Stars are Big and Bright in Texas: COTA 2023
We are six weeks into the 2023 NASCAR season and have arrived at the first road course race of the year. Circuit of the Americas (COTA) was built specifically for Formula 1 (F1) and was designed after some of the best corners on the entire F1 circuit. It is a very fast and very technical track. We have gotten to see two races here so far with the Cup series cars and have gotten two different types of races.
The first race was held in 2021 and was a complete cluster of a race. While I am a big fan of having rain tires and running these types of tracks in wet conditions, the 2021 race should have been postponed and ran a different day. Most of the drivers in the field had never done a race like that in the rain, and the track was so wet that the cars were throwing up enormous wakes making it impossible for drivers behind to see. All this caused multiple crashes, sliding through corners, and spinning out.
On the other hand, the 2022 race was a memorable one. While some of the drivers just want to run over everybody, the actual race was very good. The most memorable part was the finish with Ross Chastain getting his first win in the Cup series. This win did not come without controversy after he completely ran over A.J. Allmendinger to get around him, after blowing the lead earlier in the lap. I am not here to debate last year’s move though. The point is the race was great and NASCAR pulled a complete 180 degrees from the previous year.
The biggest news of this weekend is the best road course racer in the series, Chase Elliott, will not be behind the wheel of his #9 NAPA Camaro. Elliott broke his leg three weeks ago and is out after having to have corrective surgery. Even though NASCAR’s biggest star is out this weekend, there are a few more stars added to the entry list. We will have two Formula 1 World Champions in the field with Kimi Raikkonen making another start with the Trackhouse Racing Project 91 Camaro and Jenson Button making his NASCAR debut in the #15 Stewart-Haas/Rick Ware Mustang. A four-time IMSA Champion Jordan Taylor will also be making his NASCAR debut filling in for Chase Elliott and the 7-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson will make a return this weekend for the first time since the Daytona 500. Lastly, IndyCar regular Conor Daly will be driving the #50 Camaro for TMT Racing this weekend for the third time.
That is 13 championships worth of experience joining the field this weekend. Allowing these drivers to come in and race brings a lot of great attention to NASCAR. Kimi and Jenson both are very talented drivers, and you should look for them to have respectable finishes this weekend. I hope we get to see Conor Daly be more aggressive this weekend. When he raced at the Charlotte Roval last year, even with that being his first NASCAR race, it didn’t seem like the car was as good as his ability. I’m not saying he should have been top 10, but he should have finished better than 34th and 3 laps down.
Out of these five drivers, Jordan Taylor should have the best result of all of them. First off, he is driving for the #1 team in NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports. The #9 team is a championship caliber team and with someone of Taylor’s pedigree, a top finish will be expected. Taylor has also been testing NASCAR’s Garage 56 LeMans car as their driver/coach as they call him and guess where the car has been tested at?
This is not to say that the LeMans car and a regular Cup Series car are the same. Obviously, there will be things that are going to be different in the Cup Series car but having that track time in a similar car and in top tier equipment should make for a pretty seamless transition. If you want to root for someone that could go up and steal a win, Jordan Taylor is who you should root for.
So, let’s talk about the regular series drivers. There are a handful of drivers that could win this weekend. Firstly, you have to go with the hottest driver of the season so far in Kyle Busch. Looking back on his results on road courses, he is a pretty underrated road course racer and he is now in a car that won two road course races last season with Tyler Reddick behind the wheel. So far this season he has acquired three top 10s in five races with 1 win.
Second, you have to go with the guy that left the seat open for Kyle Busch at RCR, Tyler Reddick. He finished top 10 in 5 out of 6 road course races last season, winning two of them. If he hadn’t been speeding on pit road at Sonoma, he probably wouldn’t have been caught up in a wreck and had another top 10. 23XI did not have a good start to their season but have started to come around in the last few races with both drivers having a couple of top 5 finishes. As long as he can stay out of trouble, he should have a decent shot.
Lastly, I’m going to go out on a limb and go with Ryan Blaney. It sounds crazy to say that picking Blaney is going out on a limb, but let’s be honest, after having a career best season in 2021 he had a winless up and down season in 2022 and barely made the playoffs. He recovered during the playoffs going to the Round of 8, but he still has not gotten a win in the Next Gen car yet. Blaney has won on a road course before, and track position is very important at COTA. If he can find himself in the front at the end of the race, he could bring home a win.
Circuit of the Americas can be one of the most entertaining races on the schedule. It’s modeled after some of the best racing corners in the world and the actual track was built extra wide for multiple lanes to create more action in the corners. My only hope is that drivers calm the hell down going into turn 1. Rubbing is racing and aggression is expected, but drivers were driving dangerously last season at road courses and NASCAR shouldn’t allow it. Knowing that you aren’t going make a turn and just slamming into another car is flat out reckless and drivers should be parked for doing it. I’ll get off my high horse though.
We always get some surprises at road courses so don’t be surprised if you see some drivers higher than they normally run. Kimi Raikkonen and Jordan Taylor should both have very high finishes. Kimi drove the Project 92 Camaro last season and was making his way through the field before getting involved in a wreck. Jordan has been testing the Garage 56 LeMans car at COTA and will be driving for Hendrick. Not only do I think he will finish in the top 10, but if there were a late race caution and he is towards the front, don’t think that he won’t go for the win.
My pick for this weekend is Tyler Reddick. He had a slow start to the season but has been improving his position every week and coming off a couple of top 5 finishes. He is a proven road course favorite and COTA is a very technical track that can allow his to demonstrate his abilities. Currently the weather shows possible morning showers but nothing in the afternoon. If the track is wet then all bets are off, but if everything goes well, Reddick will give Toyota their first win of the season.