The Jockey Made in America 250? On July 4th? What a jarring change for NASCAR tradition as the 2021 schedule shakeup continues. For over 50 years, the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway took center stage for Independence Day weekend. The aptly named season midpoint proved the perfect pairing for America’s birthday celebration.
Road America is out to change that, the 4.048-mile road course hosting its first Cup race this weekend since 1956. NASCAR is so excited about the partnership they’re already pushing a repeat appearance before any drivers step foot on the racetrack. It’s the fourth of a record-setting seven road courses on the docket as the sport tries to incorporate more diversity in 2021.
It’s also the latest in NASCAR’s sizzling summertime of changes, Silly Season moves and new races popping up at a frenetic pace. In just the last two weeks alone…
- The first NASCAR races at Nashville Superspeedway since 2011 were held (including the first-ever Cup event).
- Roush Fenway Racing added Brad Keselowski as part-owner beginning with the 2022 Cup season. (The move has yet to be officially announced).
- After 20 years, Chip Ganassi sold his two-car Cup operation to Justin Marks and partner Pitbull at Trackhouse Racing. Keep in mind Trackhouse was simply an idea on paper this time a year ago.
- NASCAR Xfinity Series owner Matt Kaulig purchased two Cup charters from Spire Motorsports in order to race full-time in Cup next season. Spire and driver Corey LaJoie says the team might turn around and buy back a second charter from somebody else (they still have one left).
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he is actively seeking a charter for JR Motorsports in Cup next season but claims he needs “$10 million+” as the cost of entry skyrockets in advance of the Next Gen car.
- NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon left his role at FOX Sports to become vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports (and the de facto successor to owner Rick Hendrick down the line).
All that and we’re less than two weeks into the summer. Several Silly Season questions have yet to be answered, from charter purchases to who will drive the flagship No. 2 Ford at Team Penske in 2022.
How will the flurry of NASCAR news continue up at Road America? The central focus will be on the last two road course winners, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. Six of Elliott’s 12 career victories have come at left and right-turn tracks, including this year’s inaugural event down in Austin (Circuit of the Americas). Larson struck back at Sonoma Raceway, part of his month-long win streak that left him surging to second in the standings, just two points behind Denny Hamlin.
Will any of the road course ringers break their stranglehold at this track type? AJ Allmendinger will jump over from the NASCAR Xfinity Series, seeking his first Cup victory since 2014 at Watkins Glen International. Then, there’s teammates Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain who hope to bounce back from Ganassi’s shocking sale with an upset victory that catapults them off the bubble and into the NASCAR playoffs.
Will Allmendinger, Austin Cindric and other NASCAR Xfinity Series competitors have an edge in the Cup race? NXS has raced Road America since 2010 while no Cup full-timer was even born the last time this series raced here. A Cinderella story would inject life into a NASCAR division that’s stalled out at 11 winners as of late (just one new one in the last eight races).
Fireworks will surely ensue at a road course where contact is the norm, not the exception. Expect this Independence Day 62-lapper to be one of the better NASCAR races you’ll see this year.
Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip
Date: Sunday, July 4
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Road America (Elkhart Lake, Wis.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Busch posted a 1.5 average finish in last weekend’s Pocono Raceway doubleheader, culminating in a Sunday win where he outlasted everyone else on fuel mileage. He nursed a broken clutch to the finish where his No. 18 Toyota ended the race with only fourth gear. It was quite a stroke of luck, as any caution flag or extra stop for gas would have ruined his chance for the victory.
That said, Busch still feels like Joe Gibbs Racing has a long way to go to catch up to their championship rivals. It’s the first race won by anyone outside Hendrick Motorsports since Martin Truex Jr. was victorious at Darlington Raceway Mother’s Day Weekend.
“There was a Hendrick car that was going to win, right?” Busch claimed about his Pocono triumph. “Or looked poised to have victory without being short on fuel. I don’t know that we necessarily outdid them anyhow. We were just in a little better situation than they were.”
Who’s at the Back: Chris Buescher
Four races ago, Buescher looked like a playoff lock. Now, he’s on the outside looking in after a sudden surge from Kurt Busch knocked Buescher out of the final spot. Runs of 16th, 36th, 20th and 19th the last three weeks allowed Busch to gain 86 points.
Sunday was the biggest disappointment for Buescher, starting from the pole only to lose 18 spots over the course of the race. Can he turn it around with three road courses, not his bread and butter, in the final seven events of the regular season?
The turmoil at Team Penske continues as crew chief Todd Gordon announced his retirement this week. Gordon, currently paired with Ryan Blaney, earned a NASCAR Cup championship with Joey Logano back in 2018. He stated a desire to spend more time with family after racking up 23 career Cup victories atop the pit box.
NASCAR has chosen to discontinue eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational events for the rest of 2021. These virtual races, popular during the pandemic, waned in popularity this year as COVID-19 restrictions eased across the country. Underdogs like James Davison and Timmy Hill briefly gained notoriety in the series for winning these events as computerized equipment leveled the playing field.
SRX continues its strength in the ratings versus NASCAR. The latest edition of the new series Saturday night at Eldora Speedway was watched by 1.38 million on CBS, falling just short of the 1.44 million that watched the Pocono Raceway Cup race on NBCSN the following day.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finishing position for Bubba Wallace Sunday at Pocono, the first top-5 finish (and top 10) for Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing in its short history.
Straight top-15 finishes for Daniel Suarez and Trackhouse Racing, allowing Suarez to close within 48 points of the final playoff spot. By comparison, Suarez went without a single top-15 result in a full season for Gaunt Brothers Racing last year.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s going to be impossible to squeeze Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. into one daily fantasy lineup. These three are so head-and-shoulders above the pack you need two of them on your list to cash in.
Personally, I like Elliott and Larson. Despite limited Road America experience for both, they’ve won the last two road course races between them. Larson remains red hot despite a Pocono bump in the road while Elliott is eager to tack on more wins (and playoff points) before the postseason begins in September.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Christopher Bell has struggled since a win at the Daytona road course back in February. Could Road America spark a turnaround? He won an Xfinity Series race here back in 2019, before a full-time transition to Cup and has the experience to be successful.
Kurt Busch has a fourth and sixth-place finish among his three road course starts this season. Road America offers an opportunity to keep the momentum rolling while auditioning for a 2022 ride after the Chip Ganassi sale to Trackhouse Racing. Remember, Busch has won a race for seven straight seasons and these new tracks are the type of scenario where the 2004 Cup champion can surprise.
Cole Custer has had an absolute disaster of a sophomore season with Stewart-Haas Racing. But past history at Road America (three top-10 finishes in three NXS starts) leaves some hope for a season-best performance. No one’s thinking of Custer as a road course expert, making him a sneaky pick for the back end of your roster.
AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric are road course ringers from NXS that are fairly obvious picks. Allmendinger has an average finish of 6.0 in two Cup starts this year, running a season-best fifth his last time out at Circuit of the Americas. Cindric was impressive in that same COTA event, leading four laps early from his third starting spot. The reigning NXS champ is due for his first top-10 finish in a Cup car.
What Vegas Thinks
Chase Elliott leads the way with 9/4 odds to win Road America according to vegasinsider.com. Kyle Larson is a close second, sitting at 3/1 with Martin Truex Jr. third at 7/1. Those drivers are far ahead of the rest of the field.
Michael McDowell, a former Road America winner in NXS, is sitting at 66/1 if you’re looking for a Cinderella story.
What I Think
I’ll go with Chase Elliott to get back to his winning ways on road courses, fending off AJ Allmendinger for his second victory of the season.
— 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.