Column: COTA yet another sloppy NASCAR road course race
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kimi Raikkonen couldn’t get over how many restarts there were in the waning laps of NASCAR’s first road course race of the season. Jordan Taylor called his NASCAR debut “a race of survival” and Jenson Button found much of it “a bit silly.”
That was the verdict from three of the most experienced road racers in the world after a mess of a NASCAR race that took three overtimes to be decided. Tyler Reddick finally won it Sunday when the race at Circuit of the Americas went seven laps past the scheduled distance to reach a conclusion.
Raikkonen, who scored his final Formula One victory on the Texas road course in 2018, found himself fourth on one of the many late restarts with a view of the lead out his front windshield. That didn’t last long; he was gobbled up, run off course and shuffled back to a 29th-place finish.
“It looked like you’d be very good, then three corners later, somebody’s going the wrong direction,” the former F1 world champion said. “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.”
Button, the 2009 F1 world champion who has two more NASCAR races scheduled this season and is part of NASCAR’s lineup in a modified stock car for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, was the highest-finishing road course ringer at 18th. It was an eye-opening experience for the British driver based on the length of the race — the overtimes sent it past its scheduled distance of 68 laps for a run time of 3 hours, 30 minutes — and the physical nature of NASCAR drivers using stock cars to slam into one another.
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Button said he experienced heat exhaustion during a race he found 60% enjoyable but “40% of it kind of felt a bit silly, the amount that we were hitting each other.”
“In Turn 1 I would turn in and get whacked ... and on the exit I got a big whack back,” Button said. “The revenge is enjoyable, but there’s points where it feels that we could do better. I mean the action’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, The first 10 laps, it just destroyed me. Every time I was in a corner I had someone overtaking me.”
And then there was Taylor, a four-time IMSA sports car champion and class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans who was driving Chase Elliott’s car for Hendrick Motorsports. His Chevrolet should have been a contender, but Taylor, who is accustomed to driving in fields full of cars with various speed capabilities and vastly different talent levels, found the entire event “definitely wild.”
“I wouldn’t say I survived. I feel like I’m beat up. Every restart, you just get smashed in the front, rear, side,” Taylor said after finishing 24th. “It was pretty much just survival. The guys knew I’d be a little bit more hesitant, so they would take advantage of it.
“I’d say it was a disappointing day. We had good pace, but we just got shuffled back every restart. Tough day.
And that’s what NASCAR road course racing has become, especially with the durable Next Gen car that can withstand considerable bumping and banging and typically still finish a race. Veteran Cup drivers have been lambasting declining on-track etiquette, which was evident Sunday on nearly every restart as dozens of cars would launch into the first turn with little regard to who or what they hit.
Reddick said it’s a combination of the strength of the car and aggressive drivers angling for every position possible on track.
“The way that things kind of have progressed, the front and rear bumpers of this car are really resilient. You can really hit someone pretty hard without knocking the nose of your car out. The rear bumpers are really tough, too,” Reddick said. “You look at Turn 1 here, Turn 1 at Indy road course, they’re very inviting corners with a lot of room. It’s just a product of restarts and the nature of NASCAR racing and how aggressive all the drivers are. Someone’s going to be on the short end.”
It made for an exhausting end of the race with 10 cautions over the final 15 laps — enough for exasperated spectators calling for a mercy rule. Because there are only six road courses on NASCAR’s 38-race schedule — including the inaugural street course race scheduled for downtown Chicago in July — the current crop of drivers don’t have the road racing experience to produce a quality show.
The same thing happened in February at the preseason exhibition race inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where drivers struggled for a long stretch to complete more than a handful of laps under green on the temporary short track. While NASCAR wants diverse tracks on its schedule, a lack of practice and testing has made it difficult for many in the field to find a comfort level on the unfamiliar circuits.
That makes for sloppy racing for a series that touts itself as the best in the United States. If NASCAR truly wants to diversify its product, it needs to give teams on-track time to acclimate to the new style of racing.
And while the three overtimes may have felt excessive, the winner wouldn’t have wanted the race to end any other way.
“We’d be robbing the fans of a finish. That’s what they deserve,” Reddick said. “They deserve a good finish to the end. They deserve to see us make it back to the white flag. I think the rule the way it is is the way it should be. The fans pay a lot of good money to come out here, watch a good race, a good finish. Deserve to put that product out there for the fans.”
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