By Cole Cusumano
Just at the halfway point of the regular season, playoff hopefuls across NASCAR will be met with one of the most exciting challenges in the sport’s history — Circuit of the Americas. This is the first time since Kentucky Speedway in 2011 the premier series will head to a new facility and the race weekend has captured the attention from motorsports enthusiasts across the world.
The 3.41-mile road course consists of 20 turns and has been used for many other forms of racing ranging from IndyCar, Formula 1, Rally Cross and more. Residing in Austin, Texas — where they say everything is bigger — the same can be said about turmoil and opportunity pertaining to the three National Series events.
Although this will largely be a weekend of unknowns for drivers across the sport, many found time to get behind the wheel of various different machines to develop much needed track time. The general consensus was that, compared to road courses traditionally used in NASCAR, the expansive racing surface and lack of outside barriers the likelihood of a more competitive and the ability to rebound from mistakes.
Drivers won’t be going in completely blind, as all three series will have a rare practice session and qualifying will be completed before each event respectively. The starting lineup will be set after one-25-minute attempt, followed by a 10-minute go-around for the top-12 speeds in the first round. But there’s even more strategy at play for the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series in setting the field.
Imminence has set in that weather will play a factor in Circuit of the Americas. Luckily, teams are being given rain tires. The NASCAR Cup Series has the luxury of changing Goodyears after qualifying, but the developmental series must start their race on the tires used in that session.
Adding to the already sky-high competition level and difficulty in Austin, there will be nine drivers pulling double duty, 16 racing specialists or road ringers and 15 combined who won’t make the show between Trucks and Xfinity. To enhance the intrigue, seven athletes are making their National Series debut this weekend.
NASCAR Cup Series
Hendrick Motorsports is coming off a career-day at Dover International Speedway, in which the organization led all but 19 laps and placed top-four for the first time in their 37-year history. Alex Bowman ended up becoming the second repeat winner of 2021, again leaving Chase Elliott as the sole driver without a victory this season — but there’s good reason to believe that all can change in the EchoPark Texas Grand Prix.
Even among all the uncertainty surrounded Circuit of the Americas, Elliott should be heavily favored. In just 13 road course starts, the No. 9 team has five wins (series-best) and led 284 laps –second-most only to Kyle Busch, who’s competed in 22 more races than the reigning Champion. He also is the only driver with an average finish inside the top-10 at these types of tracks with 9.85, and one of three to partake in the Goodyear tire test alongside Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.
While Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman have been stealing the headlines in the HMS stable, William Byron’s consistency shouldn’t be overlooked. The driver of the No. 24 is on an 11-race top-10 streak and sits second in the standings. With one win already in 2021, the question becomes when will these quality finishes translate to victories?
“I think we’re showing up with really good speed,” Byron told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “We just have to put it all together and build our notebook. We’ve got to be somewhat patient because this is the first time that Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) and I are going to these tracks together and we don’t exactly know what the track is going to do at the end of the race. I think we’re getting really close, it’s just a matter of a couple little things going our way.”
Ty Dillon, who ran exceptionally well at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval last year and even got a stage win, is looking to make the most of limited opportunities in 2021. He returns for his third race of the season with Gaunt Brothers Racing in hopes to secure a top-20-finish — which he believes would be a “win” for the Toyota team.
“I think putting in the proper preparation for each race is where your confidence comes from. Dillon told NEWS FROM THE PITS. Whether you’re preparing your mind, body, what it takes to be a good race car driver, is what gives me the confidence going into every weekend, and then you just do the best that you can and the results fall where they fall.
“When we get into that top-20, we’re doing a lot of great things and that’s our aspiration for this weekend coming up. I think we can definitely accomplish that and I’m looking forward to taking advantage of the situation again.”
As for who else can be expected to run well – Busch, Truex, Michael McDowell and A.J. Allmendinger has established themselves as road course aficionados. Bubble drivers Matt DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch, Tyler Reddick and Chris Buescher will need strong runs to either gain ground or maintain their status in the standings at the halfway point of the regular season.
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NASCAR Xfinity Series
Following a series-leading third victory at Dover, Austin Cindric once again proved why he should be considered among the championship favorites. It wasn’t a day of utter dominance for the driver of the No. 22, as Justin Allgaier led the most laps and JR Motorsports flexed their muscles for almost the entire event.
For a series that was wide-open just a few weeks ago, Cindric and Allgaier have clearly staked their claim in being the ones to beat down the stretch, but who could be next to break out?
Road specialist, Allmendinger, won in Las Vegas, but has been quiet as of late. Coming off a fourth-place effort, Circuit of the Americas can be just what he needs to bulk up his playoff points and develop consistency in these long Summer months.
There will be seven drivers in the race from different competition backgrounds including Boris Said, Spencer Pumpelly and Ryan Ellis. With 43 cars on the entry list, seven won’t make the Pit Boss 250.
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NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
The biggest trend throughout the Truck Series has been Toyotas dominance – until Dover. Sheldon Creed broke the perfect seven-race win streak to start the season for his first since the 2020 series finale. With the blend of talent and experience dispersed throughout the field on a weekly basis, the Toyota Tundra 225 is shaping up to be one of the most competitive weekends of the year.
There are nine road racing aficionados on the entry list for Circuit of the Americas, including Paul Menard, who will be making his first Truck Series start since 2007 driving the No. 66 for ThorSport Racing. This should only add to Toyotas chances at finding victory for an eighth time this season, as Ben Rhodes from the same stable won the most recent road race at Daytona International Speedway.
Among seven drivers making their National Series start is Jack Wood. The 20-year-old just scored his first top-five of the season in his most recent ARCA Menards Series race at Kansas and will be competing for a proven contender in GMS Racing’s No. 24 truck.
“Everybody’s kind of in the same boat with this being a new track, but I think people do have a little bit of a foot up on me because they’ve been in trucks before,” Wood told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “My first lap on the race track is going to be everyone else’s first. My biggest goal is just going to be to run every lap and try to learn as much as I can. With the forecast looking the way it is, it’s definitely going to mix things up for me.”
With 44 drivers on the entry list, eight won’t be competing on Saturday following qualifying.
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Get your first look at NASCAR at Circuit of the Americas with practice on FS1 for the NASCAR Truck and Xfinity Series at 3:05 p.m. ET and 4:05 p.m. ET, May 21 respectively. Saturday, the Cup Series gets their first look at the 3.41-mile road course with practice at 10:05 a.m. ET on FS1.
May 22, qualifying will take place for both Trucks and Xfinity at 9:05 a.m. ET and 11:05 a.m. respectively, with Cup time trials taking place the following day at 11 a.m. ET on FS1.
All three races will be televised on FS1 with the Truck Series kicking things off on May 22 in the Toyota Tundra 225 at 1 p.m. ET. The Xfinity Series will continue the action-packed day with the Pit Boss 250 at 4 p.m. ET. The Cup Series will end the inaugural weekend at Circuit of the Americas with the EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 23.