One of the most exciting aspects of this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Road America?
The uncertainty of it all.
Cup hasn’t contested a race on the track since Tim Flock’s day in the sun in Aug. 12, 1956 (I mean, assuming it wasn’t overcast). Much like Circuit of the Americas and Nashville Superspeedway earlier this year, there isn’t a group of past races one can point to and say, hey, Cup cars on Road America is going to look a lot like this or a lot like that.
Unlike COTA but like Nashville, there are a few aids in projecting what Sunday (July 4) will be like, though. In fact, these statistics are even better than what we had for Nashville.
Because Nashville, despite its standing as a then-former Xfinity and Camping World Truck series track that returned to the schedule alongside its Cup debut, hadn’t actually contested a NASCAR national event in a decade, meaning a good chunk of today’s drivers in the field were not yet on the national stage then.
Road America? Xfinity was there last year.
And that’s not all. The ARCA Menards Series has made it to Road America twice in the last decade, most recently in 2017. The former NASCAR Midwest Series also made a stop there in 2001.
Point is, when it comes to previous stock car races from which we can pull data, there are options. And pull we shall.
Entering Sunday, 28 of the 40 drivers starting the Cup race at Road America have some sort of stock car experience on the track in a national series setting before 2021. That number will stretch to 31 by the green flag, assuming Cody Ware, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick all start Saturday’s (July 3) Xfinity race as anticipated.
The nine others are mostly a combination of series veterans (Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman), Cup newcomers with oodles of road course experience (Kyle Tilley, Ryan Eversley) and youngsters with Xfinity and ARCA experience who just never made it to the track for whatever reason (Corey LaJoie, Anthony Alfredo, Quin Houff).
As for the other 28, there’s a solid chance a former winner at Road America will be in victory lane Sunday, too.
Five of the entered drivers this weekend have tasted victory in a stock car at the track before, four of which came in the Xfinity Series. AJ Allmendinger, who’ll climb aboard Kaulig Racing’s part-time No. 16, won in a Team Penske car in 2013. Full-timer Michael McDowell then scored a victory for Richard Childress Racing in 2016. The last two Road America outings have been won by Christopher Bell and Austin Cindric, the latter of whom joins Allmendinger as one of the part-timers looking to spoil the show for the regulars this weekend.
The fifth, Chris Buescher, scored an ARCA win in 2013 while driving for Roulo Brothers Racing.
Of those listed, only one — Bell — drives full time with a premier team, in this case Joe Gibbs Racing. Cindric’s got Penske power but is one of its extras, Buescher’s Roush Fenway Racing organization isn’t what it once was, Kaulig’s still finding its footing in Cup and Front Row Motorsports, despite a win this year with McDowell, is still generally considered a mid-pack outfit.
But Road America has often shown that it isn’t a horsepower-intensive track. Jeremy Clements won a race there in the Xfinity Series in a No. 51 that rarely has the speed to compete for bona fide wins, both then and now. In 2014, Brendan Gaughan from RCR was crowned the Xfinity winner, but not before Rick Ware Racing’s Kevin O’Connell made a spirited attempt at the win in the final two laps before finishing third. The top 10 of 2011’s Xfinity race is full of teams you didn’t often see there.
It’s also a track where first-time winners have been abundant. In addition to Clements, Gaughan, Allmendinger and McDowell, Nelson Piquet Jr. also won his first Xfinity race at the track, giving Road America five first-time victors in the series in 11 contested events thus far.
That’s potentially a recipe for someone who isn’t one of the usual suspects visiting victory lane. Enter those five previous winners. Between them, they have four total Cup wins entering this weekend — one apiece except for Cindric, who’s winless.
But seeing any of them taking the checkered flag first Sunday is, frankly, something that doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Bell’s a winner this season on a road course — the Daytona International Speedway road course, that is. McDowell’s long been known as a contender on road courses no matter his equipment, and in 2021 in particular he’s got top 10s in two of the three road course events. Allmendinger can never be counted out and has finished fifth and seventh in his two Cup starts this year — both road courses — to boot. Cindric’s lack of Cup experience is offset by a strong COTA run that saw him start third and be in the mix until a late-race spin. Buescher’s the only wildcard, but intermittent strong road course runs (including a fifth at the Daytona road course last year) are encouraging.
Not to say someone else couldn’t sneak in there. Despite just one top 10 in his limited Road America experience so far, it’s difficult to count out Kyle Larson right now. Same goes for Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, who boasts a pair of top fives in his two Road America starts and is always a road course threat. Ryan Blaney has just one Road America start, but it was a second-place run.
There’s something to be said for experience, though, and that’s something that both McDowell and Cindric can claim. McDowell’s started five Xfinity races at the track, while Cindric will make his fifth come Saturday. The only others with those kinds of numbers in the Cup field are Ross Chastain, who’s got five starts at the track and two top 10s, and Josh Bilicki, who will run his sixth Xfinity race at Road America Saturday before he drives Ware’s No. 52 Sunday.
Heck, remember O’Connell for RWR in 2014? RWR’s kind of stacked the deck this weekend between Bilicki, Ware, Eversley and James Davison, all drivers known for road course racing before anything else. Perhaps this is the weekend one of the series’ underdogs marches to the front.
All told, though, I’m going with the five who’ve been in victory lane before at Road America. Experience is actually going to play a factor Sunday (though having actual practice and qualifying will help those behind the eight ball catch up a bit), and these guys have definitely got it.