast: Partly cloudy, high of 87 degrees, low of 57degrees
- 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)