In my only trip to Circuit of the Americas, to cover the NTT IndyCar Series race in 2019, I must admit I didn’t come away thinking that place would be perfect for NASCAR.
But I do remember watching a support series that weekend, the Mazda MX-5 Cup, and being amazed how perfect COTA is for a spec series. The racing was door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper and three/four/five-wide at certain places on the track.
Which spawned this thought when NASCAR’s NextGen package was introduced: If those spec Mazdas could create high drama at the spectacular facility in Austin, Texas, could the new NextGen car be a natural at COTA? NASCAR raced last year at the track, but the impact was muffled because rain caused an early end to the race.
This year, we’d already seen how the NextGen car performed in the first six races (including the exhibition at the LA Coliseum), and how the package and a talent-laden field of teams and drivers could create drama that often wasn’t settled until the last lap.
They didn’t disappoint on Sunday at COTA in the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix, on what essentially was a 3.41-mile, 20-turn short track for these NASCAR drivers.
Ross Chastain kept his cool under the pressure of multiple restarts in the last 23 laps, then used as much muscle as he did finesse on the final lap – OK, maybe more muscle in the final corners — to win his first NASCAR Cup Series race. On a green-white-checker restart, Chastain lost the lead, regained it, lost it again after a nudge from A.J. Allmendinger, then regained it for good when he shouldered Allmendinger off-line on the next-to-last turn to win the race.
It was a marvelous moment for Chastain, a 29-year-old who showed his strength throughout the race, not only on the last lap. He led 31 of the 69 laps and endured five-wide restarts in the late stages of the event.
Besides Chastain, the Trackhouse Racing team showed that despite being a newcomer to the series, it can easily rumble with the big boys. Trackhouse, co-owned by Justin Marks and rapper Pitbull, bought Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR assets in the offseason and added Chastain to its driver lineup, joining Daniel Suarez, who drove for Trackhouse last year. Suarez led the first 15 laps and won the first stage Sunday before a tire issue and mechanical problems left him 24th.
If that doesn’t speak to parity in the series, consider the guys who’ve won this season – six different drivers, all younger than 30 years old. Austin Cindric (23) won the Daytona 500, defending Cup champion Kyle Larson (29) won at Fontana, Alex Bowman (28) at Las Vegas, Chase Briscoe (27) at Phoenix, William Byron (24) at Atlanta and now Chastain.
You’ve got to look way back to the opening exhibition race where a cagy veteran, 31-year-old Joey Logano, won the Clash at the LA Coliseum. Maybe it’s early to say this is a changing of the guard in NASCAR’s top series, but it definitely comes to mind. The kids are coming to race, as Chastain, Briscoe, Bowman and Tyler Reddick showed when they each led at some point in the closing laps.
I’m not sure the quarter-mile track at the LA Coliseum had as much pushing, shoving and, with the race on the line, elbowing out of the way as Sunday’s race at COTA. The course features a long main straight, sweeping high-speed esses and another long back straight, all leading to slow-speed left-hand corners that make for dive-bomb pass attempts and, as we saw Sunday, full-contact racing.
Now, I’m not a big fan of blocking and hip-checking to gain positions and win a race, but that’s the NASCAR we have these days. And I’ll admit, it creates high drama. You shouldn’t dare look away, especially in the final laps.
NASCAR on a road course is good entertainment.
When the Cup cars first raced at COTA in 2021, we didn’t get the full effect because it rained during most of the race. There were three-wide restarts and tight racing, but the race ended 14 laps short of its intended distance. The only contact that winner Chase Elliott endured at the end was from high-fives and fist bumps with his team.
The weather Sunday was ideal, and so was the combination of COTA and NASCAR.
Follow Kirby Arnold on Twitter @KirbyArnold