NASCAR viewer’s guide: Circuit of the Americas

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The Next Gen car makes its official road course debut at Circuit of the Americas on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Five races at five unique tracks have provided five different winners, a list most recently dotted by William Byron, who won at Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend.

The inaugural Cup Series race in Austin, Texas was run in sopping wet conditions in May 2021. This weekend’s forecast is vastly different and should make for a more accurate test of Cup drivers’ ability around the 3.41-mile, 20-turn course than a year ago.

How will the Next Gen perform on a road course?

By all accounts, the newest generation of car in the Cup Series is meant to handle much better on road courses than its predecessor.

With rack-and-pinion steering now in play along with independent rear suspensions — both of which contrast from all previous iterations of NASCAR vehicles — drivers expect a completely different feel around COTA.

“This car is absolutely designed more for a road-course race type situation,” Aric Almirola said in a press release. “It’s a more symmetrical car. Our cars used to be offset, and they were more designed to go just left-hand only, so it was more of a big deal to swap over to go road racing. Now, these cars are more symmetrical. So because of that, it is more specifically designed to go left and right, which suits it very well for road racing.

“The car is a very capable car. It handles well, it brakes very well. It’s got much bigger brakes than what we used to have on the old car, so it stops way better and the brake zones are way more compressed. It is a little bit more thrilling of a car to drive on the road courses.”

That agility was something most drivers were able to experience in a two-day test session at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval in October. During that test, Byron noted what sort of difference the brakes could make in passing zones.

“With this (Next Gen) car, it’s just go as fast as you can into that braking zone, be as aggressive as you can, get the downshifts done whenever you have time to,” Byron said. “It’s going to make for a lot more aggressive passing because I think guys are going to dive-bomb. If you’re close to a guy you’re, obviously, going to try to out-brake him.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ dominance continues

The new car has brought many new faces to the front of the field, including but not limited to Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick and Ross Chastain. But the powerhouse that is Hendrick Motorsports still reigns supreme.

Byron’s Atlanta victory is Hendrick’s third win in five races this season, leaving Chase Elliott as the lone winless driver in the four-car stable. Kyle Larson went to Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway and Alex Bowman won at Las Vegas.

In all, HMS has won eight of the last 11 races. The only three outliers in that span were first-time winners Bubba Wallace (Talladega, October 2021), Cindric (Daytona 500) and Briscoe (Phoenix).

Larson (three) and Elliott (two) combined to win five of the seven road-course races on the schedule in 2021, and the organization has won nine of the past 11 such events. Elliott, who has won seven of his 19 starts on road courses, was the winner at COTA in its inaugural event a season ago and Larson finished second. The Next Gen may change some things, but expect members of the Hendrick foursome to be in the mix for the win.

Kurt Busch on the rise

Not only has Kurt Busch snuck his way into two consecutive top-five finishes (fifth at Phoenix, third at Atlanta); he’s also notched the best average finish in the series after five races at 9.6.

His high finishes come as the whole of Toyota struggles. Joe Gibbs Racing has earned only one top-five finish among its four drivers this season, scored by Kyle Busch‘s fourth-place effort in Las Vegas. Two of JGR’s drivers sit outside the top 25 in points — Denny Hamlin (26th) and Christopher Bell (30th).

Kurt Busch has yet to show significant, consistent bursts of speed to make the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing feel like a threat to win. On average, NASCAR’s loop data statistics show Busch has generally run toward the back-half of the top 20 through the majority of the race.

But his finishes are carrying the team — and the manufacturer — forward, sitting fifth in points as the highest Toyota in the standings.

Champions’ downturn

As a whole, past Cup champions are off to a slow start in 2022.

Of the eight active title winners competing, Larson is the only one to have won a race this year. In total, the past champions — Larson, Elliott, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch — have combined for six top fives (of a possible 25) and 19 top 10s (of a possible 50).

The season is young, and the notebook on the Next Gen car is small. But perhaps the historic parity on display this season is in part thanks to drivers’ collective inexperience, taking away the advantages of long-time veterans who spent decades driving the previous generation’s style of cars.

Entry list

As the new car harkens features from the sports-car world, familiar names from other road-racing disciplines can be found scattered across the Cup Series’ 39-car entry list for COTA.

AJ Allmendinger, who won the Cup Series’ inaugural race on the Indianapolis road course last year, is back behind the wheel of the No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. Andy Lally, the 2011 Rookie of the Year, will pilot Live Fast Motorsports’ No. 78 Ford. Kaz Grala finished seventh in his Cup debut at the Daytona road course in 2020 and returns to wheel the No. 50 Chevrolet for The Money Team Racing, owned by famed boxed Floyd Mayweather.

Other road racers in Sunday’s field include Joey Hand (No. 15 Ford), Boris Said (No. 66 Ford) and Loris Hezemans (No. 27 Ford).

Forty-three cars are on the Xfinity Series entry list. Auto Club winner and Cup regular Cole Custer returns to the No. 07 Ford for SS Green Light Racing, while Parker Chase, a Texas native, makes his Xfinity debut in the No. 26 Toyota for Sam Hunt Racing. Bubba Wallace will pilot the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Miguel Paludo will attempt to make his season debut for JR Motorsports in the No. 88 Chevrolet. Five cars will fail to qualify.

Forty trucks make up the entry list for Camping World Truck Series. Alex Bowman will make his first series start since 2017 driving the No. 7 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports. Kyle Busch will drive his No. 51 Toyota, and NBC Sports broadcaster Parker Kligerman returns for his first race since the season opener at Daytona in the No. 75 Chevrolet. Four trucks will fail to qualify.

NASCAR Cup Series Entry List — Circuit of the Americas

NASCAR Xfinity Series Entry List — Circuit of the Americas

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Entry List — Circuit of the Americas

Qualifying order

Road-course practice and qualifying procedures take on a new form in 2022.

Cup Series teams will have a 20-minute practice session and will practice in two separate groups — Group A and Group B — based on a calculated metric that factors results and fastest laps from the previous week in addition to points position. Those groups will then prepare for qualifying, with each group receiving one 15-minute timed session. The five fastest drivers from each group will advance into the second round of qualifying, a 10-minute timed session in which the fastest lap earns the pole.

Xfinity and Truck series teams will each get a 20-minute practice session for all entries, but their qualifying sessions will mirror the Cup procedures. Groups A and B will qualify in separate 15-minute sessions, and the top five from each group advance to the next round to compete for the pole.

NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying Order — Circuit of the Americas

NASCAR Xfinity Series Qualifying Order — Circuit of the Americas

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Qualifying Order — Circuit of the Americas

This weekend’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, March 25

Forecast: Sunny, high of 83 degrees, low of 48 degrees

  • 3 – 3:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)
  • 5 -5:30 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, March 26

Forecast: Sunny, high of 84 degrees, low of 54 degrees

  • 10 – 11 a.m.  — Cup practice (FS1)
  • 11 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1)
  • 1 p.m. — Truck race (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 27

Forecast: Partly cloudy, high of 87 degrees, low of 57degrees

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”