By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AUSTIN, Texas – With limited track time ahead of Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, a number of NASCAR Cup Series drivers took the opportunity to climb behind the wheel in the lower series to get some additional laps around the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course.
Saturday’s first race, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series XPEL 225, would feature Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman, and Kaz Grala trying to gather valuable intel on the tricky track.
Bowman started highest among the Cup regulars from third, while Busch would start the 42-lap race in fifth-place, and Grala rolled off from 18th place.
When the Truck Series green flag flew shortly after 1:00 pm ET, Busch quickly advanced to the lead, with Bowman holding steady in the top-five throughout the first stage. Busch would give up the lead near the end of the first stage to make his first trip to pit road, finishing the stage in ninth.
The second stage would see Busch finishing fourth, while Bowman and Grala ended the stage outside the top-10.
Busch looked to be walking away with the victory, leading through regulation and into overtime, but things only went downhill from there. While he was able to hold off a charge from Bowman during the first overtime period, the second overtime would not end as well.
As Busch, Bowman, and Stewart Friesen all tried to funnel down into Turn 11, the three drivers found themselves three-wide entering the hairpin turn, but contact between Bowman and Friesen would send Busch off track, allowing Zane Smith to skate by for the lead and the win.
“We had a great race all day,” Busch said after leading three times for 31 laps. “I really appreciate everyone at KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) and their hard work and everyone there who does a good job building such fast trucks. I felt like we deserved that one, but it doesn’t matter if you deserve it or not. It’s just a matter if you get it. You have to be the first one to the checkered flag to win these things and we just weren’t.
Asked by Motorsports Tribune if there was anything he could take from Saturday’s Truck race into Sunday’s Cup race, Busch noted that while the vehicles are different, the additional track time was valuable.
“Just trying to learn a little bit more about the track and how it changes through the day, but the vehicles are completely different, so not much on how the stuff drives,” Busch said.
Bowman would drop to 25th at the finish after getting collected in a spin on the last lap, while Grala completed the race in 14th.
A greater contingent of drivers running in Sunday’s Cup race would take part in the Xfinity Series race, with five of them spread throughout the 38-car field.
Those drivers included Xfinity regular AJ Allmendinger, who is also running Cup part-time in 2022, Josh Bilicki, Ross Chastain, Cole Custer, and Bubba Wallace.
Chastain, Custer, and Allmendinger rolled off from second, third, and fourth, respectively. Wallace started the race back in 15th place, with Bilicki bringing up the rear among the Cup regulars in 27th.
Allmendinger showed off his road racing prowess early and often by outrunning polesitter Ty Gibbs to take the stage win, while the remainder of the Cup drivers ended the first stage outside the top-10.
The race continued to be the Allmendinger show, as he kept the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet at or near the front for many of the remaining laps, with his biggest challenge coming from Chastain.
However, in the waning stages of the race, it became clear that it was Allmendinger’s race to lose, especially after Chastain was spun in front of the field on a restart, relegating him to the back of the pack, and Custer was hit with a pit road speeding penalty.
With his biggest challengers subdued, Allmendinger walked away with the victory, crossing the line more than two seconds ahead of Austin Hill.
Custer rebounded to finish third, with Chastain finishing in 17th. Transmission issues hampered Bubba Wallace’s run as he ended the day in 28th, while Bilicki finished in 35th.
As far as their takeaways from Saturday’s race heading into Sunday, the consensus seems to be that the esses are going to be the biggest problem area on Sunday, especially without the curbing “turtles” in that area of the track to keep drivers from straying too far off track. In both the Xfinity and Truck races, NASCAR had to step in and make judgement calls to penalize those that overstepped their boundaries
“They’re still the same corner, but you straight-line it a little bit more,” Allmendinger said. “With that, you carry more speed into it…I don’t know the speed, but it feels like you’re carrying at least 10 mph more through the esses. So, if you make a mistake or the car steps out, its hard to gather up and you lose a lot more time than I feel like you did last year. I feel like everybody was kind of stuck at the same pace through there because with the curbing, you could only run a certain speed.
“You can push the limit, but you don’t want to overstep it, because if you do and NASCAR makes a call, you can’t argue it. You’re going to have to do a drive through and that’s going to really hurt your race. It’s the same for everybody, but it’s definitely made the esses a bit different compared to last year.”
“I think the biggest thing is the esses, just kind of getting a rhythm there,” Custer added. “It was kind of worthwhile I think getting in a rhythm and kind of getting the visuals down through there.”
Despite the late race incident that dropped him out of contention for the win, Chastain concurred with his colleagues about the esses, adding that he was grateful for the additional track time behind the wheel of Mario Gosselin owned machine.
“The experience I got and the reps I got today, the restarts, the esses in traffic. They’re so hard to see the lines and the rumble strips,” Chastain said of his takeaways from Saturday. “Try not to get over the limit for NASCAR (Sunday). I don’t want to put them in a bad spot myself, so a lot of learning today. Just eyesight, sight lines of what’s legal and what’s not.”
Among the drivers that raced on Saturday, Custer will start the highest when the green flag flies on Sunday, rolling off from third-place. Bowman starts in fifth, followed by Busch in 15th, Chastain in 16th, Allmendinger in 20th, Wallace in 23rd, Grala in 31st, and Bilicki in 34th.
The EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix is scheduled for 3:30 pm ET on FOX.