The NASCAR Cup Series’ first trip to Circuit of The Americas has been a much-anticipated item on the 2021 schedule. The Sunday race (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the first road-course event since February’s race at the Daytona Road Course. In somewhat of a surprise, Christopher Bell won that race — the unexpected aspect being that Bell hadn’t had much success on road courses at the Cup level and he had 50-1 odds on BetMGM entering the race.
Are there any drivers who fit the bill to pull a similar shocker at the 20-turn road course in Austin, Texas? NASCAR.com’s Pat DeCola and RJ Kraft debate who they have their eye on as a potential surprise winner.
KRAFT: When I look at the landscape and eliminate drivers with road-course wins (sorry AJ Allmendinger in Kaulig Racing’s fifth-ever Cup start), I am drawn to one driver who has been quietly running well but doesn’t stick out as a strong road-course driver based on his initial stats. The driver I am referring to is Tyler Reddick.
The driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet enters Sunday’s race with five top 10s in his last seven races — a stretch that has seen him jump 13 spots in the standings (from 28th to 15th). Over that seven-race stretch, Reddick has the ninth-most points in the Cup Series — more than 2021 winners Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman and Bell.
As I mentioned, Reddick’s road record doesn’t jump out at you. In eight road starts at the Xfinity level, Reddick notched four top fives and five top 10s. At the Cup level, he has made three road-course starts with an average finish of 22.7. His best run came at the Charlotte Roval last fall where he finished 12th; on both road courses last year he finished better than Bell. Reddick enters Sunday’s race with odds of 100-1 on BetMGM. He’s not a carbon copy of Bell’s path to a surprise win earlier this year, but he is awfully close to it. Plus, Reddick is coming in with a lot of momentum, so I’ll take the second-year Cup driver as the most likely to pull a surprise on Sunday.
DECOLA: I agree Reddick is one to watch — along with his RCR teammate Austin Dillon, who seems hell-bent on becoming a high-quality road racer in his career — but I’m going with a driver who, should he win, he’d just barely be playoff-eligible. That’s right, I’m going with Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Ford driver Chase Briscoe, currently 27th in points.
The 26-year-old’s rookie season has not gone according to plan, having yet to find the top 10 following a nine-win 2020 Xfinity campaign. Given SHR’s struggles across the board — Briscoe, Aric Almirola and Cole Custer have three top 10s combined, and Kevin Harvick has yet to win after scoring nine victories last year — Briscoe’s struggles are more likely due to the team as a whole than him failing to adjust to the higher level of competition in the Cup Series.
A road course can change all that.
It’s easy to forget, but Briscoe was outright dominant last year, and he was targeted as a potential playoff driver with the bevy of road courses on this year’s schedule. Sunday’s race should be viewed as a potential equalizer among the teams, and the likelihood of another surprise winner is perhaps at its highest since the days of Daytona earlier this year. No drivers have competed at COTA in NASCAR equipment because, well, it’s never happened before.
Let’s flash back to 2018, when Briscoe — not even a full-time driver at the time — won the inaugural Xfinity event on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. And how about when the series christened Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course last year? Yep, another win for Briscoe.
To me, that speaks to Briscoe’s raw talent behind the wheel, particularly when it comes to road courses, and I think this weekend could be a potential turning point for him and the organization. It seems unlikely SHR will have a completely down year, and Briscoe won’t shine at some point. Why not this weekend?
He’s put together some decent runs lately (11th at Talladega and Darlington), and I’d be shocked if he doesn’t put together his best race thus far at the Cup level on Sunday.