In many ways the addition of road course experts such as Formula One champions Jenson Button and Kimi Räikkönen and a sports car champ like Jordan Taylor to Sunday’s NASCAR grid seems appropriate as the NASCAR Cup Series continues its 75th Anniversary season at one of the country’s premier road course facilities, Circuit of The Americas (COTA).
While ovals certainly dominated the sport’s earliest schedules, stock car racing has become a big-time player on some of the most historic and important road course facilities in America. And what the 11-year-old COTA track may lack in pure historical age, it certainly makes up for in modern-day acclaim.
That’s why so many renowned drivers from other series – such as Button, Räikkönen, Taylor and IndyCar regular Conor Daly – are eager to earn a position on the starting grid and test themselves against NASCAR’s very best in Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). And the NASCAR Cup Series drivers – which will include seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson this week too - are ready for the challenge.
The second NASCAR-sanctioned race of the inaugural 1949 season was run on a road course – a 4.150-mile circuit right on Daytona Beach.
For much of its early existence, however, NASCAR was purposely and predominantly an oval show. But the Modern Era – beginning in 1972 – brought changes to the season schedule that included not only a long-established race at California’s Riverside International Raceway but eventually new venues at Northern California’s, Sonoma Raceway and the historic Watkins Glen International in upstate New York. Today there are six road or street course venues on the schedule.
The famed Riverside track in California – a 2.62-mile track that produced some of the most memorable races in the sport’s history; hosted the NASCAR Cup Series from 1958 to 1988 before closing down in 1989.
The list of Riverside winners is a racing ‘Who’s Who’ from the late Dan Gurney, who won five races – including three in a row from 1964-66 – to Parnelli Jones, the 1967 winner and A.J. Foyt, who took the 1970 trophy. NASCAR’s “King” Richard Petty and fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, each won five times at Riverside and the late Tim Richmond owned four trophies.
California’s Sonoma Raceway picked up where Riverside left off, hosting its first NASCAR Cup Series race in 1989 with Ricky Rudd hoisting the first trophy. This summer marks the 33rd edition of the Sonoma race – a venue where native Californian, NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon holds the win record of five and Trackhouse Racing driver Daniel Suarez earned his first ever NASCAR Cup Series victory last summer.
After races in 1957, ‘64 and ‘65, Watkins Glen started hosting NASCAR Cup Series races regularly in 1988 – that event won by the late Tim Richmond. NASCAR Hall of Famer, Tony Stewart would go on to establish the all-time Watkins Glen wins record with five trophies. Kyle Larson, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion, is the two-time defending race winner.
These original races proved that NASCAR competitors and their audience loved the unique challenge of road course races scattered into the schedule. And in recent years, NASCAR has rewarded that fondness by increasing the number available. This weekend’s grand prix at COTA is the first of six on the 2023 schedule that will also include the highly-anticipated July 2 debut of a downtown street course along the downtown Chicago waterfront.
Each of these 2023 venues – Circuit of The Americas, Sonoma Raceway (June 11), Chicago Street Course (July 2), Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen International (Aug. 20), Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL (Aug. 8) - has produced memorable moments, dramatic finishes and won over even the most hardened of oval-traditionalists.
And the drivers on the grid represent both non-regulars who have taken a real interest in NASCAR road course competition, where the entire grid of fulltime drivers showcases their road racing talent and focus; racing door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper through every turn and twist.
Three current NASCAR Cup Series tracks, COTA (2012-present), Watkins Glen International (1961-80) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (2000-2007) all hosted Formula One grand prix.
Räikkönen, who will drive the No. 91 Project91 Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing has raced at both Indianapolis and COTA – scoring his last win in F1 at COTA in 2018. Button, has raced at both Indy and Austin venues as well, earning his best Austin finish (fifth) in the 2012 inaugural race. Taylor is a two-time winner at COTA – from pole position – in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series.
Yet for all their experience and success, these drivers fully concede the bar this weekend is set by the NASCAR Cup Series regulars who have all worked on their road course acumen.
Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain returns to Austin as the defending race winner. Taylor will be driving the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that injured racer Chase Elliott drove to victory in NASCAR’s first event at COTA in 2021.
“Obviously, it’s helpful that I know the track,” Räikkönen said. “Now the F1 car and a NASCAR Cup car are slightly different (smiling) in how they feel when you go around it.
“Last year was a great experience,” said Räikkönen, who competed at Watkins Glen. “Unfortunately, the result (37th) wasn’t what we were looking for because we got caught up in a wreck, but that’s part of racing. I am excited to have another go and hopefully we will stay out of any big issues. This will be tricky for sure, but the further we go in the weekend the easier it gets. At least I have an idea of how we can approach the weekend. I think we did a good job last year. Is the car going to give us a better result? I don’t know, I hope so.”
The NASCAR Cup Series drivers are certainly ready for the test.
“COTA is a place that’s pretty fun for us," said four-time road course winner Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “I’m looking forward to the extra track time on Friday and get a chance to work on it overnight and see what we have for Saturday and Sunday.
“We’ve learned so much over the last year about this car and what it likes and what it doesn’t, so hoping we can come with a lot more knowledge than we had this time last year and get the car where we need it to have a shot to win and run up front all day long. Looking forward this this weekend with our Bass Pro Shops Toyota team.”