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

Tyler Reddick/Christopher Bell

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?

So far, no.

Reddick was quickest in practice on Friday, broke the track record on Saturday and will roll off on the front row (2nd place) on Sunday. He’s been the top driver here this weekend so far.

“Our car was really, really strong,” Reddick said. “We came here and had the tire test in January and knew we had some promise from where our car was, but we definitely wanted to be better. So, everyone was just really inspired and worked really hard on our Monster Energy Toyota Camry TRD to make some gains.

“I kind of got under the weather at a really bad time last week and it made it difficult to work on the car and do some of the things we wanted to do. The guys kept working on it and yesterday, finally got to get in simulator and see the speed we had. It was really great to see the speed this car has.

“Just a great group effort by everybody putting our minds together and it really showed. … Great to know our car had that much pace potential in it.”

Bell has four Top-6 finishes in five starts this season. He will roll off 14th on Sunday afternoon.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 25: William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 25, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)


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. However, how much does this new lower downforce package affect their advantage?

Right now, it’s showing not much.

Chevrolet scored the pole and despite each manufacturer being represented in the top three of the starting lineup, 8 of the top 10 starters for Sunday’s race drive bowties.

Chevrolet also had 4 of the top 5 speeds in practice on Friday too.

The Toyota’s may be the next best manufacturer though. Toyota’s struggled last year on road courses, but this time, it appears that it may be the Ford’s that are lacking. Austin Cindric (3rd) is the only Ford driver in the top 7 Rows on Sunday. In fact, they have just three of the top 18 starters.

For Toyota, 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?

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 25: William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, poses for photos after winning the pole award during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 25, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Hendrick Motorsports Finding Their Form Again?

William Byron is on the pole. Jordan Taylor starts fourth. With Alex Bowman in 6th, that’s half of the top six starters for Sunday’s race belonging to Hendrick Motorsports.

Kyle Larson was second quickest in practice on Friday and will start 13th in his No. 5 Chevrolet. Can HMS get back to victory lane on a road course?

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.

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. Taylor was in the top 10 in practice on Friday and qualified fourth.

Larson struggled here last year but looks vastly better this time around. 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 too.

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.

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.

However, this could make Sunday’s race a physical one. There’s not many walls to hit here and if this ends up being the case, there’s a real possibility that this race could go caution free. With a physical track, the heat and not rest, Sunday could be a survival of the fittest.

“A handful of years ago, that’s how it was,” Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney said of the elimination of stage breaks. “It’s just [about] pitting the race backwards and this is something we’ve been talking about for a year or so, NASCAR and the drivers. Stage breaks at road courses can just jumble the field up so much it gets messy.”

“I think it’s going to clean it up a bit,” Blaney continued. “I think it’s right for road courses personally. We’ll find out. I had no preference either way, honestly, but I think it’s going to be a better with more strategy involved in the race calling.”

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin said he has some concerns about doing away with the stage breaks and is eager to see how it will play out this weekend. He said he expected the race to be more physically challenging without the scheduled opportunity to pit and noted he planned to make a real effort to stay hydrated – anticipating it to be tougher physically overall for drivers – especially at the demanding 20-turn COTA track.

“I think this thing has the potential of really getting strung out, a lot” Hamlin said. “If we do, I don’t want to hear any complaining because that’s the potential. … this will make for more strategy though.”

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 Sunday’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?

So far so good. He’ll start fourth.

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.

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