Drivers Predict Cup Will Have Epic Start at COTA

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 3 2021

Brad Keselowski takes his car through a turn during testing at the Circuit of the Americas on Tuesday. The NASCAR Cup Series will make its racing debut at the Formula 1 track in May. (HHP/Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

NASCAR Cup Series star Brad Keselowski says Circuit of The Americas signature Turn 1 left-hander looms as a prime spot for an epic start to the inaugural EchoPark Texas Grand Prix in May.

“Turn 1 is designed as though a fan said, ‘How can I have the most calamity in that corner on the start?’^” Keselowski mused after turning his first hot laps around the 3.41-mile/20-turn layout in Austin on Tuesday morning. The 2012 Cup champion, Keselowski was joined by reigning series champ Chase Elliott and 2017 champ Martin Truex Jr. for a day-long session officially billed as a Goodyear tire test.

The inaugural Cup race weekend on COTA’s natural-terrain layout _ the purpose-built home of the FIA’s Formula One U.S. Grand Prix _ is scheduled for May 21-23.

COTA hosted its first USGP in November 2012. And like F1 superstars Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, the Cup regulars will learn that a race easily can be thrown away at the end of COTA’s 2,869-foot frontstretch.

“First off, it’s uphill, which helps the car stop,” said Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Ford Mustang fielded by Team Penske. “So, it encourages the driver to try to out-brake another driver, which is big on a restart or a start because all of the cars are already so close together. Second thing is, it’s really wide on entry, so it’s almost impossible to block because there’s just a lot more racetrack. And the third part is it’s a super-slow corner, meaning you have to use a lot of brakes to get through there.

“So, like I said, almost like it was intentional _ I’m sure it was intentional _ to create some epic starts. I think you’ll see that here.”

Designed by German architect and F1 circuit guru Herman Tilke, the counterclockwise layout features 12 left-hand and eight right-hand turns varying in width from 39 to 52-feet. Turns 3 through 9 comprise an elongated “esses” section that mimicks the historic Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International layout. Turn 11, a hard left-hander, leads onto the 3,960-foot backstretch. Turns 12 through 19 are a complex of left and right-handers that will place a premium on tires, brakes, transmissions _ and patience.

In addition to The Glen, Truex said COTA includes elements similar to the Sonoma Raceway layout in Northern California.

“There’s some fast sections, some slow sections,” said Truex, who is in his third season as driver of the No. 19 Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. “It’s got the older asphalt, wearing tires out more like Sonoma, but it’s got the really high-speed straights and the really hard braking zone like Watkins Glen going down the backstretch. It’s a mix of both. It’s got a little bit of a blind corner, up-and-down elevation change like Sonoma. It’s a pretty unique place.

“It’s all about markers and points on the track and when you turn-in and what gear you’re in and how much speed you’re carrying and finding the brake points and all those things. It takes over two minutes to get around here, so if you make a mistake, you’ve got to wait two minutes to correct it, and you can’t forget it when you come back around. It was interesting to do that and a lot of fun to do that.”

Responding to fan demand, the 2021 Cup schedule includes seven road-course races _ most since NASCAR’s premier series made its debut in 1949. Previously, the most events contested on the “twisties” was four in 1957 and 1964.

Elliott, of Hendrick Motorsports, saw his run of four consecutive road-course wins snapped by JGR’s Christopher Bell on the Daytona International Speedway Roval on Feb. 21. But with five victories in 12 career road-course starts, Elliott is eager to piece together the COTA puzzle. 

“The track’s fun. It has a lot of character to it, I feel like,” said Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. “I’ve never been here, never seen it in person before today and really haven’t watched a ton of races here. So it’s really been a pretty steep learning curve for me, trying to piece together all the different parts of the track and understand where you need to be good and how to make it flow.

“I’ve enjoyed the challenge. I’ve not made a ton of laps, so really trying to understand, ‘Hey, is this the right way or is this the wrong way?’ When you’re new and you’re just trying to get going, you might hit the first part of the track  pretty good, but  miss two spots back  here. Your lap time doesn’t tell  the  whole  story,  so  you  really  have  to  piece  that  together  to understand what you did good and what you didn’t, and then go put the pieces of the puzzle together and try to put the whole thing in the works. I’m trying to learn, but it’s been fun. I hope people (fans) will come out and give it a chance. It’s a different type of racing.”

Specifically, Elliott cautioned that the 3,300-pound Cup cars will not look as fast as the F1, INDYCAR and various IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series machines that have visited the layout in Travis County.

But, I feel like the product and the competitiveness on-track and us being able to race around each other is much more feasible with the speeds we’re going,” Elliott said. “No, it’s not the ooohhhs and aaahhhs of going through the esses at however fast those guys go. But I do think the racing’s better to watch, and I think that’s what’s made NASCAR popular over the years, and I’m not sure why that would be any different here.”

In addition to Bell’s win on the Daytona Road Course, the Cup series will visit COTA, Sonoma Raceway, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., Watkins Glen, the Indianapolis Road Course and The ROVAL at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

Keselowski noted COTA’s layout will see drivers working throttle speeds ranging from 35 to 185 mph.

“You know that’s a heck of a ride; I know it would make my wife sick if she was riding with me,” Keselowski joked. “And you really have to finesse the cars down in the corners. Stock cars are quite honestly the worst driving race vehicles there are, and quite honestly that’s part of what makes these races fun. The cars drive so godawful bad that you really, really have to finesse them around the track and make something happen. That makes for a lot of mistakes because you’re right on the limit and it’s very easy to make a mistake, and that generally makes for fun racing to watch.

“I think we’ve seen that lately _ some really fun races on the road courses. There’s people that love them. There’s people that hate them, and everything in-between. At the end of the day, it’s the ultimate balance of what it takes to be a successful NASCAR driver.”

Ironically, Tuesday’s media session with the Cup drivers occurred a few hours before Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a sweeping rollback of COVID-19 restrictions, lifting a mask mandate and declaring that most Texas businesses can open at full capacity beginning next week. The executive order coincides with an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations statewide.

“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” Abbott said during a news conference. The executive order, scheduled to take full effect on March 10, lifts all mask requirements statewide and forbids local authorities from penalizing residents who do not wear a face covering. It also removes all restrictions on businesses in counties without a high number of hospitalizations.

Local officials still can apply limits to businesses where hospitalizations remain high, according to the order, but were prohibited from mandating that they operate at less than 50 percent capacity.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which is promoting this event in conjunction with Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, did not immediately indicate how Gov. Abbott’s executive order might impact ticket sales at COTA.

Meanwhile, Elliott said it’s been gratifying to see live bodies populating the grandstands during the season’s first three events in Florida _ two at DIS and last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway _ even in a limited capacity.

“I look forward to the day where it can be back  to normal again,” said Elliott, who again was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver after the COVID-19 interrupted 2020 season. “The Daytona 500, yes, there were people there, and I was certainly glad that we had the number of people that we had. But it certainly wasn’t the Daytona 500 that I remember and was lucky to have been a part of the past number of years.

“I look  forward  to  getting  back  to normal  again. It’s still weird. The vibe at the racetrack isn’t what it was before all of this, so I look forward to the day where it is again.”

Similarly, Keselowski said he hopes everyone attending a NASCAR race stays safe. “I think that’s an ongoing effort,” Keselowski said. “NASCAR has got an entire team that’s working with local governments and homeland security and all these different things. They’re doing a heck of a job in doing it right and doing it safe and _ knock on wood _ we haven’t had any major issues.

“As a sport, I’m really proud of them _ our leadership team _ for being able to do that. I’m one of the first ones to kind of kick them when I think they’ve screwed some things up, but I think they deserve a pat on the back for how well they’ve been able to adapt to a challenge that, I don’t have to tell you (media) guys, in quite honestly unprecedented. A lot of credit to them.”

Schedule-wise, FEVO Friday on May 21 will feature NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series practice sessions plus IMSA-sanctioned Lamborghini Super Trofeo Series practice.

The lineup for Saturday, May 22, includes Cup practice, plus Xfinity qualifying and the Pit Boss 250 NXS race, as well as Truck Series and Lamborghini qualifying and races.

Sunday’s schedule includes Cup qualifying, a second Lamborghini race and the track’s first Cup race. Announcements regarding on-track timing for the complete weekend schedule will be made at a later date.

Single-day tickets start at just $25 for FEVO Friday, $30 on Saturday and $70 on Sunday. Three-day packages for adults start at $99. Children 12-and-under will be admitted free on Friday and Saturday and for just $10 on Sunday. Fans can purchase tickets online at NASCARatCOTA.com or by calling the ticket office at (833) 450-2864.

Fans also can connect with NASCAR at COTA and get the latest news by following on Twitter and Instagram or becoming a Facebook fan.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 3 2021
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