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May 21, 2021

COTA focus: Unraveling NASCAR’s newest circuit, a 20-turn mystery box

The intrigue for NASCAR’s first trip to the Circuit of The Americas road course pepped up not long after the 2021 schedule was released last September. The sprawling 3.41-mile layout was one of a handful of new venues, instantly rising toward the top of the list of NASCAR’s most technical tracks.

The intrigue is now mixed with anticipation on the eve of the tripleheader weekend, with all three NASCAR national series in action starting Saturday at the Austin, Texas facility. The festivities will conclude with the Cup Series’ inaugural in Sunday’s EchoPark Texas Grand Prix (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the culmination of what’s sure to be a learning experience for all parties involved.

RELATED: COTA weekend schedule

“Gosh, the unknowns,” said Chris Gabehart, crew chief for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Cup Series points leader Denny Hamlin. “There’s 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, so we’re just guessing at some of them, at that.”

With the uncertainty level still high before any of the drivers turn a wheel, here are five areas of focus that teams will face in their christening of COTA.

Navigation newness

When Austin Dillon was asked about the Circuit of The Americas’ most enticing passing zones, his descriptions came with a confession: “I’m not very good at the numbers of each corner,” the Richard Childress Racing driver said. “I’d have to have a map in front of me.” His hesitancy with turn numbers was somehow understandable. There are 20 of them.

Short of converting their cars’ digital dashes to show GPS navigation, a handful of drivers said they plan to have a course map in their car’s interior for the events. It’s a reference point for the drivers not just to get their bearings, but also as a handy framework for communications with crew chiefs and spotters.

“I’ll definitely have a chart in the car,” said William Byron, currently second in Cup Series points. “The funny thing is, when we’ve been in the simulator together and Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) and I have been talking, I’ve referred to a lot of corners as that corner over there by the backstretch, or that one over there with the double corner. So, I don’t know. It’s going to be a lot of guessing. But I think he’ll get the gist from what I’m saying. He’s usually pretty good at picking up what I’m saying. As long as we can get through Turn 1 and talk about that one, and I think that one is pretty important, too. So, I at least know one through four. I’m used to that.”

RELATED: Circuit of The Americas turn-by-turn analysis

Ty Dillon, preparing for his third Cup Series start of the year for Gaunt Brothers Racing, says his turn-number memorization is similar to Byron’s, but he’s opting to group the corners based on their characteristics — tight turns after long straightaways that require heavy braking, the esses and switchbacks, and the double- and triple-apex turns.

“Right now, I think I could probably count to Turn 4 numbers-wise,” says the younger Dillon, who adds that he’ll have a better feel for the course after practice, “but for me and my brain, the way that I work, I’m kind of breaking it down into sections and shapes of the track.”

Even then, he’s planning on having a map close by.

Setup scrutiny

With an all-new course, competition officials opted to schedule practice and qualifying for all three series this weekend. The extra track time will help teams prepare, but the benefits will be offset by the length of each lap and the time of each practice session — 50 minutes for each series.

“We get three sets of practice tires. Well, a lap at COTA is well over two minutes, and you’ve got to leave pit road to get out and you’ve got to come back to pit road to get in, so you’re talking about to make one timed lap at the start-finish line, almost seven minutes is invested,” Gabehart said. “Well, practice is 50 minutes long and I’ve got three sets of tires, so you can do the math pretty quick and realize we won’t get many runs.

“So it’s not like you’re going to be able to show up with some exotic setup that you’re looking to learn something. You’re going to show up ready to race, and give Denny the chance he needs to get acclimated to the race track for real, not the virtual version.”

Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Joe Gibbs Racing does have some institutional knowledge about COTA, thanks to teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s participation for Toyota in a Goodyear tire test March 2, alongside Chevrolet’s Chase Elliott and Ford’s Brad Keselowski. Otherwise, teams and drivers have leaned on driving simulators for help in learning the course’s finer points.

“When you’re dealing with zero, some is better than none by a lot,” Gabehart said of the experience level. “But in terms of tracks that I think it’s somewhat similar to, Sonoma certainly comes to mind. I think though our series hasn’t been there yet, my experience at maybe Road America in terms of heavy braking zones after some long straights comes to mind, and tire fall-off.

“It’s definitely going to be a potpourri of race tracks, for sure, from what I can tell, but what goes into it for us remains the same — a mistake-free day and you’re going to have a good day. You can’t change the game just because you change the race track. It’s all about minimizing mistakes and being there at the end, and that’s what we hope to do.”

Passing points

With 20 turns to navigate, opportunities for passing should theoretically be bountiful. But the most prime spots for overtakes are the tight corners at the end of COTA’s long straightaways — areas where hard braking will be needed to slow the momentum of heavy stock cars.

“I think on the personal side of things I’ve got to eat my Wheaties,” said defending Xfinity Series champ Austin Cindric, who is also in the Cup Series field for Sunday. “My braking foot is gonna be worn out after this weekend, I can promise you that.”

Cindric has some experience at the Austin, Texas track, last competing there in a GT3 sports-car class in 2016. His prediction for the stock-car edition of COTA racing: A mad scramble at each unfurling of the green flag.”I think the restarts are gonna be wild,” Cindric says. “You have a very wide, inviting front straightaway. You even see it in the F1 races there. I mean, guys will drive it off in there and collect three or four cars, so I think restarts are definitely going to be pretty crazy in all three series — a lot of opportunities to pass at this race track, a lot of tire fall-off, which obviously provides a bit of a dynamic to the race, whether if it’s on strategy or on the race track, so, otherwise, you kind of have every type of corner at this race track. There’s a lot to look forward to, I think for the NASCAR fans and a lot of unknowns for us as drivers.”

New faces and some familiar returns

If the track seems new, so should the COTA entry lists, which are well-stocked with double-duty drivers, sports-car specialists and some long-anticipated reunions — all of which could create some confusion for teams trying to recall who’s who out on the track.

Five Cup Series regulars — Kyle Busch, Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick and Tyler Reddick — are scheduled to dip into the Xfinity Series field to gain experience on the eve of their event. They’ll blend in with a selection of drivers with a rich road-racing pedigree — former Rolex 24 class winner Spencer Pumpelly, two-time SCCA Spec Miata champ Preston Pardus and sports-car vet Miguel Paludo.

MORE: Entry list highlights for COTA

Two drivers with extensive NASCAR experience are making their returns to competition for the COTA festivities — 58-year-old Boris Said and longtime Cup Series driver Paul Menard. Said is in line for his first NASCAR start since 2017 in a one-race deal with MBM Motorsports, and the 40-year-old Menard will be back in the garage with a Camping World Truck Series ride with ThorSport Racing.

Pit-road peril

The ability of teams to adapt to COTA’s turns and twists will extend to pit road, where the entry creates an unconventional challenge. After committing to pit road, drivers will make a sharp bend to the left on the inside of Turn 20 before the pit lane straightens out.

WATCH: Pit-road expert talks COTA

The potential for trouble there is high, according to Eric Phillips, crew chief for the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 4 Toyota and Camping World Trucks points leader John Hunter Nemechek.

“I think the biggest nuance to it is going to be getting on pit lane,” Phillips said. “It’s really tight there on the inside of Turn 20 to get onto pit road. There’s no way you can run pit-road speed getting onto pit road, which is kind of opposite. You have to be slowed down before you get to that turn and you’ll be accelerating out of the turn to the pit-road speed line. I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone wreck there before the day’s over, especially on a green-flag stop because it comes up in a hurry and it is really tight.”