For the second time in three weeks, we have an inaugural event on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The teams make their way to the third different track in as many years on the Fourth of July weekend as from 1959 through 2019, we’ve always been in Daytona for the Firecracker 400. To spice up the race for the playoffs, that event was moved to the regular season finale for 2020 and beyond.
To make room for that, the Brickyard 400 was shifted from that slot to the Fourth of July weekend last year. But, with the Brickyard moving to the road course this season, the race was then moved back to August. That left a void in the schedule for the big holiday weekend. NASCAR filled it with Road America. Can this track become a mainstay in such a big part of NASCAR’s annual schedule?
For this weekend in general, there’s a lot of unknowns. How will the race look? Who are the favorites? What does this race do for the playoff picture?
For starters, you have to eye the Hendrick Motorsports camp as the favorites. Their six race won streak came to an end last Sunday but they still scored a sixth top two in the last eight races.
Also, Chase Elliott should have won the race at Daytona back in February. A fluke caution for rain dashed those hopes. He was repaid for NASCAR ending COTA early due to rain while he was leading. The last road course race he finished second to Kyle Larson.
HMS should be 3-for-3 this season because of that.
Elliott, won the Charlotte ROVAL as well as the Daytona road course last year to go along with the ROVAL and Watkins Glen in 2019. That would make HMS winners of the last seven road course events.
Still, 6-for-7 is a great start in looking for favorites.
Elliott, has won the last two years on the Charlotte ROVAL. He’s won the last two races at Watkins Glen. He’s won five of the last seven road course races in general and the inaugural winner on the Daytona road course and COTA. Can he be the inaugural winner of Road America too?
Larson was runner-up to Elliott in COTA and won in Sonoma so watch out for him. He’s had a top two result in seven of the last eight races on the season. Alex Bowman has three top 10’s in as many tries on road courses this season too. One driver who’s baffling is William Byron. He’s had a top 10 at every track minus Daytona, Pocono and the three road courses.
Joey Logano has three top fives in as many road course starts this season so he could be the top sleeper. So could Chip Ganassi Racing who’s produced their best results on road courses of all places in 2021. They’ve had a top 10 in all three road course races including a pair of top 10’s the last time out in Sonoma.
The other end of the spectrum is the playoff outlook. Right now, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick are further distancing themselves from the first driver out. Kurt Busch made up more points last weekend and went from -83 four races ago to +3 now bumping Chris Buescher out.
The five current wildcard drivers can play it safe on Sunday and take the stage points and move even further ahead. I mean, why not?
Do they have anything in terms of a race win? I don’t see it out of them right now. So, why not take the points? We’re to a point to where I don’t see a fluke winner on a road course anymore. Elliott, Larson and Truex Jr. are just too good. If they don’t win, Logano and Busch are right there. They’ll be hard to beat on pace as strategy will be the only way we get a fluke winner, but with Road America being so big and having run off space, we may not get many fluke cautions.
So, how does strategy play into this race and how do the teams figure out a way to make it work?
The guys between 15th-20th in points have to play it conservative. 21st on back in points need to swing for the fences. The guys that already have wins this season can do the same. It’s just the few going for the wildcard spots that just might as well go for points.