Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Road Course Ringers Ready for Challenge of COTA Cup Race

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

AUSTIN, Texas – In addition to the NASCAR Cup Series regulars that will be racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas, Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix has drawn some familiar faces from elsewhere in the motorsports world into the fold as well.

Among those drivers is seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson making another appearance for the team he co-owns – Legacy Motor Club – and two former Formula 1 world champions in Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button driving for Trackhouse Racing and Rick Ware Racing, respectively.

Jordan Taylor, a standout driver in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and driving coach for the Le Mans Garage 56 program that includes Johnson and Button, makes his Cup Series debut driving in relief of the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Taylor started off the weekend on a high note, timing in inside the top-10 during Cup Series practice on Friday, while the others have some work to do, finishing the session from 25th on back.

“Any driver wants to be at the front and battling for the win, but I think I have to keep my expectations in check,” Taylor said earlier in the week. “Everyone in the Cup Series these days is good on every form of racing, whether it’s a superspeedway, short track or a road course. I know that it’s going to be a big uphill battle, battling these guys.

“From a driver’s perspective, I have the belief that I can figure out how to drive the car and then it just comes down to the little details of pit stops, pit lane speed. I’m used to pushing a button on the steering wheel and it controls my pit lane speed. In NASCAR, you have to control it all yourself. So little details like that are the things that I’ve been bouncing off Chase (Elliott); little tricks of the trade and what to expect. Even little things like coming into the pit box, knowing how to launch the car and things like that.

“I know it’s going to be a big challenge, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”

Johnson is no stranger to success in the Cup Series, but will be facing the same learning curve as his fellow road course ringers, having to not only learn how to race the Next Gen car on the treacherous road course, but also handling the new aero package that is in place this weekend.

“I’m really, really excited for this weekend,” Johnson said. “I’ve personally always wanted to race at this track, so to have an opportunity to come back and compete on this track — it’s so technical and really a lot of fun to drive around here. Thankful we ended up with a few more laps of practice this weekend with the rule changes to the car.

“Had a great time out there trying to figure the car out. A lot less grip than I remember a Cup car having, and certainly a lot less grip than what I’ve been driving over the last two years. So,rying to dial that all in and then also understand what this car might respond to from an adjustment standpoint. Just a ton of learning going on, but a great experience today and very excited about this weekend.”

While Johnson has been able to test the Garage 56 car around the Austin circuit, he noted that even though the car is a variant of the Next Gen car, the vast differences between the two make it so much of that knowledge won’t transfer over to Sunday.

“Much less, without a doubt,” Johnson said of the similarities between the two. “I think there’s almost 400 pounds of weight out of the Garage 56 car and around double the downforce, much bigger tire carbon brakes. Like the Garage 56 car has a lot more grip than a Cup car does around here, to say the least.

“I’m still using a rearview mirror, I don’t think many are, but looking in the rearview mirror and seeing how big the spoiler is here this weekend compared to the Garage 56 car, I mean, it’s got to be a foot difference in just rear downforce alone. So much different experience.”

Like his fellow Garage 56 teammates, Button has been able to put in some time in the specially prepared stock car, but this weekend is new territory for the 2009 F1 champion driving a Cup car in competition.

“This is a great opportunity for me,” Button said. “I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be racing a Cup car. So, this is a lovely opportunity. I’ve got to thank Mobil 1 for it. As you probably know, I’ve been doing quite a bit of driving in a stock car, racing at Le Mans later this year. But we don’t really have so much competition in that. So, this is exciting.

“You know, I get to race against 30 other crazy guys out there. So really, really looking forward to the challenge. And it definitely is a big challenge. You know, jumping in the car for a 50-minute practice session and that’s it before we go qualifying and racing is tough, I think, for anyone that’s not used to big heavy cars and low downforce cars.

“I’m enjoying the process. You know, the team has been great and I’m looking forward to it. To a good weekend, a solid weekend. You know, the car felt pretty good out there and I think tomorrow in qualifying when it really counts to get a lap in, it’s a bit more pressure. But we’ll see how it goes, but setup wise, working with my guys and improving it. We’re going in the right direction.”

Button echoed Johnson’s comments on the differences between the Garage 56 car and the Cup car, explaining that even though much won’t translate between the two, he’s ready for the challenge Sunday brings.

“People are like, you know, this is really useful for Garage 56 program,” Button said. “But it’s not. It’s very different. You know, it’s paddle shift, it’s got downforce, it’s lighter, kind of like eight seconds a lap quicker. But they both have their place, I enjoy both of them equally.

“It’s fun with a project that you are involved with in terms of development, but it’s also fun jumping in a stock car that is the same as pretty much everyone else on the grid. I’m a racing driver and I love racing, whatever it is. Racing at Le Mans is spectacular. It’s such a special place. If you haven’t been, you have to go. But you know, for me, going wheel to wheel here, it’s pretty special.”

No matter the outcome here this weekend, it won’t be one and done for Button, as he will race at Chicago and Indianapolis later this year in his three-race Cup Series stint. Those races of course are in addition to his Garage 56 duties in France this summer.

“I expect a challenging race, but a race where I’m gonna learn a lot as well,” Button said. “And you know, that’s why I wanted to do three races this year. One race isn’t enough. I need the experience of here at COTA before I moved to Chicago and then the last one in Indianapolis. So, you know, there’s no reason for me not to be competitive. It just takes a bit of time. These guys have driven these cars for years. They know the nuances and what makes them work. Which just takes a little bit of time for me.”

Then there’s Raikkonen, who makes his second Cup Series start on Sunday following his debut at Watkins Glen last August.

Though practice did not go as planned for the 2007 F1 champion and winner of the 2018 F1 race at Circuit of the Americas, the driver of the No. 91 Chevrolet is ready for whatever may come his way when the green flag flies on Sunday.

“It’s the same track, but it feels a lot different in an F1 car than in NASCAR,” Raikkonen said. “You know, a lot of the corners are more, more kind of the straights in F1 with all the downforce and yeah, it gets a bit more tricky with the NASCAR car. But no, it’s it’s nice to be back and it’s a lovely place here in Texas, so let’s hope we can do well. We try to improve from yesterday, today and let’s see what we do in the race.

“I haven’t driven any race cars since the last year, so you know, it’s takes a while to get used to it again, even I know the car. The car has lost some downfall, so it makes a bit more, more tail happy, but you know, at least I know the most of the things, how it goes. Is it gonna give any, any, any better results? We’ll find out.”

Next up for these drivers is qualifying to set the field on Saturday, leading into Sunday’s main event at 3:30 pm ET on FOX.

Tags : , , , , , , , , , ,

David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.