Outside competition to challenge Xfinity Series regulars at COTA

·4 min read
Outside competition to challenge Xfinity Series regulars at COTA

By all accounts, the NASCAR Xfinity Series competitors are eager to give the Circuit of The Americas a true “go” this weekend with championship contenders prepared to have to hold off NASCAR Cup Series regulars as well as a handful of sports-car aces as the series debuts Saturday at the renowned road course.

The Pit Boss 250 (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) on the 3.41-mile, 20-turn, elevation-changing course has brought out big names and plenty of star power intent to be a part of this historic first race.

RELATED: Full weekend schedule for COTA

Five NASCAR Cup Series drivers — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Austin Dillon — are entered Saturday. And then there’s another road-course ringer group that includes Andy Lally, Spencer Pumpelly and one of the sport‘s most popular drivers, Boris Said, who will be making his first NASCAR start since 2017 and his first Xfinity Series start since 2015.

However, they will be challenging an Xfinity Series championship contingent that has long established itself as a legitimate force to be reckoned with on road courses.

Reigning champion and current points leader Austin Cindric is not only coming off a series-best third victory last week at the Dover International Speedway, he‘s an absolute favorite this weekend at COTA.

The 22-year-old began his career making a name with victories on road courses. In fact, the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has won at Watkins Glen International, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Road America and the Daytona International Speedway Road Course, where this year he answered his 2020 victory with an overtime runner-up finish.

Chief among Cindric‘s competitors — especially on road courses — is the versatile AJ Allmendinger — a race winner in NASCAR, IMSA and IndyCar. The 39-year-old veteran is running a full Xfinity Series season this year and brings with him previous Xfinity Series wins at Road America, Mid-Ohio and the Charlotte ROVAL (twice) as well as scoring his only NASCAR Cup Series win on the famed Watkins Glen road course. The driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet is currently fourth in the Xfinity championship standings with a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway early in the season.

RELATED: Justin Haley cleared to return at COTA

And then there are those NASCAR Cup Series drivers hoping to get some laps in and be better acquainted with the new track by their race Sunday.

Busch has four previous NASCAR Cup Series wins on road courses — a pair at Watkins Glen and a pair at Sonoma Raceway— and two Xfinity Series victories (2008 at Mexico City and 2017 at Watkins Glen). Harvick has won at Watkins Glen (2006) and Sonoma (2017) in the Cup Series and at Montreal (2007) and Watkins Glen (2007) in the Xfinity Series. Dillon, Custer and Reddick have never won a NASCAR race on a road course.

All year, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series driver, Daniel Hemric, has been one to watch. He has been ranked second in the championship points since March. Hemric doesn‘t have a victory yet in the Xfinity Series, but he has been close with a runner-up finish at Las Vegas and three third-place finishes in 2021. He‘s coming off back-to-back top-10 runs at Darlington Raceway and Dover heading into Austin. His best work on a road course is runner-up to Indy 500 champion Sam Hornish in the 2017 Mid-Ohio Xfinity Series race. The driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota has five career top-three finishes on road courses.

“COTA is unlike anywhere I‘ve ever seen or raced on,” Hemric said. “We‘ve all been using the simulator and our tools that Toyota provides us with to prepare, but it‘s going to be a huge challenge. There are a lot of hard braking zones and long straights; just stuff we aren‘t used to with our cars and heavy they are. Managing tires and brakes will be critical because the sharp corners lead onto long straights so that will be a huge opportunity to either gain or lose time with how long it takes to get around the track. I‘m pumped up for it.”