Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas

What happened?

Ross Chastain shoved AJ Allmendinger around to take his first career NASCAR Cup Series win in the final corners of the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix in Austin, Texas on Sunday, March 27. Finishing runner-up was Alex Bowman, followed by Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott and Tyler Reddick to round out the top five.

It is Team Trackhouse’s first-ever win as an organization since joining the sport last year.

How did it happen?

With a good old-fashioned dump and run.

When it came down to the final stage, it was all about the Melon Man and the road course ace Allmendinger.

For the first two stages, both drivers were mostly absent from the lead. Chastain had only finished eighth in stage two and Allmendinger hadn’t earned any extra points at all.

But immediately upon the beginning of the final stage and with the end in sight, that changed.

Upon the green flag on lap 33, Chastain grabbed the lead. It was clear after that this wasn’t going to be some temporary visit in the front, as he wound up leading 31 laps total, nearly half of the race.

Joining him was Allmendinger, who always seemed to be in the top five near the end. When he had reached the back bumper of Chastain, the veteran stayed behind looking for any opportunity to make a pass.

With yellows waving often, however, their skirmishes were interrupted before Allmendinger could make a pass. There were seven unscheduled cautions throughout the day. All of them were in the final stage.

As many expected, it came down to an overtime restart.

Reddick had snuck by to take the lead while the two tangled in the first corner before the final caution flag waved, which meant he would restart on the bottom, moving Chastain and Allmendinger back to different lanes than what they had been using.

In the first corner, the three fanned out and made it three abreast while descending the hill into the esses section of the track. Chastain fell in line behind Reddick but only to nudge him while entering the third corner. Chastain had the lead by the time they exited the esses, and led the way to the white flag. All the Trackhouse driver had to do was stay ahead of Allmendinger for one more lap.

But COTA is a big track. One lap takes a while.

Upon entering the final sector on the last lap, Allmendinger braked late into turn 12 and suddenly the gap was gone. With less than half a lap to go, the sports car veteran was right on the back bumper of the No. 1. Allmendinger nudged Chastain slightly wide and had a clear windshield with less than a third of a lap left. The problem was that he ran wide as well.

And then Bowman appeared. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had snuck his way into the top five by the end of the 69-lap event. For a couple hundred feet, it appeared that Bowman was about to back his way into another win.

Allmendinger had two corners to get back around the No. 48. With one lunge, he took the inside lane in the penultimate corner of the track.

And then Chastain appeared. With what started as a shove, Chastain turned the No. 16 Kaulig Racing car into the No. 48, knocking both contenders out of the way in his version of NASCAR shuffleboard.

Chastain sailed into the lead and a win while Allmendinger ended up 33rd.

Who stood out?

Who else?

Both Chastain and Allmendinger were not focused on winning stages. For Allmendinger, a part-time driver, focusing on the end result of the race was a given. He doesn’t need points and was only there for the win.

Chastain was a different story, though. After 120 career Cup starts, the Floridian watermelon farmer had come close on so many occasions to winning his first race but had always fallen short. In 2022, the Trackhouse cars were showing speed on a weekly basis. With an average finish of 2.3 in the last three races before Sunday, Chastain was seemingly on the verge of a win.

In order to do it, however, he had to battle one of the greatest road racers in NASCAR history in Allmendinger. It was a clash between the young and hungry up-and-comer and the seasoned wise racing veteran. It’s a sports story as old as competition itself.

This time, young and hungry won, as it has for the last 12 races.

The best part? It went on for almost half the race.

The first half was a story for somebody completely different: the other side of the Trackhouse Racing garage and Daniel Suarez. After starting second, he dominated stage one, as he led all 15 laps on his way to the stage victory.

Unfortunately, almost immediately after Suarez joined a very long list of drivers and spun in the first corner on the restart. The spin gave the Trackhouse racer a flat tire and he had to limp all the way around the 3.4-mile circuit back to pit road under green.

The No. 99 seemed unable to recover. After being shuffled back into the tornado of cars that was the mid-field, Suarez stayed there. He finished 24th. It wasn’t a great result, but for 15 laps, Suarez seemed unbeatable as he flexed his Trackhouse muscles.

With a win from a dominant Chastain, it’s fair to say that Team Trackhouse is no longer rising.

Not only was it the organization’s first win, but it was its fifth consecutive top-five result. In fact, the team has only had one race where they didn’t have a car in the top five, which was the Daytona 500.

We are reaching the point where it’s time to consider that Trackhouse isn’t having some short-term success but may actually be really competitive. Maybe even championship competitive.

Who fell flat?

Chase Briscoe‘s right front tire.

Briscoe was having a whale of a day in the final stage of the race. Along with front runners Chastain and Allmendinger, for a few laps, it seemed that Briscoe may have been able to pull off his second career win only two weeks after his first. On lap 45, he even took the lead from Chastain before giving it back two laps later.

But near the end of the race, while approaching the final 10 laps, Briscoe was nudged out of the line while going through the esses in turn 5 after a restart. He was forced to cut the corner before rejoining four places back from where he was.

The off-track excursion brought upon a penalty for the No. 14. Briscoe and the team promptly argued it, claiming they were forced off. The penalty was rescinded, but Briscoe had fallen far and away from the field after flat-spotting his tires forced him to pit.

Near the end, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver had rejoined the top 20, but a right front flat tire on the final lap brought the No. 14’s progress to a screeching halt, almost literally. After what was looking like what was going to be another promising day for Briscoe’s already successful 2022 season, the Ford team finished 30th.

What did this race prove?

Briscoe was not the first driver to be penalized for cutting the corners. Heck, he wasn’t even the second. Or third. Or fourth.

With the sudden burst of the number of road course races in the NASCAR Cup Series, it’s clear the sanctioning body is still learning how to properly officiate them as the growing pains continue to show in this new era of NASCAR.

One of the biggest gripes for many drivers was the corner-cutting officiating rule that saw seven drivers penalized throughout the event. The rule was made for the esses section of the track. All four tires could not go below the white and red striped painted on the sides of the track. The areas below the striped were deemed out of bounds.

Going below the stripes would result in a pass-through penalty or a restart at the tail end of the field.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Briscoe was forced below the line after contact with another car. With no choice but to go off-track. Thankfully, the sanctioning body did cancel the penalty, but for a moment, the NASCAR world was upset with the call and understandably confused.

The Xfinity race, however, saw some off-road excursions that seemed to be left unanswered. Leaving the ambiguousness of the line rule as confusing and frustrating as it is at superspeedway races, and one week after Bell was penalized and demoted to a 23rd-place finish for going below the line on the last lap at Atlanta, the rule remains relevant even one week after.

But with six road course races throughout the year and now six superspeedway races, the rule is now more relevant than ever.

Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Paint scheme of the race

Brad Keselowski had the week from hell, but at least his car looked great.

It’s not the first time RFK has run it this year, but it certainly was best-of-show on race day.

A blue and white scheme is great, but the team has been making use of the new rule that allows it to use chrome numbers. Sunday, it was a blue chrome finish, giving it that reflective look.

Hopefully, at some point this year, they’ll run it at night.

Better than last time?

A clear sky over the Texas-based circuit on Sunday garnered an immediate improvement over the 2021 version of this race. There were no scary crashes that sprung from a misty field of view. This time around, drivers didn’t have to fear for their safety like they did in 2021.

Most importantly of all, there was no early end to the race.

And that’s good because with 13 lead changes among nine different drivers that ended with one of them earning their first career win, it was a pretty good one.

Need I say more?

What’s next?

The Cup Series goes back east to Richmond Raceway for its first of two consecutive Virginia short track races.

Cup Series practice begins on Saturday, April 2 at 10:30 a.m. ET and will be followed by qualifying at 11:15 a.m. ET with TV coverage being provided by FOX Sports 1. The Toyota Owners 400 will follow on Sunday, April 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021 after writing for IMSA. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and graduated with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

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Sally Baker

Nascar really needs to consider local yellows. WAY too much time spent under cautions for single car spins.

Bill B

I enjoyed yesterday’s race. It sure has been a strange start to the season. Incredible that all the winners have been under 30 years of age. Perhaps drivers that have been around for awhile have a harder time adapting to the new car. The old teaching an old dog new tricks syndrome.

Personally, since I am not a fanboy of any one driver, I am fine with the established “stars” of the sport being absent from victory lane. I hope Reddick gets his first win soon as he has been running up front and knocking on the door since last year.

Before the race it was noted that Austin Dillon had never finished in the top 10 in like 26 road course starts. Well he managed to finish 10th yesterday proving that it is true, if you give a monkey a typewriter it will eventually type a word.

DoninAjax

Maybe Reddick will move Chastein to get his first win and we’ll see what Ross says. Ironhead and his fans didn’t like Jeremy Mayfield rattling his cage at Pocono.

Bill B

Maybe Reddick will be leading on the last lap and there won’t be a GWC to even give Chastain the chance to spin him out,.

DoninAjax

I noticed they made a big deal of The Undertaker driving the pace. car. That’s another WWE character involved in a NA$CAR event, like the diva as the starter at Daytona. Seems appropriate since Vince M is Brian’s hero and NA$CAR has learned a lot from him on how to put on a show.

Kevin in SoCal

WWE is on Fox channels now, so there is more cross-promotion.

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