Friday April 12th, 2024 7:46AM

NASCAR Cup drivers are eager for the twists and turns of COTA

By Holly Cain NASCAR Wire Service

After a thrilling short track battle last week, the NASCAR Cup Series moves to the always-compelling Austin, Texas hill country for the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at the famed Circuit of The Americas

WDUN will have live coverage of COTA beginning at 2:30 p.m. on AM 550 & FM 102.9 and streaming online at accesswdun.com. 

The venue and the racing have not disappointed at this 20-turn, 3.41-mile circuit, which is used by all the world’s great racing series.

With the sport’s willingness to include road courses on its diverse schedule of tracks, there is an impressive list of 15 active road course winners. 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick is the defending COTA race winner.

Among those road course winners exists a potentially big weekend for Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott. The inaugural COTA race winner has seven road course wins – most among active drivers – and a win Sunday would tie him with NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart for second-most all-time.

Also, among those to keep an eye this week is Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain. COTA may well be the place he hoists his first trophy of the season – the 2022 race winner is the only driver with top-five finishes in all three races at the circuit.

The overall competition couldn’t be closer this season with five different winners through five races and a tie atop the NASCAR Cup Series driver point standings between Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. Only seven points behind is second-year driver, JGR’s Ty Gibbs and reigning series champion, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney is a single-point off Gibbs. The top 10 drivers in the Cup standings are separated by a mere 49 points.

Of course, part of the intrigue is the high level of competition at NASCAR road courses when drivers from different international series try their hand at stock car racing’s version of right-and-left turns. This weekend, New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen is running double duty. The winner of last year’s NASCAR Cup Series Chicago Street Race now runs full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and will compete in a handful of NASCAR Cup Series races – with road courses like COTA Prime on his schedule. The three-time Supercars champion will drive the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet on Sunday.

Also, former Formula One driver and WEC champion Kamui Kobayashi is ready to race this year. He ran the NASCAR Cup Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course last year but says he is much more confident about Sunday’s expectations in the No. 50 23XI Racing Toyota.

“I’m definitely looking forward to COTA,” said Kobayashi. “We’ve had more preparation. I’ve raced COTA five times already in Formula 1 and WEC. I think Indy – it was my first time ever racing there, but at COTA, I have more experience, so I'm definitely looking forward to the race.”

Practice for the race gets underway on Saturday, March 23, at 10 a.m. ET followed by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 10:30 a.m. ET – both will be broadcast on FS2, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Stacked Xfinity Series entry list for Circuit of The Americas

The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to competition in Saturday’s Focused Health 250 (5 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) and the big question will be who can stop Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger, the two-time defending race winner.

The first road course event of the 2024 season will feature a typically full field of road course aces vying against the series championship regulars. Current points leader, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Chandler Smith, has never won a road course. He did turn in a good showing in his only previous Austin start last year, finishing 12th after starting 27th.

Smith says he’s been preparing for COTA and feels more confident about his second start there.

“I’ve done a lot of laps in the simulator for this weekend,” he said. “I think we have a good setup … to go out and compete up front on Saturday.”

Only three drivers currently among the top 10 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series driver points standings have road course wins. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer won a pair of road course races last year – at Portland and on the Chicago street course. For Allmendinger, 11 of his 17 Xfinity Series career wins have come on road courses, making him at the top of Saturday’s field by far. Justin Allgaier has three road course wins and is always competitive in this brand of racing.

Of course, this season, Allmendinger will have a chance to race his wares against another road course expert, his new Kaulig Racing teammate, and three-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen. This will be the Kiwi’s COTA debut. But the New Zealand rookie is already off to an impressive start to his first full-time campaign. He’s ranked 14th in the championship – 23 points out of the top-10 – in his four oval starts. He’s had a pair of top-10 finishes in the No. 97 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, including a best of third place at the Atlanta Motor Speedway 1.5-miler.

Kyle Larson leads an impressive group of NASCAR Cup Series drivers who also entered in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race. The former NASCAR Cup Series champion will make his first Xfinity Series start of the year in the No. 17 Chevrolet for his Hendrick Motorsports team. Also entered are Joe Gibbs Racing’s Ty Gibbs, who has four Xfinity Series road course victories, and Legacy Motor Club’s John Hunter Nemechek, who will team with Gibbs in a JGR Toyota.

Of note, two of the three races have been won from pole position.

Today’s practice is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. ET, followed by pole qualifying at 6 p.m. – both televised live on FS1.

NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series prepares for the only road course of the season

The XPEL 225 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) represents not only the first road course event of the year for the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series, but the only road course event on the 2024 schedule.

Interestingly, the same team and truck number have won all three previous COTA CRAFTSMAN Truck Series races (38). Front Row Motorsports’ Todd Gilliland won the inaugural race, and his then-teammate Zane Smith is the two-time defending race winner. Rookie Layne Riggs is now in that truck, and this weekend marks his first road course race in one of NASCAR’s premier series.

Among the full-time championship competitors, championship leader Tyler Ankrum and reigning series champ Ben Rhodes lead the series with three top-10 efforts in as many COTA starts as possible. Ankrum, the driver of the No. 18 McAnally-Hilgemann Chevrolet, holds a 17-point edge over Toyota’s Corey Heim in the championship and is looking to earn his first win in the series since 2019.

There is quite a list of experienced road course drivers hoping to make Saturday’s grid – from IndyCar star Marco Andretti to 17-year-old multi-discipline star Connor Zilisch, who is hoping to make his series debut just a week after winning in class at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Ross Chastain, a former NASCAR Cup Series COTA winner, will also be competing in the Niece Motorsports Chevrolet.

Practice for the XPEL 225 is this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET followed by Cometic Gasket Pole Qualifying at 4 p.m. ET – both sessions televised live on FS1 and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

  • Associated Categories: Sports, NASCAR News, NASCAR Cup
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