Drivers to watch for the NASCAR Cup Series race at COTA

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NASCAR hits its first of six road course races this season with a trip to Circuit of the Americas.

Last year’s inaugural Cup race in Austin, Texas, was marred by torrential rain that shortened the race.

With a much drier forecast ahead coupled with the Next Gen’s road course debut, which drivers will be in the mix for the win on Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox)?

FRONT RUNNERS

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: First
  • Last three races: Ninth — Las Vegas; 11th — Phoenix; Sixth — Atlanta
  • Recent at COTA: Won inaugural Cup race in May 2021

Elliott is NASCAR’s current road course ace, and although teammate Kyle Larson is trying, no one else in the series is even close. Elliott won Cup’s lone trip to Austin a year ago, nabbing one of seven career road course wins in 19 such starts. In other words, the 2020 series champion has an outstanding 36.8% win rate on road courses throughout his Cup career.

Also noteworthy is that each of Elliott’s last two victories came on road courses — COTA and Road America. Despite being Hendrick Motorsports’ only driver without a win this year, Elliott is the series’ points leader and enters Austin fresh off his best finish of the season.

With Elliott building a streak of consistency, COTA might be the perfect track for the No. 9 team to rekindle its magic and get back to Victory Lane.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 10th
  • Last three races: Third — Las Vegas; Second — Phoenix; Second — Atlanta
  • Recent at COTA: Finished fourth in May 2021

Chastain is on an incredible hot streak of three straight finishes inside the top three. And while the Trackhouse Racing driver may not be the first name you think of on a road course, Chastain wheeled the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to a fourth-place finish last year and led four laps in the inaugural event.

Of course, the track was drenched in rain a season ago, and this weekend’s forecast looks bone dry. Factored with a new car, it’s difficult to say definitively whether Chastain will be able to translate last year’s drive into something as productive — or better — on Sunday.

Regardless, Chastain proved to be a formidable contender when right turns were presented in 2021, with finishes of seventh at Sonoma and Road America and 12th at Watkins Glen.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: N/A
  • Last Cup race: 20th — Phoenix
  • Recent at COTA: Finished fifth in May 2021

Last summer, Allmendinger proved loud and clear that he’s still capable of winning in the Cup Series with his triumph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

COTA was no exception either. With a top five in his inaugural run at the 3.41-mile course, Allmendinger was in contention through much of the event.

Allmendinger has two career Cup wins on road courses and six in Xfinity (three at the Charlotte Roval, two at Mid-Ohio and one at Road America). The No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing will be toward the front again this weekend in Austin.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 12th
  • Last three races: Second — Las Vegas; 34th — Phoenix; 30th — Atlanta
  • Recent at COTA: Finished second in May 2021

Depending on your perspective, Larson’s season has either been phenomenal or disconcerting. The defending champion celebrated a win at Auto Club Speedway and followed that with a runner-up finish at Las Vegas the next week.

But the three races surrounding those have resulted in finishes outside the top 30 — two due to crashes and one due to an engine failure.

The good news for the No. 5 team is that Larson won three road races a season ago (Sonoma, Watkins Glen and the Roval) and was hunting Elliott for the win at COTA before the race was cut 14 laps short for rain. Larson, his team and fans should hope this weekend goes the way of Auto Club rather than Atlanta.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: Seventh — Las Vegas; Third — Phoenix; 28th — Atlanta
  • Recent at COTA: Finished ninth in May 2021

For weeks, the conversation surrounding Tyler Reddick has centered around one idea: He will win at some point this season. The question remains when.

Reddick was leading in Atlanta when a right rear tire went flat in front of the field and triggered a multi-car crash. Reddick has proven to be a decent road course racer with one top five and four top 10s in nine such starts.

One of those top 10s came last season at COTA, where he earned the pole position and overcame a spin at Lap 40 to rally back to ninth place. Perhaps the dry conditions expected this weekend will play into the No. 8 team’s hands.

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 19th — Las Vegas; 24th — Phoenix; 32nd — Atlanta
  • Recent at COTA: Finished 25th in May 2021

If any of Cindric’s seven Cup starts in 2021 signified he was ready to compete with the sport’s best, Circuit of the Americas was the one.

After qualifying third, Cindric started the race on slick tires and quickly charged to the lead. While others quickly opted for rain tires, Cindric pulled away to a 6½-second lead over the first five laps in wet conditions, muscling the No. 33 Ford through the 20-turn course before finally pitting.

His 25th-place finish wasn’t indicative of his performance — Cindric averaged a sixth-best 10.37 running position that day — but his fellow competitors knew he was there.

Cindric’s hot start, highlighted by winning the Daytona 500 and Auto Club pole, has cooled considerably with three straight finishes outside the top 15. A road course may be his best threat to get back on track.