Who … should you be talking about after the race?
For the last few seasons, it’s been taken for granted Chase Elliott is the reigning road course king, earning seven career wins in 25 NASCAR Cup Series starts on the track type. But Elliott hasn’t won on a road course since he won at Road America in 2021. Kyle Larson, who won three road races in 2021, won just one last year.
Who’s stepped up as they’ve stepped down, becoming the winner of three of the last five road events?
Reddick, who’s making a case for himself as NASCAR’s best road course ace right now, was the class of the field on Sunday (Mar. 26), winning the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas. He started on the outside of the front row and set a blistering pace in practice with lap times a half-second better than the competition.
Reddick took the lead for the first time on lap eight, passing Austin Cindric for the top spot. He led a total of six times for a race-high 41 of 75 total laps (the scheduled distance was 68 laps, but multiple overtime attempts extended the race). He and his team won the second stage, positioning themselves out front, and had only a moment of worry when pit strategy left them six laps short on fuel.
Luckily, it didn’t matter for Reddick. The cautions fell just right for him.
On the final restart in regulation, Reddick dispatched Christopher Bell to take the lead, but lost it to William Byron only to regain it and open up a big gap … just in time for a caution. Reddick then held on through three restarts to lead the final nine laps en route to his first win of 2023 and the fourth of his career.
It’s also Reddick’s first win since moving to 23XI Racing for this season — and the former driver of the No. 45, Kurt Busch, was in the booth to help call the final laps. It was a bittersweet moment for Busch, who has been sidelined for a concussion since last summer.
And don’t forget… Chris Buescher and Todd Gilliland. Buescher started 32nd on Sunday, putting him right in the line of fire of an early crash when teammate Brad Keselowski spun and Buescher was one of several cars to get collected.
After that early scare, Buescher moved forward through the field, entering the top five in time to grab fifth-place stage points in the second segment. By the end of the day, Buescher was in position for an eighth-place finish, another good result for the RFK Racing stable early in 2023.
Gilliland took home his first top 10 of the year after starting even deeper in the field than Buescher in 36th. He didn’t score stage points, but what he did do was keep his cool during the chaos of late restarts, working his way through to finish 10th.
What … is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
The finish was not without fireworks. After Daniel Suarez was spun by Alex Bowman to bring out the race’s final caution, Suarez went from a possible top five finish to a 27th-place disappointment. On the cool-down lap, Suarez went gunning for Bowman and caught up to him as Bowman entered pit road, moving teammate Ross Chastain out of his way to get to the No. 48.
Suarez then gave Bowman a couple of pops to the rear bumper — not enough to send him spinning, but plenty to get his attention. Had he done on the racing surface, it likely wouldn’t have been a big deal. But pit road after a race is crowded with cars and crew members.
Where does NASCAR go from here?
They’ve handed down penalties for intentional wrecking, including under caution and on pit road. Denny Hamlin is currently waiting on an appeal hearing after a penalty for deliberately wrecking Chastain at Phoenix Raceway.
It’s been a while since a post-race pit-road incident, but NASCAR has dropped the hammer for that in the past as well. Will Suarez draw a fine and/or points penalty this week?
It’s a good possibility that he will, and it would be the right call by NASCAR. Had Bowman lost control, he could have plowed into somebody who’s not protected by a helmet and rollcage. It would send a message and it would be the right message to send.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Byron had a fast car. Only Reddick had a better car over the course of the day, but Byron got shuffled on the first overtime restart and had to settle for fifth after leading six times for a total of 29 laps.
Sports car star Jordan Taylor had the best start of the road-course ringers, rolling off fourth, but dropped through the field as the day went on. It’s extremely hard to adapt to a new car and team in a weekend, and Taylor wasn’t the only ringer to struggle to adapt to the Cup Series quickly.
Still, Taylor was able to do something many of the regulars couldn’t — get through the late-race mayhem in one piece, as he made it back to 11th by the third overtime attempt. That restart got the best of Taylor and he got shuffled to 24th in his Cup debut
Former Formula 1 champs Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button, like Taylor, faced a steep learning curve. Both ran solid, smart races, but that means they ran hard and avoided trouble. Raikkonen had some issues with the diffuser on his car as well. Button avoided trouble at the end to finish a respectable 19th in his debut while Raikkonen finished his second Cup race in 29th after sustaining some damage during the multiple overtime restarts.
Jimmie Johnson made his second Cup start of 2023 and it wasn’t pretty. Road courses were perhaps Johnson’s biggest struggle as a full-time driver, and his 36th-place start put Johnson in a tough position to begin with. When Keselowski spun at the end of lap 1, Johnson got the brunt of the aftermath and his (and Ty Dillon’s) day was over before he recorded a single lap. Johnson finished 38th.
Defending race winner Chastain commemorated is first Cup victory by dropping watermelons from the top of COTA’s tower on Friday. He started 12th on Sunday and ran in that general area for a lot of the day, moving up and down the board a bit in both directions.
After the pit stops for the debris caution with 26 laps to go, Chastain restarted in second and was in the mix for the win until the restart with 10 to go following the caution for Keselowski, but after getting mired in traffic after pitting, was collected in a three-car pileup in turn 1, falling to the back of the lead lap in 28th.
But he wasn’t done yet. Chastain used the late-race craziness to his advantage, driving back through the field to finish fourth, though not completely without controversy. Chastain had words with his teammate Suarez after Suarez reportedly got into him trying to get to Bowman on the cool-down lap; Bowman had knocked Suarez out of the way on a restart.
When … was the moment of truth?
Something was missing from the race on Sunday. NASCAR made a rule change for 2023 that sees the first two race stages award points without a caution flag. The stage cautions had taken away the elemental strategy of the road courses, in particular.
The stages were created to give drivers incentive to race throughout the day instead of laying low for all but the closing laps, but the breaks were made for television, as the networks pledged to show large blocks of commercials to cut down on late-race breaks. They haven’t really diminished, so why not drop the extra cautions everywhere?
The only benefit has been that since the stages were introduced, NASCAR has cut back on the debris cautions that have often plagued races in the past (we saw a couple on Sunday that were questionable, but there was some visible debris on track).
But NASCAR could keep those out of play and keep the races green. Reddick agreed with the road-course rule change and it seems as though most fans would be in favor of making the change permanent at all tracks.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
Next week marks the beginning of a three-race short-track tour, beginning Sunday at Richmond Raceway. From there it’s on to Bristol Motor Speedway on dirt and then Martinsville Speedway. Richmond and Martinsville, in particular will be a huge test for the new short-track package designed to allow for more passing. Flat tracks of a mile or less, in particular, proved to be disappointing events for the Next Gen car, even as racing improved at the intermediate tracks.
The big question isn’t even whether they’ll race better, but if they don’t, what NASCAR will do about it? While a midseason change is unlikely, there is an opportunity to test a different package for these tracks — the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro.
Even if any changes tried there don’t stick for the rest of the season, they could be a preview of bigger thing for 2024, and would add even more excitement to the event that’s NASCAR’s hottest ticket in 2023.
How … good is COTA for stock cars?
NASCAR’s first trip to COTA was marred by rain, but its second in 2022 had a fantastic finish and featured a first-time winner. In 2023, it produced what was easily the best race of the season so far.
Has the huge, technical course become NASCAR’s best road course?
The racing was excellent on Sunday. There was racing for position from early on, including for the lead, without the need for restarts to keep things interesting.
Drivers didn’t take chances in the long middle stretch, but that was by design. Teams setting themselves up for a shot at a win can’t take too many chances midrace and expect to be around for the end.
The end of the race was exciting to watch. The numerous restart attempts were frustrating, because drivers made it through turn 1 all day, but it’s also understandable that they turned up the wick with two to go … and two to go, and two to go. And while Reddick was so fast he might as well have had his own ZIP code, the racing for the win was intense. There was racing at the front of the pack even on the day’s longer runs.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the trend was to build ovals for NASCAR that could also host open-wheel races. By and large, it didn’t work. COTA is the exact opposite — designed for F1 and adding a NASCAR race to the calendar almost as an afterthought. And boy, did they get this one right.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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I really have to wonder about Jimmie Johnson’s decision making skills. He’s always been horrible on road courses. So he goes to Indy Car and runs a season of only road courses and was an utter disaster (and his second, full race season wasn’t any better). Then comes back to NASCAR and runs a road course, with his next announced race…a road course. It’s like watching a guy continually step on a rake and get hit in the face.
“It’s like watching a guy continually step on a rake and get hit in the face.”
I said I’d be watching Jenson Button in the 15 car, I did, & I was duly impressed, This is the car that finished dead last of the chartered cars last year. The fact that Button finished first of the road course ringers, 18th & on the lead lap is a credit to his learning on the fly, & to the improvement in the car. He has 2 more races scheduled. Very interested to see how those go.