5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s EcoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN)

How Much Will New Rules Package Change/Affect Manufacturers

Chevrolet has won 15 of the last 17 road course events including 5 of the 6 a year ago. They’re 2-for-2 in COTA. Toyota meanwhile has been the worst road course outfit.

Martin Truex Jr finished 7th, 26th, 13th, 21st, 23rd and 17th in the 6 races on them a year ago. Denny Hamlin was 18th, 31st, 17th, 14th, 20th and 13th respectively himself. Kyle Busch was 28th, 30th, 29th, 11th, 32nd and third. Christopher Bell being 3rd, 27th, 18th, 12th, 8th and first was the bright spot. Bubba Wallace was 38th, 36th, 35th, 5th, 35th and 7th. The 45 ride which is now the 23 was 32nd, 18th, 23rd, 17th, 16th and 22nd between Kurt Busch and Ty Gibbs.

In saying this, how much will another change to the racing package bring them together or does Chevrolet make further gains?

This will be the 3rd ever race on this track so there’s not much history or trends to witness here. The inaugural race in 2021 was run in the rain. Last year’s in the clear skies but also with a new car. This year, we have the second year of this new Next Gen model but this being the first road course event of the season, how much does the 2022 package work in 2023, especially with the changes made?

NASCAR has announced last month updates to the components of the NASCAR Cup Series car for races held at road courses and short tracks (excluding Bristol and Dover). The Road Course and Selected Short Track Package will consist of the following:

1. 2” Spoiler
1. Remove Engine Panel Strakes
1. Remove Center and Inner Diffuser Strakes. Only the Outer Diffuser Strakes will remain installed. Spacers will be installed between the diffuser flap and diffuser due to removing the inner diffuser strakes.
1. Remove Diffuser Fences and Replace with Baseline Fences.
1. Splitter stuffers will remain unchanged from the current components.

The rules are in place at the following tracks: Charlotte Roval, Chicago Street Course, Circuit of The Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Martinsville, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix, Richmond, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

Which is why I’m curious on if Chevy’s advantage is still around and if Toyota closed the gap?

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 27: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Richmond Water Heaters Ford, Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 3CHI Chevrolet, Cole Custer, driver of the #41 One Cure Ford, Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford, Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Llumar Chevrolet, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Echopark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 27, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Strategy Without Stage Cautions

At the end of January, NASCAR issued some update rule changes. One of the changes made was the removal of stage cautions at road courses. This comes following a review of Fan Council Data and industry discussions. Stage points will still be awarded at the stage-ending lap, but the green-checkered flag will not be displayed and there will not be a caution period to interrupt the action.

The thing is, I truly think that this move is going to change the way that these races are run now too and doing so in a positive manner.

It was becoming the norm for teams to elect to pit right before the stage would end to give up points for track position. They don’t have that luxury anymore. They automatically knew when two cautions would fly so would plan accordingly. It took the strategy aspect out of these races.

I now like that strategy plays are back in the hands of the teams again and that these races won’t carry on forever. You now don’t know when cautions are coming and can open up when to pit and when not to do so.

Last year, none of the road course races saw a driver that had won the race finish in the points in Stage 1. It’s because they all had pit already. In Stage 2, they finished: 8th (COTA), 4th (Sonoma), 10th (Road America), no points (Indy) and 8th (Watkins Glen), no points (ROVAL).

That luxury isn’t there anymore as someone could in theory run away with this thing. They also could run away too far and you’re one caution away from flipping the field too.

Which makes me wonder what strategy these crew chiefs are going to elect to go for. How long do we expect the tires to hold up? Will they hold up for a full fuel run and if so, what is the fuel number?

Do teams short pit or long pit? Do you do the overcut or undercut? Can you pit with clean air in front of you entering and in front of you exiting. In and out laps are key too.

Strategy is open again and I love it.

NASCAR started this stage format in 2017 as it rewards points for the top 10 finishers of the two stages. It’s done to make the drivers actually race from the onset of the green flag but also give fans a break to go to the bathroom or concession stand or if you’re at home, to walk away from the TV at the two stoppages.

However, most fans didn’t take to it like NASCAR thought they would. Many fans liked the idea of stages, but why not just continue on with the green flag action? Award points and if the flag was a green checkered like it was, doesn’t green mean, go?

Hence the change.

WATKINS GLEN, NEW YORK – AUGUST 20: Kimi Raikkonen, driver of the #91 Recogni Chevrolet, drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 20, 2022 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

How Will Jordan Taylor, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Conor Daly Fare

2 former Formula One drivers, an IMSA driver and an NTT INDYCAR Series competitor will compete in this weekend’s race at COTA.

The Iceman is returning to NASCAR and this time at a track he knows quite well. Trackhouse Entertainment Group announced a few weeks ago that 2007 Formula One World Champion Kimi Räikkönen will return to the NASCAR Cup Series on March 26 at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas to race PROJECT91’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. 

Trackhouse Owner and Founder Justin Marks created PROJECT91 last year intent on expanding the organization’s global reach by fielding a Cup Series entry for renowned international racing drivers. 

“When we announced Kimi last year I said he was the global superstar I had in mind when we created PROJECT91. I think you saw the fan reception across the world and Kimi’s performance in the car was proof of the concept. Kimi’s following is massive and it’s great for NASCAR, Trackhouse plus I think Kimi really enjoys our racing.”

Räikkönen will race the No. 91 Onx/iLOQ Chevrolet Camaro at COTA fielded by a Trackhouse crew led by 23-time wining crew chief Darian Grubb who won a Cup Series title with Tony Stewart in 2011. 

When Raikkonen made his NASCAR debut last summer, it was all new to him. New track (Watkins Glen), new team (Trackhouse) new car (NASCAR Cup Series). There was a lot working against him. Now, he will have more familiarity this time around.

Same team (Trackhouse), same car (No. 91 Chevrolet), familiar track (COTA).

Unlike the Watkins Glen track, Räikkönen is familiar with COTA, racing on the road course eight times during his Formula One career. One of Räikkönen’s 21 Formula One victories, and most recent, came at COTA on Oct. 21, 2018, when he led 39 laps on his way to victory driving a Ferrari.

“I had a fantastic time in NASCAR,” said Räikkönen. “There was a lot to learn in a very short amount of time, but everyone was very helpful, the competition was a big challenge. This time I get to race on a track I am familiar with so there won’t be as steep of a learning curve. I want to have fun, but also do as well as we can.”

I truly think Raikkonen has a chance to win Sunday’s race. He’s won here before. The team (Trackhouse) won here last year. Plus, in his NASCAR Cup Series debut, Raikkonen made it all the way up to the top 10 before being an innocent bystander in a midrace crash.

He’ll have some road racing aces with him in the field.

A decade or so ago, it was common to see road course ringers leave their marks on the Cup Series. Ron Fellows, Boris Said, etc would show up at the two annual stops in Sonoma and Watkins Glen. With the importance placed on these races as the years went by, the Cup Series regulars upped their games at these places. They had to. As a result, it phased out those ringers.

Now, with this new car, the ringers are back.

Raikkonen will be joined by Jenson Button, Jordan Taylor and Conor Daly who will all be competing this weekend in COTA. Button in the No. 15 Ford for Rick Ware Racing, Taylor in Chase Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet and Daly with The Money Team’s No. 50 Chevrolet.

Daly has some history here but the team needs to truly up their game if they want to compete for a top 20. The driver can, but will the car allow for it.

In terms of Taylor, a 24-time IMSA winner, he’s never raced a NASCAR before so his expectations are hard to figure out. He has sports car talent, but how much of that will translate over to this car?

This is an opposite scenario as the one for Daly and The Money Team. This car has race winning potential. Does the driver?

Heading into last season, Hendrick Motorsports had won 9 of the last 11 road course races including a 1-2 finish on this very track. They also went 1-2 in Sonoma, 1-2 in Watkins Glen and 3-4 in Indy just two years ago Chase Elliott had won six of the last 11 road course races in general with the only four that he didn’t win being the February 2021 race in Daytona when he led the most laps but was screwed for a caution being displayed for rain in which he was going to cruise to an easy victory. The other was a runner-up in Sonoma and Watkins Glen as well at Indianapolis to where he had a top two car that day before the last race chaos.

Last year, Elliott didn’t win on them, but he was stout. Taylor gets handed over the keys to this ride. What can he do it in?

Button is essentially in a 5th Stewart-Haas Racing car which is a ride that had a top-10 finish in Riley Herbst’s Cup debut in February’s Daytona 500.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 27: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Llumar Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Echopark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 27, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Hendrick Motorsports

Sunday marks the first road course race of the season. If you base stats/trends off of the past few years as a whole, this would be Hendrick Motorsports’ to lose. They went 1-2 here in 2021 and entering last season, had combined to have won 9 of the last 11 road course races in general.

Then came the new car last season.

They all said that this new car will greatly improve the road course racing because this car has an emphasis on left and right hand turns. It changes everything. So, did that change HMS’ dominance?

It absolutely did. They went 1-for-6 while Trackhouse won twice, RCR twice and JGR once.

Kyle Larson finished 29-15-3-35-1-35 on them last year. On those same tracks in 2021, he went 2-1-16-3-1-1.

Chase Elliott was 4-8-2-16-4-20 a year ago. The year prior, he was 1-2-1-4-2-12.

Elliott had won six of the last 11 road course races in general entering last season with the only four that he didn’t win being the February race in Daytona to where he led the most laps but was screwed for a caution being displayed for rain in which he was going to cruise to an easy victory. The other was a runner-up in Sonoma and Watkins Glen as well at Indianapolis to where he had a top two car that day before the last race chaos. Kyle Larson won 3 of the 7 road course races himself in 2021.

They went 1-2 in COTA, 1-2 in Sonoma, 1-2 in Watkins Glen and 3-4 in Indy for that 2021 season.

The Next Gen took away those advantages. Now, with a year of learning, plus a rules package update, do those changes help HMS get back to the front again?

Elliott isn’t here this weekend while Jordan Taylor fills in for him as he’ll make his NASCAR debut. That’s a tough ask for him to win in this car.

Larson struggled here last year. Alex Bowman looked strong, but William Byron had no top 10’s at COTA and had no top fives on road courses a year ago in general.

The thing is, they’ve been dominant so far this season however.

HMS went 1-2 in both stages in 2 of the last 3 weeks and taken home two wins as well. They’ve also combined to have led 506 of the last 839 laps (60%) run the last three weeks.

Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick

Both Toyota drivers are surging. We know the Toyota package wasn’t great last year on road courses, however, Bell won the ROVAL and Reddick won at both Road America and Indianapolis. In fact, he was in the top three on the final lap here last year. Combined, they won 3 of the final 4 road course races in 2022.

Now, Reddick is in Toyota power. Does that cost him?

Bell has four Top-6 finishes in five starts this season. Reddick has a pair of top 5’s in the last two weeks.

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