Key storylines for Road America

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Road America is not new to the NASCAR Cup Series landscape, although you’ll be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

The 4-mile road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin hosted its lone Cup race on Aug. 12, 1956. Tim Flock won out over a field that included many of stock car racing’s important pioneers, including Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson.

Less than 10,000 fans attended that weekend. Back then, NASCAR was a primarily Southern tradition.

Nearly 65 years later, as the sport’s premier division returns to the Wisconsin woods, it has become something much bigger.

Naturally, a much bigger crowd will be watching – both at the track and at home on NBC (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET).

Kings of the road

Kyle Busch snapped Hendrick Motorsports’ six-race win streak in last Sunday’s fuel duel at Pocono. But as Busch himself admitted, the Hendrick cars were still faster.

That performance has been especially pronounced on road courses. Hendrick has won six of the last seven road course races dating back to the 2019 race at Watkins Glen.

Reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott has five of those wins, including his lone victory of 2021 in the rain-shortened inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas.

Teammate Kyle Larson swept both stages and won in overtime in the most recent road course race at Sonoma Raceway earlier this month.

Alex Bowman, who won last Saturday’s race at Pocono after Larson blew a tire while leading on the final lap, hasn’t been bad on road courses, either. He’s posted top-10 finishes in his last four road course races.

The only Hendrick driver who hasn’t excelled on road courses this season is William Byron. While his 14 top-10 finishes are tied with Larson and Kevin Harvick for most in Cup, none have come on a road course. He’s finished 33rd at Daytona, 11th at COTA, and crashed out at Sonoma.

A winding path to the playoffs

Road America is the first of three road course races in the final seven races of the Cup regular season.

The series will return from the Olympic break with back-to-back road course races on Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen and Aug. 15 at Indianapolis, the latter being a new layout for Cup.

Those plus the Aug. 28 regular season finale on the oval at Daytona provide ample opportunities for someone outside the playoff cutline to change the post-season picture entirely with a victory.

Entering Road America, Kurt Busch holds the 16th and final playoff position by three points over Chris Buescher. Daniel Suarez (-48 behind Busch), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-54 behind Busch) and Bubba Wallace (-54 behind Busch) follow in 18th, 19th, and 20th in the playoff standings.

All five of those drivers have at least one top-10 finish in Xfinity competition at Road America. Suarez has the best finish of the group, placing fourth in the 2016 Xfinity race on his way to that year’s series title.

Behind them in the standings are Matt DiBenedetto in 21st (-60 behind Busch) and Ross Chastain in 22nd (-72 behind Busch).

Pocono was not kind to either. DiBenedetto finished 32nd and 18th in the doubleheader, while Chastain finished 33rd and 26th.

DiBenedetto has finished 18th or worse in the last eight races. Chastain’s momentum was zapped last weekend. Both need a big result Sunday.

Getting the reps

Back to the aforementioned Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. The two former Cup champions have never competed at Road America in any series.

As such, they’ll be double-dipping this weekend. In addition to Sunday’s Cup race, they’ll also run Saturday’s Xfinity Series race (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

Busch has been a perfect three-for-three in Xfinity competition this season. In his most recent Xfinity start, he claimed his 100th series win on June 19 at Nashville Superspeedway.

He’ll be back in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, leading a five-car JGR armada for Saturday. Along with Busch and Xfinity regulars Daniel Hemric, Harrison Burton and Brandon Jones, Ty Gibbs will drive a fifth JGR entry, the No. 81.

“Being able to come to a new track – when everything was announced that we were coming here – I wanted to run there as much as I could,” Busch said earlier this week.

“We were able to work it out so both myself and Ty (Gibbs) can run here, as well, so I think it’s beneficial for both of us. He loves road racing, too.

“It was kind of a perfect scenario – being able to get in the Xfinity Series and be able to practice in both of those races. I’m hoping it will be a really good weekend for us.”

As for Harvick, he’ll drive the No. 99 Ford for B.J. McLeod Motorsports in Saturday’s Xfinity race. Harvick ran a McLeod entry for the Xfinity race at COTA, finishing fourth.

“I’m a huge visual person,” Harvick said earlier this week. “The experience I have in going to these racetracks for a long time – I can tell you every crack, every curve and every marker on the wall, and those are the things I want to have embedded in my mind before we get to Sunday.

“I want to make sure we’ve hit most of the curbs and know where you can take a risk making a pass and where to make time and how to get on and off pit road in a live situation, because the practices are short.

“The Xfinity car is going to be the best tool, and just being able to make laps is the most important thing.”