Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Road Course Ringers Visit the NASCAR School of Hard Knocks in Austin

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

AUSTIN, Texas – Welcome to NASCAR, gentlemen.

Needless to say Sunday’s marathon EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas was an eye-opening experience for the road course ringers that came to play in the NASCAR Cup Series this weekend in Austin.

Jenson Button and Jordan Taylor, champions in Formula 1 and IMSA, respectively, were making their first start in the Cup Series and were joined by another former F1 world champion in Kimi Raikkonen making just his second Cup start.

By the time the checkered flag fell, they had all been taken to the school of hard knocks.

Button, driving the No. 15 Ford for Rick Ware Racing, placed the best of them with an 18th place result, but at one point in the race, the Englishman thought he might not make it to the end – battling both the heat in the car and the aggressive nature of NASCAR road course racing.

Regardless, the 2009 F1 champion was all smiles afterwards as he recounted his day.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” Button said. “First, it was terrible. I mean, I must’ve been last by the end of it. And I was just like, ‘Everyone: Go. I just need to drive and find a rhythm.’ I’ve never gone through a corner two-wide, so often. And trying to place my car in the right place – I just got it wrong every time.

“Normally, if you’re a little bit slow through a corner, nobody tries to overtake you from the outside. Because they’re not going to make it all the way on the next one. But here they do, because they get a wheel inside for the next one, and if you turn in, you turn around. The first stint was really bad – it was embarrassing for me. I was like, ‘All right guys, we need to pit, freshen the tires and I need some air – I need some fresh air.’ I got that. The pace was good, consistency was good. I was really happy… and passed a few cars which was nice.

“We got a little bit unlucky with the safety car because it was just two laps before our window. Pitted, then the next stint was mayhem. We also made a couple of changes that just didn’t work. Big oversteer – went from the car feeling great to really difficult to drive. I also had a massive whack from Kimi [Räikkönen], and it fell off after that. The car wasn’t quite right. Everytime I turned in, the rear tires would chatter, then immediately to oversteer. It was really difficult, but towards the end, we made some good calls stopping and putting on fresh tires.

“I enjoyed the last three restarts – got good placement and good overtaking moves from the outside. Finished 18th after almost stopping because I had heat exhaustion. It was so hot, I don’t have a fan in my seat which really didn’t help me too much. It was so hot, I thought I was going to faint in the car. So, I stopped twice for a minute. They put ice on me, gave me loads of water, and I went back out.

 “I was so close to getting out of the car because I thought I was going to faint. I must’ve drank eight… nine bottles of water during the race. The team kept me calm, and it’s the reason why we got a good result in the end. So, I was happy.”

With his first Cup start in the bank, Button will now prepare for two additional starts at Chicago and Indianapolis, along with his duties with the NASCAR Garage 56 program in Le Mans this summer.

Taylor, a world-class road course racer in his own right, impressed many with his strong performance to start the weekend with a top-10 in practice and a top-five qualifying effort, but things quickly came undone for him when the green flag dropped on Sunday.

After rolling off from fourth place, he soon found himself swallowed up by the snarling pack behind as he got his bearings, dropping to mid-pack, where it was a survival game from there on out.

By the time the checkered flag flew, Taylor brought his battered Chevrolet across the line in 24th place and left him with some newfound knowledge about the state of road course racing in NASCAR.

“It was a bit of a disaster,” Taylor said. “I had a couple mistakes early on of my own and then from there it was just kind of damage control, trying not to get smashed too many times. Every restart was just survival. I couldn’t figure out what to do, not to get knocked out of the way. It just seems like if you leave any hole, or even if you don’t leave a hole, they’ll just drive in the back of you.

“I’m not sure what I would’ve done differently looking back, but I think those mistakes early on set us back too far to be in that mid pack. Because we had speed in the car. Anytime we had clean air, it seemed like we could pick guys off. It was just when everyone was bunched together they don’t leave you a whole lot of space.”

Taylor added that the biggest surprise of the entire weekend was the aggressive driving that he experienced throughout the day, especially coming from the sports car world where the aggression is not nearly at the level of a Cup Series road course race.

“The aggression definitely caught me off guard,” he said. “I think I’ve had more contact today in one race than probably my entire career combined. I honestly didn’t know how the car was still driving straight after at the end. So, the cars are strong. Hendrick Motorsports built a strong, safe car. It was fast. Just disappointed we couldn’t give them kind of the day they deserved.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my whole life. I mean, if someone came over to the sports car side and did that, it would be like ejected out of the race immediately. So, for me, I should have probably expected that just watching years past. But I think when you’re actually in the car getting smashed around, it’s a much different experience.

“I think even when you’re 29th battling for 29th position, they don’t care. They’ll go for 28th and just use you up. So just a different form of racing that I guess I wasn’t used to, probably should’ve expected. But yeah, it’s still cool to get my first Cup racing debut. Just wish it would’ve been a little bit better.”

And last, but not least, was Raikkonen, who spent most of the day deep in the pack, but a late strategy call – prior to the triple overtime finish – nearly saw the 2007 F1 champion end the day in a much better position than his eventual 27th place result.

“I think it wasn’t too bad,” Raikkonen said of his second run with the Trackhouse Racing Project 91 entry. “We got unlucky with the incidents that happened. It was one of those things, unfortunately. Then there were no tires left. They kept coming, getting more restarts and more restarts, so I think after the spin I had, the tires were just done.

“It’s a shame because when we were there, but then we restart, and just wrong place, wrong time. It was a case of trying to stay out of the issues in the first corners and every time. It looked like you’d be very good, then three corners later, somebody’s going the wrong direction. There’s a bit of mess and luck involved.”

With two starts now under his belt in the Cup Series, would Raikkonen be up for a third? At this point, anything is fair game.

“I don’t know. I mean, nobody knows. It’s such a shame how it went in the end, but I think we did the right thing. We were there. But then on the restart it’s how it was. We’ll see what the future brings. Right now, I have no clue.

“It was a long race. Our cool suit didn’t work half of the race, it stopped working. So it was quite hot in the car. It was fun going through the field, but it was a bit intense on the restarts.” 

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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.