The 2021 EchoPark Texas Grand Prix kicks off the second half of NASCAR's 26-race regular season. A year that got off to a crazy start, with two first-time winners in the first two weeks has calmed down just a bit. After 10 different winners in the first 11 races, Martin Truex Jr. has charged ahead of the field with three total victories. Three teams (Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports) have won every race since the season-opening Daytona 500 while Denny Hamlin leads the points by a country mile.
That means the second half will be more of the same, right? A slow summer slog until NASCAR's postseason begins in September?
Not so fast.
This weekend's race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, kicks off the wild and crazy part of the NASCAR season, where many of the 2021 schedule changes took place. It's stock car racing's debut at the track, an unpredictable weekend is one of a few virtually guaranteed unknowns over the next few months.
Consider the following about the rest of the Cup regular season...
- Five of the last 13 races are on road courses, a NASCAR record for this stretch. The Cup Series has never raced on three of them (including COTA) and skipped the other two in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Nashville Superspeedway is a new oval race, a track no one has raced on in a decade.
- Atlanta Motor Speedway has a second event, new on the schedule for 2021.
- Daytona International Speedway, a pack race, concludes the sport's regular season in August.
That leaves just four tracks (Charlotte Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway doubleheader, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Michigan International Raceway) that are roughly the same as they were a year ago. Opportunities lie out there like low-hanging fruit for some underdogs to jump in and crash the Cup playoff party.
We start at COTA, where weather is a factor and could lead to rain tires being used. Cup held practice for the first time in three months, led by William Byron, before having a Sunday morning qualifying session before the race.
Among the surprising names inside the top 10 were Ross Chastain, driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, along with teammate Kurt Busch. Could a disappointing season from CGR be redeemed by slicing through Sunday's expected downpours?
The COTA track is new to the circuit, a 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course that's home to the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix. How stock cars will navigate the speedway, one of the more complex courses these drivers have ever run on, is a big unknown over the 68-lap event.
One top-tier driver who could benefit in the short-term is Chase Elliott, winner of four straight road course events until a little rain at Daytona derailed him in February. The 2020 Cup champion remains the only Hendrick driver who hasn't won this season; can he figure out the ins and outs of COTA before anyone else? Or will road-ringers like AJ Allmendinger surprise and steal a gargantuan upset?
Whatever happens, Sunday's sure worth watching as one of the unpredictable Cup races this year is on tap. COTA may just set a baseline for just how wild the second half of the regular season turns out.
EchoPark Texas Grand Prix
Date: Sunday, May 23
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Circuit of the Americas (Austin, Texas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Hendrick posted the first 1-2-3-4 finish in its 37-year history with a dominant performance at Dover. Alex Bowman took the lead on pit stops, scooting ahead of Kyle Larson to win in a race where both men combined to lead 361 of 400 laps.
For Bowman, it's his second win of the year and locks him into the playoffs despite sitting 13th in the season standings. It was the 12th career victory by the No. 48 team at a track that seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson dominated in his prime.
Chase Elliott ran third and William Byron fourth, the latter's 11th straight top-10 finish.
Who's at the Back: Christopher Bell
How is a Joe Gibbs Racing driver on the list? After all, JGR leads all organizations with five victories in 13 Cup races this year. But Bell, after winning at the Daytona road course in February, has seemed to fall off the pace a bit.
Dover saw him finish 21st, four laps down, posting his fourth consecutive finish outside the top 10. Bell has led just 14 laps in the 11 races since his Daytona triumph and slipped back to 12th in points, worst among the JGR quartet. His average finish of 15.3 is just a tick better than Erik Jones a year ago (15.9) in what turned out to be a fire-able offense for the latter.
Brad Keselowski has reportedly been offered an ownership stake in Roush Fenway Racing. The deal, which multiple outlets report "will happen," would move Keselowski from Team Penske to drive the No. 6 RFR Ford beginning with the 2022 Cup season. Ryan Newman, if the deal went through, would reportedly drive a part-time third car or leave the organization altogether.
The move is the first domino in NASCAR's Silly Season and has plenty of ramifications across the garage. I explore some of the winners and losers here. Unrelated to the rumors, RFR announced a sponsorship extension for Fastenal through 2024 on its No. 17 car and insisted Chris Buescher would be staying with their program for the next few seasons, as well.
North Carolina governor Roy Cooper announced $30 million of the money received by the state for COVID-19 recovery will go to revitalizing three tracks: Charlotte Motor Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway. North Wilkesboro has fallen into disrepair after being removed from the Cup schedule in 1996; Rockingham is also inactive and hasn't hosted any series in several years. It's unknown at this point whether the funding will be enough to reopen those two tracks.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Times in 13 races this season the overall Cup winner hasn't scored the most points in the race. Kyle Larson scored more points at Dover than winner Alex Bowman.
Green-flag passes at Dover this past Sunday, the fewest since NASCAR loop data was tracked at the one-mile oval in 2005.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's hard to know what to expect at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), a track new to virtually the entire NASCAR garage. That's why Chase Elliott's road course history has to stick out while setting your roster. If not for an unfortunate late caution flag at Daytona, Elliott would be looking for a sixth straight road course victory. Even a top-5 finish would be worth the price as the No. 9 Chevrolet is bound to spend plenty of laps up front.
How about Kyle Busch as a potential COTA winner? People forget Busch has four career road course victories in Cup, most recently in 2015, and he was a solid fourth in Saturday's practice session. Ugly weather conditions seem well-suited for a two-time series champ to maneuver right to the front.
Matt DiBenedetto has a prime opportunity to keep his No. 21 ride with the Wood Brothers if Brad Keselowski moves on from Penske. To do that, though he'll need to turn an iffy 2021 season around with solid runs on road courses like COTA. He's got two career top-10 finishes on this track type, including a fourth at Sonoma in 2019, and has the ability to maneuver through traffic. A disappointing 26th-place result in Saturday practice could earn you position differential points in the long run.
Kurt Busch was eighth in Saturday practice and has won at a road course before (Sonoma). Currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, the 2004 Cup champ knows a win would erase the stress of being on the bubble. It's the type of event that benefits a veteran who's won at least one Cup race in each of the last seven seasons.
Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell has faded from the spotlight after a strong start. COTA could be a place to get back on solid footing as McDowell was 10th in practice and earned a top-10 finish earlier this year on Daytona's road course.
Ross Chastain isn't someone you think of on road courses, so it was a surprise to see his No. 42 CGR Chevrolet inside the top 10 in practice. Why do I like the momentum to continue? He was a last-minute add to the Xfinity event which should provide additional experience, including under adverse weather conditions.
Finally, if you're looking at position differential, Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger could offer opportunities as road ringers. I'm just not as high on them for fantasy purposes because I expect strong qualifying runs from both, lessening their value. Part-time teams offer greater boom-or-bust risk on your roster, especially for this type of event with so many unknowns hanging out there.
What Vegas Thinks
Chase Elliott has astronomical 12/5 odds to win on the COTA road course with Martin Truex Jr. second best at 9/2. They're light years ahead of Denny Hamlin, a distant third in the order at 10/1.
Looking for lightning to strike twice with Michael McDowell? The best longshot bid is sitting at 66/1.
What I Think
I'm going to go outside the box. Kurt Busch finds a way to maneuver through a ton of obstacles, redeeming a rough 2021 with his first victory of the year and a potential playoff clincher at COTA.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.