Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Same COTA Race, Better COTA Ending

What Happened?

William Byron held off a late charge from Christopher Bell to win the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas. After winning the pole, Byron put on a dominant performance to earn his second win of the season.

See also
William Byron Holds Off Christopher Bell, Wins in Austin

Byron led 42 of the 68 laps, and Chevrolet has won three of the four races at the track. Behind Byron and Bell, Ty Gibbs, Alex Bowman and Tyler Reddick completed the top five.

What Really Happened?

While Byron’s fashion of victory left many unsatisfied, the race played out nearly identically to the 2023 version of the event when Reddick ended up in victory lane. 

With no stage breaks last year, natural cautions last year fell roughly around the points where stages yellows split the action this season, and the racing itself followed a similar pattern as well.

In both events, Byron started out front and battled a Toyota through the race. The three-stop strategy prevailed for Reddick over Byron in 2023, and Byron’s three stops just barely beat Bell’s two stops this time around.

The early half of the final stage in both races had tremendous battles for the lead as the dominant cars fought tooth and nail, crossing over and out-braking each other, until the best car eventually got to the lead and drove away. Reddick led 41 en route to victory last year, Byron led 42 laps.

The drivers again mucked up the track in turn 8, as the track limits debate continues to grow, but they didn’t muck up the finish. Then again, they didn’t get the chance.

The lack of a late-race yellow kept the field from bunching up and acting foolish in a swarm of turn 1 dive bombs. After all, much of the discourse last year surrounded the embarrassment of the finish after such a great race.

See also
Turn 8, Track Limits Throw Drivers for a Loop at COTA

We had a similar race with a clean finish that still had an element of drama in it. After Bell passed his teammate, the No. 20 closed dramatically on the No. 24. No, he didn’t have a chance to use the bumper or make a late dive like we saw in the Xfinity race, but a clean, natural finish feels preferable to the ugly, chaotic one from the year before. 

Looking further, this race seemed preferable to most of the road course action from the previous season. Even with the stage yellows, we still saw multiple strategies. The heavy braking zones and technical sections contributed to plenty of driver mistakes, passing, and even contact and tempers. Heck, on Bell’s alternate strategy, he ran over two competitors.

Not every race can be an electric barnburner, but COTA still puts on a better show than some of the more traditional NASCAR road courses have in recent years. I’m looking at you, Watkins Glen International.

Who Stood Out?

Somehow, someway, Byron continues to be underestimated. With the Toyota dominance on short tracks and with the short track package, many expected the Toyotas to take over once the green flag fell, even with Byron starting out front. 

Instead, Byron pulled away from the pack and really didn’t look back. The end of stage one and the finish were the only times Byron looked a tick slower than the Toyotas, namely Bell. Byron has now looked class of the field in two of the last three road course races, finishing second to ROVAL king AJ Allmendinger in the other.

Looking down the running order, not many names stick out until getting to the 15th-place finisher. Despite contact on the first lap damaging the car, Bubba Wallace recovered, spun again and recovered again well inside the top 20. 

Typically teased by his spotter for a lack of road course prowess, Wallace has considerably improved since Reddick joined 23XI Racing. Bubba looked fast again in practice and qualifying, and he battled through some tough circumstances to record his first non-DNF at COTA.

Who Fell Flat?

The road course ringers, sans Allmendinger, surprisingly disappeared during the afternoon. After battling for the Xfinity Series win Saturday, Shane van Gisbergen finished back in 21st. To be fair, he ran inside the top dozen early in the race before earning a speeding penalty. After battling back through the field, he lost first gear and had trouble keeping up from there.

Kamui Kobayashi showed promise during practice but spun multiple times during the race. Kobayashi did have help both times, though, so his day could have ended a lot better without the contact.

The most surprising road course disappointment can be found in last. Another ringer with problems out of their control, Michael McDowell had an afternoon wrestling match with his car after the power steering went out. 

Better Than Last Time?

I get it. A lot of people took to social media to complain. But the same people did the same thing last year when the finish devolved into a divebomb wreck fest. 

The Xfinity race set high standards. A three-car battle for the win, contact on the last lap, and third-place stealing the victory, leading only the last lap. Byron’s dominance simply didn’t compare, letting fans down for a “boring” race. 

See also
Xfinity Breakdown: Kyle Larson Ends Up in the Right Place at the Right Time

Listen to me: Stop comparing Xfinity races to Cup races.

We went through this already, but when comparing Cup to Cup, the race felt very similar with a cleaner finish. In my mind, that makes this better than last time. Haters will hate, but this was great.

Paint Scheme of the Race

Early in the week, Marcus Lemonis played a “guess who” game while revealing a new sponsorship. The puzzle didn’t take long to solve, as many figured out Josh Berry had a new ride. 

When the wrap went on this car, the red had a beautiful glisten. With the shine, the various shades of red plus a fairly simple, yet sporty white design makes Berry’s No. 4 pop in pictures.

What’s Next?

The NASCAR Cup Series heads back east for a two-week stint in Virginia, beginning at Richmond Raceway. This year, however, the event takes place on Easter Sunday and will be a night race, unlike past seasons.

Coverage for the Toyota Owners 400 begins Sunday, March 31 at 7:00 p.m. ET on FOX.

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8 Comments
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Bill B

I was just happy there wasn’t a late race caution that produced a crapshoot finish. I was also pleasantly surprised that NASCAR did not throw a full course caution every time someone spun out or had an issue.

Of all the road course tracks NASCAR runs, this is the one that’s most fun to watch.

DoninAjax

“Not every race can be an electric barnburner,”

It’s really sad that Emperor Brian never figured that out and neither have his sycophants. Brian’s product can’t have a game seven moment.

Bill W.

The race wasn’t a bad race,but the out of bounds rule is stupid.

Kevin in SoCal

Why? Do you think its ok for drivers to be out in the dirt kicking up debris back onto the track?

Bill W.

They were not penalized on the curve when they kicked up dirt. At Sonoma they kick dirt on the track all the time.

Tom

While it would be nice for COTA to return, I feel SMI will drop it so Texas gets another race. TMS should be bulldozed so Amazon can build a distribution facility.

Kevin in SoCal

Wow!

Tom

I don’t think it’s profitable for SMI to rent COTA. They probably only get like 10% of ticket revenue at most. I’m worried the new TV deal might be still like the old one although teams get a bigger slice, the tracks still get the biggest slice.

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