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What to Watch: Driving between the lines comes into focus at COTA

What to Watch: Driving between the lines comes into focus at COTA

EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix

(⏰ Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET | FOX | PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Weekend schedule | TV schedule | Weather tracker | NASCAR 101

Location: Austin, Texas
Track length: 3.41 miles
Cup Series race purse: $9,740,789
Race distance: 68 laps | 231.88 miles
Stages: 15 | 30 | 68

Starting lineup: Byron wins pole for Sunday’s race
Pit stall assignments:
See where drivers will pit
Defending winner:
Tyler Reddick, March 2023

Key things to watch

Saturday sessions

William Byron surged to the Busch Light Pole with a lap speed of 96.696 mph on Saturday morning, charging to his first pole position of the 2024 campaign. Ty Gibbs will start alongside Byron on the front row, with defending race winner Tyler Reddick starting third. Christopher Bell and Corey LaJoie completed the top five on the starting grid, with LaJoie posting his best career starting position in fifth.

Byron also posted the quickest single lap in practice at 94.703 mph, besting Gibbs at the very end of the extended practice session. Each of the two groups had two 20-minute sessions to adapt to the new aerodynamic package’s debut trip to a road course in 2024. Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace and Christopher Bell completed the top five in single-lap speeds.

Gibbs posted the best average speed over five consecutive laps around the 3.41-mile road course, ahead of Kyle Larson, Michael McDowell, Chase Briscoe and Bell.

Big story line

How important will it be to drive between the lines at COTA?

Track limits will come into focus this weekend at Circuit of The Americas, with plenty of pavement ready to catch drivers off the racing line — and send them for a long, sulking visit down pit road for a pass-through penalty if you go off course.

Only four of the track’s 20 corners have such restrictions for NASCAR competition — Turns 3 through 6 in the winding esses at the beginning of the 2-minute-plus lap around road course. Drivers will be permitted to straddle the red-and-white rumble strips through the twisting slalom section, but that balance will be extremely fine: Place all four tires on the non-track side of those curbs, and off to pit road.

“Basically, what I think they are trying to accomplish is just enforce it,” Tyler Reddick said Friday. “I think what is really important to them (officials) is being consistent about it. If it can‘t be consistently enforced, throughout the whole field, then there is really no point of having that chance of somebody getting away with something another car couldn‘t and getting penalized for it. There is a little bit of back-and-forth and trying to see where the limit is going to end up being, but at the end of the day — largely — how you approach this race track and how you run isn‘t changed to much by it.”

Reddick sped his way to a convincing victory in Austin one year ago and didn’t have much traffic out the windshield. But further back in traffic, those curbs may become a bit more difficult to stay between.

“Risk versus reward,” said Ross Chastain, the 2022 winner at COTA. “If we’re going for the win and we’re right there trying to get position on somebody, yeah, I’m pushing it to the edge of the rule. If we’re just trying to get to the next fuel stop and there’s nobody right around me and I don’t really need it … then I’ll move over six inches and I’ll go across the rumble strips normal.”

History tells us…

Don’t sleep on Chevrolet heading into this weekend. Plenty of eyes rest on Toyota thanks to its recent success and stout lineup, including defending race winner Tyler Reddick as well as road ace Martin Truex Jr., sophomore charger Ty Gibbs and the ever-dangerous duo of Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell.

Chevy, though, has combined to win 14 of the last 18 road races in the NASCAR Cup Series. Chase Elliott ranks third all-time in road wins with seven while Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson have proven strong contenders in the Next Gen car. AJ Allmendinger and Shane van Gisbergen are also sure to be in the hunt come Sunday afternoon for Kaulig Racing.

Byron led 94 laps on road courses in 2023, most of anyone on the circuit. Toyota will likely still be strong — its cars have won three of the last seven road events after a preceding 0-for-11 stretch — but the bowties will have something to say in Austin.

He may not be the betting favorite to win, but watch out for…

Alex Bowman. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team has been looking for a breakout performance, and where better for Bowman than COTA? Bowman opened the week at 25-1 odds to win, according to DraftKings, and has finished eighth, second and third in three COTA appearances. He still has no road-course wins on his resume, but Sunday could provide an opportunity to reach the top step of that proverbial podium. | COTA odds

Speed reads

Our biggest pieces of the week — get covered for race day from all angles.

• Turning Point: Trends from Bristol, heading to COTA | Read article
• Rulers of the road:
Every active road-course winner in the Cup Series | Photo gallery
• Reddick a man on a mission:
Defending winner eager to repeat in Austin | Read article
• SVG set for double duty:
Van Gisbergen to hop between Xfinity, Cup at COTA | Read article
• NASCAR Classics: Picks to click from our video library for COTA viewing | Read article
• 36 for 36:
NASCAR survivor pool selections for COTA | Read article
• Fearless prediction:
Racing Insights projects the final race results | Read article
• Fantasy Fastlane:
Lineup advice for COTA | Sleepers, drivers to avoid
• Paint Scheme Preview:
Kobayashi shines with Mobil 1 scheme | Pick a favorite
• Power Rankings:
Elliott set to reclaim road-course crown? | Latest driver rankings
• At-track photos:
Scenes, sights from scenic Texas track | Photo gallery

Fast facts

Race-relevant statistics, brought to you by the experts at Racing Insights.

• Toyota drivers won the pole for four of the last five road-course races.
• Six different organizations won the six road-course races in 2023.
• The driver who led the most laps won five of the six road-course races in 2023.