All of Alex Bowman’s wins in the NASCAR Cup Series have been on ovals. After his fourth career victory last Sunday at Dover, Bowman described himself on Twitter as a “good looking variety pack of left turns.”
The only problem for Bowman is that he’ll have to make both left and right turns — 1,360 total — when the series races at Circuit of the Americas for the first time. The Cup race at the paved road course in Austin, Texas is this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. EST on FS1.
Teams and drivers are preparing for the unknown at the track that will host Formula 1 in the fall. The race is 231 miles (68 laps) with stages ending on laps 15, 32 and 68. Here’s what else to know about Circuit of the Americas, also known as COTA.
NASCAR practice, qualifying are back this weekend
Because COTA is new to the NASCAR schedule, there will be practice and qualifying sessions before the race to allow teams to get familiar with the course. This is the third of eight races with practice and qualifying; The other races are the Daytona 500, the Bristol dirt race, the Coca-Cola 600, Nashville, Road America, Indy road course and the championship race at Phoenix.
The Cup Series will have a 50-minute practice session on Saturday (10 a.m. on FS2) and qualifying on Sunday (11 a.m. on FS1). Qualifying will consist of two rounds: A 25-minute first round and a 10-minute final round for the top-12 drivers who post the fastest single lap speed. Drivers out of the top-12 will be assigned their position based on their fastest single lap speed from the first qualifying round. The drivers advancing to the round of 12 will have their speed reset before the final round.
Teams are anticipating making just minor adjustments during the 50-minute practice session and many drivers have already spent weeks on their sim rigs to help learn an unfamiliar course.
“It’s pretty crucial to unload with your starting setup close,” No. 21 driver Matt DiBenedetto said of the quick, 50-minute practice session.
Turn 1 at COTA has teams nervous
Road course ringer A.J. Allmendinger will run in both the Xfinity and Cup Series races for Kaulig this weekend, and said that he anticipates “chaos” in Turn 1.
“You are literally just climbing a hill staring at the sky,” Allmendinger said of the 133-foot incline that cuts a sharp left at the top.
“It’s a hairpin, first gear corner, so I think you’re going to see some lunges,” Allmendinger said. “I think probably to start the race everybody, I hope, will be a little bit calm, but I promise you late-race restarts, people are going to be sending it.”
Allmendinger said that he expects drivers will miss their brake markers and fans will see “a lot of action in Turn 1.” No. 3 driver Austin Dillon predicted that outside lane to check up if a driver misses Turn 1 on the bottom.
“Having a balance for all that is going on, it’s going to be tough,” Dillon said. “You’re going to see guys that really excel in certain corners and struggle in others.”
Pit road speeding penalties
Given the many turns, drivers will have to balance the fast sections of the track and the slow-speed corners while jockeying for position, as crew chiefs focus on tire management. The course is a beast of its own when compared to other tracks on the NASCAR schedule.
“It’s definitely going to be a potpourri of racetracks,” No. 11 crew chief Chris Gabehart said, citing Sonoma and Road America as the closest courses to COTA. “But what goes into it for us remains the same; A mistake free day, and you’re gonna have a good day.”
No. 26 Truck Series crew chief Eric Phillips compared the narrow pit road at Circuit of the Americas to Indianapolis, and said he expected to see speeding penalties in the first sections given how tight it is inside Turn 20 to get to pit road. Drivers will essentially need to slow before getting to the turn, and then accelerate out to maintain pit road speed, Phillips said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone wreck there before the day’s over,” Phillips said. “Especially on a green flag stop.”
Austin weather forecast: What if it rains?
There is a chance of storms in the forecast all weekend, which will add another challenge for teams, especially if rain hits one day and not another to leave crew chiefs unable to effectively glean race strategy. The Truck and Xfinity Series races are on Saturday (Trucks at 1 p.m. followed by Xfinity at 4 p.m.). There is a 60% chance of rain Saturday and a 50% chance of rain Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.
NASCAR will need to declare either a “wet” or “damp” weather start, conditions permitting, but Goodyear’s wet-weather tires will be on hand to allow for racing in the rain.
“That’s just as unique as a dirt race at Bristol,” No. 18 Xfinity Series crew chief Dave Rogers said about potential wet weather racing at COTA.
Gabehart described the biggest challenges of the weekend, which could be compounded by rain.
“There are just so many things that you’ve got to keep track of at this track and none of us have been there to do it,” Gabehart said. “So we’re just guessing at some of that.”
He said he’s preparing for heavy braking, grip level falling off, elevation changes and some of the tightest turn radiuses in the circuit.
“The braking zones are going to look very inviting for passing but I’m not sure we’re gonna come out the other side of them that well,” Gabehart said. “There are just a lot of unknowns. It’s going to be pretty exciting.”