The Next Gen chassis continues to bring unpredictability and excitement to the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. Four of five races so far have produced a margin of victory that’s less than two-tenths of a second; Atlanta last weekend brought a record 20 leaders and 46 lead changes. What curveball will this new car bring to a road course with Sunday’s running of the Echopark Texas Grand Prix?
The first test comes on a 3.41-mile road course NASCAR never really got to flush out last May. A weekend rainstorm dumped on the track the entire weekend, shortening the race and creating a completely different set of conditions. Add in larger wheels, a new chassis and everyone in the garage feels like they’re starting from scratch.
“Last year, when we were racing in the rain,” said this weekend’s pole-sitter Ryan Blaney, “You don’t notice the elevation changes or how unique the track is because you [were] worried about the rain and staying on the racetrack. It has been cool to digest everything here with it in prime conditions.”
And there’s so much to still take in. It takes over two minutes to complete a lap at this 20-turn course that has a little something for everyone. A high-speed backstretch is paired with a set of tricky esses and tight corners that will keep the most experienced road course drivers on their toes.
Speaking of experience, last year’s winner and current points leader, Chase Elliott, starts 12th and will be looking to become the fourth Hendrick Motorsports driver to reach victory lane in the last five weeks. It’s hard to gauge how much of an edge he and the sport’s other premier road course racer, Kyle Larson, have here after the way rain changed strategy down the stretch last year.
Other drivers have emerged as potential contenders. Blaney recovered from a practice mishap and earned his first career road course pole; Daniel Suarez starts alongside to earn his best grid spot since pairing up with Trackhouse Racing Team in 2021.
“I feel that I’ve always been strong at [road course racing],” he said Saturday. “But I’ve never been super strong. I have a lot of faith that this car is going to make that difference.”
How much of a difference will it make in the racing here? That question will be answered in short order.
EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix
Date: Sunday, March 27
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Circuit of The Americas (Austin, Texas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: William Byron
What a difference three weeks makes for Byron, bouncing back from two early crashes to kick off his 2022 Cup season. Runs of fifth and 18th were followed by 111 laps led at Atlanta, deftly avoiding some of the wrecks in the pack to score his third career Cup victory in impressive fashion.
Byron has now led laps in every race this season, sits fourth in the standings despite those crashes, and is poised to earn a lucrative long-term extension with Hendrick.
Who's at the Back: Christopher Bell
A top-5 finish for Bell at Atlanta was washed away with a NASCAR penalty for passing below the double-yellow line. Placed all the way back in 25th after that decision, Bell now sits 29th in the Cup standings, some 57 points behind Tyler Reddick for the final playoff spot. More importantly, a normally unflappable Bell is frustrated, telling Frontstretch “next time, my hands are staying straight” – a maneuver that would have caused a wreck at the front of the field.
Brad Keselowski and RFK Racing were hit hard with NASCAR penalties this week after Phoenix post-race inspection. Officials hit Keselowski with the loss of 100 driver points, his No. 6 team with a loss of 100 owner points and dished out a $100,000 fine for violating Section 14.1 (C&D Overall Assembled Vehicle Rules; 14.5 A&D Body Note: Modification of a single source supplied part.) Crew chief Matt McCall has also been suspended from the next four Cup events.
Keselowski has refused comment aside from choosing to appeal the ruling; details have been hard to come by. But with the sport’s new system of bodies being supplied to race teams, they’re coming down hard on any modification to universally supplied parts that could lead to a competitive advantage.
A NASCAR crew chief has been indefinitely suspended due to accusations of assault. Eddie Troconis, who most recently served as a head wrench in the Camping World Truck Series, was arrested on March 18 by the Talladega County Sheriff’s Department and charged with second-degree assault. Troconis is the estranged husband of Truck Series driver Jennifer Jo Cobb.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-5 finishes through five 2022 races for three Championship 4 drivers from last November: Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Points position for Kurt Busch through five races, the highest he’s been in the standings at this point in the year since 2011.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
How you pick in this tier depends on what you think is the most important intangible.
Is it… past history here? Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, who were an impressive 1-2 punch in the rain last year at COTA, should top your list. Both drivers combined to win five of seven races last year and are generally regarded as the two best drivers on this track type. Add in 12th- and 13th-place starting spots and you should get some unexpected position differential bonus.
Is it… recent momentum? William Byron is coming off a win at Atlanta and led 30 laps at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL last fall. Chase Briscoe, new to the top tier, won at Phoenix two weeks ago and could have easily triumphed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course last summer.
Is it… veteran experience? Martin Truex Jr. had a below-average performance on road courses last year (crashing in the rain at COTA) but remains one of the best on this track type, pulling off top-5 finishes at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Teammate Kyle Busch is overdue for a road course victory after going nearly seven years without one at the Cup level.
Any of these pairings should work out well. It’s just which one you value most.
Tyler Reddick starts fourth and has been knocking on the door of victory lane in recent weeks, leading 95 laps in five races (he led 73 in his last two full Cup seasons combined). A runner-up finish at Charlotte’s ROVAL last fall was his career best on this track type and last year’s COTA pole winner wound up ninth in that event, collecting eight stage points along the way.
Ross Chastain had one of his best runs of 2021 at COTA, finishing a strong fourth with perhaps the fastest car in the field that day. How will another near 2022 winner do with much better momentum and a 16th-place starting spot that gives you plenty of upside?
Cole Custer qualified third, his best in 81 career Cup starts. While not known as a road course racer, a top-5 finish in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race was the latest sign this former prospect is coming back to life.
Kaz Grala is starting way back in 31st, running for a team making just its second Cup Series start. But Grala typically gets the most out of any Cup ride he’s offered and has impressed on road courses in the past, subbing for Austin Dillon and eking out a top-10 finish years ago on the Daytona road course.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Chase Elliott sitting at +250 to lead the way at Circuit of The Americas. Kyle Larson is +300 before a massive drop down to +1000 for Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. That’s how much people think the Elliott-Larson combo is head and shoulders above everyone else on road courses.
Want a juicy longshot pick? Tyler Reddick is sitting a surprising +5000 despite putting himself in position to contend in at least two races this season.
What I Think
Could Ryan Blaney win the first road course race of his career? Probably not. Expect Chase Elliott to flex his muscles out in Austin and return to the front of the field on a road course.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
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