Welcome to FTW Explains: a guide to catching up on and better understanding stuff going on in the world. You may have heard that NASCAR has a big and very different weekend lined up at COTA in Austin, but you’re not really sure about all the details. That’s OK because we’re here to help.
Among the many novelties in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule are new tracks, and this weekend, NASCAR will compete at Circuit of The Americas, or COTA, for the first time ever. It’s one of seven road courses on the schedule this year.
The Austin road course famously has hosted Formula 1, IndyCar Series and MotoGP events, but this year, the track was added to the NASCAR schedule with a full weekend’s worth of competition lined up, culminating with the Cup Series’ EchoPark Texas Grand Prix on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET (FS1).
So ahead of NASCAR’s first race weekend at COTA, here are eight things to know.
Y’all, it’s race week!
— NASCAR at COTA (@NASCARatCOTA) May 17, 2021
1 NASCAR will race on COTA's 3.41-mile long course layout
NASCAR had a couple options for which COTA course to compete on, and it ultimately opted to go with the 3.41-mile long course, versus the 2.2-mile shorter one. It’s a 20-turn, counterclockwise course that flows with the track’s hilly landscape.
For Sunday’s Cup Series race, the EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix is 68 laps for a scheduled distance of 231 miles, and the three race stages are broken into 15 laps, 17 laps and 36 laps. The second-tier Xfinity Series race on Saturday is 46 laps for 156 miles, and the third-tier Truck Series race is 41 laps for 139.81 miles.
“I would say the start of this race, will probably be pretty cool,” Martin Truex Jr. said following a COTA tire test in March.
“You’ve got that long, front straightaway, and it’s very, very wide, then you go into a very, very slow corner. We have races at places like Pocono [Raceway] where we get five and six-wide down the frontstretch, and there’s potential for that to happen here as well, but you’ve got to turn around and go the other way, so it could be pretty hairy.”
2 Turn 1, a.k.a. "Big Red"
Speaking of the start of the race, the 20-turn COTA circuit NASCAR will compete on opens with a wild Turn 1, which is nicknamed “Big Red.”
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 19, 2021
And, as the track noted, it “challenges drivers to an initial 133-foot climb at the green flag and right into a hard-braking hairpin-style turn.” This is going to be fun (and probably chaotic, at least in the beginning).
“Turn 1 is designed as though a fan said, ‘How can I have the most calamity in that corner on the start?’” Brad Keselowski said after his March tire test.
“So there’s a couple of things: First off, it’s uphill, which helps the car stop, so it encourages the driver to try to out-brake another driver, which is big on a restart or a start because all of the cars are already so close together. Second thing is, it’s really wide on entry, so it’s almost impossible to block because there’s just a lot more race track.
“And then, of course, the third part is it’s a super slow corner meaning you have to use a lot of brakes to get through there. So, like I said, almost like it was intentional – I’m sure it was intentional – to create some epic starts. I think you’ll see that here.”
3 Matthew McConaughey is the Grand Marshal
Texas native and diehard Longhorns fan Matthew McConaughey will serve as the Grand Marshal for the EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix, the track announced Tuesday. But he’ll be telling drivers to start their engines virtually.
“I’m honored to be the Grand Marshal for NASCAR’s first visit to Circuit of The Americas here in my hometown of Austin,” McConaughey said in a COTA release. “There’s nothing more American than NASCAR racing and it’s wonderful to see the sport make its first visit to this challenging road course.”
And it will actually be the second time the actor has been a NASCAR Grand Marshal after giving the command for the 2005 Daytona 500.
4 There's actually practice and qualifying this weekend
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, most of the races on the 2021 NASCAR schedule are being held without practice or qualifying sessions to limit the amount of time teams spend at the track and slow the spread of the coronavirus. However, eight race weekends will include practice and qualifying, and as a new NASCAR track, COTA is one of them.
So unlike typical weeks this season, the starting lineup for the Cup Series race won’t be determined until Sunday morning, just hours ahead of the green flag. And rain tires are available, if Mother Nature decides to crash the weekend.
Here’s a look at the practice and qualifying schedule for NASCAR’s three national series:
Friday, May 21
Truck Series practice: 3:05 p.m. ET, FS1
Xfinity Series practice: 4:05 p.m. ET, FS1
Saturday, May 22
Truck Series qualifying: 9:05 a.m. ET, FS2
Cup Series practice: 10:05 a.m. ET, FS2
Xfinity Series qualifying: 11:05 a.m. ET, FS1
Truck Series Toyota Tundra 225: 1 p.m. ET, FS1
Xfinity Series Pit Boss 250: 4 p.m. ET, FS1
Sunday, May 23
Cup Series qualifying: 11 a.m. ET, FS1
Cup Series EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix: 2:30 p.m. ET, FS1
5 Some Cup drivers are getting even more COTA laps in
In addition to the actual practice and qualifying sessions, some Cup Series drivers will get several extra laps in at COTA before Sunday’s main event. Several Cup drivers are entered in Saturday’s Xfinity race, including Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer.
“I’ve spent a lot of time on iRacing and we’ve had a couple of simulator dates to get prepared for this weekend – one, just for basically learning the track, and the second, for actually trying to go fast enough to be competitive when you get on the racetrack,” Harvick said in a release (via NBC Sports).
“But the main reason we decided to run the Xfinity race at COTA, and a couple of the other new road courses, is that being on-track in real-time is the best experience you can get. There’s just nothing that can replace reality and being on the racetrack.”
6 Chase Elliott is the Cup Series favorite to win at COTA
Road course stud Chase Elliott is the favorite to win Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix, as of Wednesday afternoon and according to BetMGM. The reigning Cup Series champ has yet to win a race this season, but he has five top-5 finishes and seven top 10s.
Here’s a look at the five drivers with the best odds to win:
Chase Elliott +225
Martin Truex Jr. +450
Denny Hamlin +800
Kyle Larson +1000
Kyle Busch +1400
Gannett may earn revenue from audience referrals to betting services. Newsrooms are independent of this relationship and there is no influence on news coverage.
7 Paul Menard is coming back (sort of)
— ThorSport Racing (@ThorSportRacing) May 18, 2021
Paul Menard fans were happy to learn this week that the former Cup Series driver will return to the track in the Truck Series race, competing for ThorSport Racing. Menard stepped away from NASCAR after the 2019 Cup season, but he’s coming back for what will be just his seventh Truck Series race and first since 2007.
Across 16 NASCAR seasons between 2003 and 2019, Menard had one Cup win, the 2011 Brickyard 400, and 20 top-5 finishes. Specifically in the Truck Series, his best finish was eighth in 2003 at Kansas Speedway.
8 If you can't get enough racing at COTA, you're in luck...
Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America Is Stronger Than Ever in 2021
— IMSA (@IMSA) May 19, 2021
NASCAR isn’t the only motor sports discipline competing at COTA this weekend. The IMSA-Sanctioned Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America Series will have two practices on Friday, followed by two 50-minute timed races — one on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET and one Sunday at 12:10 p.m. ET.