Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN) will be the 3rd ever NASCAR Cup Series race at the Circuit of The Americas. 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.
With this said, until we get on track, no one truly knows if they made gains or losses from last year or not. Chevrolet was the top team on road courses with taking 5 of the 6 wins on them. Toyota, despite their ROVAL win in October, struggled mightily on them and were the worst of the three manufacturers. Do these changes help them close the gap?
Chevrolet had won all but one road course race in 2022 and the final 6 of 2021 for 11 wins in the last 12 tries on these tracks. Factor in the 2019 race at Watkins Glen (2 races in 2019) and the 2 races (Daytona, Charlotte) in 2020 and you get Chevy scoring 15 wins in the last 17 road course races in general. Does this rule change affect them in the same sense as Toyota?
The road courses a year ago for the Toyota camp were dismal. Yes, changes have been made to the package, but will it help them? I struggle to think that it will help them make such a drastic leap from where they were a year ago. Martin Truex Jr finished 7th, 26th, 13th, 21st, 23rd and 17th in the 6 races on them. Denny Hamlin was 18th, 31st, 17th, 14th, 20th and 13th. Kyle Busch was 28th, 30th, 29th, 11th, 32nd and third. Christopher Bell being 3rd, 27th, 18th, 12th, 8th and first. 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.
Still, for Bell, he won the ROVAL and has four Top-6 finishes in five starts this season. New Toyota driver, Tyler Reddick, won at both Road America and Indianapolis last year with RCR. In fact, he was in the top three on the final lap here a year ago too. Reddick has a pair of top five finishes in each of the last two weeks.
Combined, he and Bell won 3 of the final 4 road course races in 2022.
On the flipside, Trackhouse Racing won the first two road course races a year ago. They combined to sweep the two of the three stages here last year with Suarez leading all the laps in Stage 1 and Chastain leading all 31 of his laps in the final stage. Chastain earned his first career win in that race a year ago as well. Suarez won his first career race on the next road course of last season in Sonoma.
However, they’ve since slid backwards after a strong start to the season.
They locked up both of their drivers long-term and they rewarded that stability with Dual Top 10 finishes in both Daytona and Fontana. In fact, through the first four stages run of the season, Ross Chastain had won three of them.
They were both strong in Vegas, Phoenix and Atlanta last year so I expected them to be a race winner by now. Unfortunately, they’re each sliding backwards.
Chastain’s last three finishes have been 12th, 24th and 13th respectively. He’s led six combined laps in this span. Last year in Atlanta, he finished runner-up in both races.
Suarez finished 10th, 22nd and 29th respectively in the same three races with no laps led himself in either of the three races. He was caught speeding twice in Phoenix and was caught up in a crash in Atlanta.
Can both turn this back around in COTA?
Speaking of a turnaround, can Hendrick Motorsports?
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.
Does the removal of stage cautions help them? That’s the other change this weekend as NASCAR has elected to keep the stages but remove the caution period for them.
The thing is, I truly think that it’s 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 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.
That’s something drivers like Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Jordan Taylor and Conor Daly aren’t used to anyways. Raikkonen and Button are on the same entry-list for the first time in years. The last time was in F1. Taylor makes his NASCAR debut while Daly is back with The Money Team.
You also have Jimmie Johnson making his return to NASCAR’s road racing for the first time since the 2020 Charlotte ROVAL.
Mix all this together and you get a highly anticipated event.