Column: COTA Yet Another Sloppy NASCAR Street Course Race

CHARLOTTE, NC — Kimi Raikkonen couldn’t get over how many restarts there were in the dwindling laps of NASCAR’s first street race of the season. Jordan Taylor called his NASCAR debut “a race for survival,” and Jenson Button found much of it “a little silly.”

That was the verdict of three of the world’s most experienced street racers after a chaotic NASCAR race that took three overtimes to decide. Tyler Reddick finally won it on Sunday when the race at the Circuit of the Americas went seven laps over the scheduled distance to reach an end.

Raikkonen, who scored his last Formula One win at the Texas road circuit in 2018, found himself fourth in one of many late restarts with a view of the lead from his windscreen. That didn’t last long; He was engulfed, blown off course and pushed back to 29th place.

“It looked like you were going to be very good, but three corners later someone is driving in the wrong direction,” said the former F1 World Champion. “It’s such a shame how it ended up going, but I think we did the right thing. We have been there. But when you restart, it’s like that.”

Button, the 2009 F1 World Champion who has two more NASCAR races scheduled this season and is part of the NASCAR lineup in a modified stock car for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, was the highest-placed racer with 18th place up the street. It was an enlightening experience for the British driver based on the length of the race – the extensions exceeded the planned distance of 68 laps for a 3 hour, 30 minute run – and the physical nature of the NASCAR drivers using stock cars crash into each other.

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Button said he experienced heat exhaustion during a race, which he found 60% comfortable, but “40% of it felt a little bit silly, the amount we hit each other with.”

“At Turn 1 I turned in and got hit… and on the exit I got a big hit back,” said Button. “Rematch is fun, but there are points where we feel we could do better. I mean the action is incredible, don’t get me wrong. The first 10 laps just destroyed me. Every time I was in a corner someone passed me.”

Alex Bowman (48) steers out of Turn 1 during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at the Circuit of the Americas on Sunday March 26, 2023 in Austin, Texas. Credit: AP/Stephen Spillman

And then there was Taylor, a four-time IMSA Sportscar Champion and class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, who drove Chase Elliott’s car for Hendrick Motorsports. His Chevrolet should have been a competitor, but Taylor, used to driving in fields full of cars of varying speeds and vastly different levels of talent, found the entire event “definitely wild.”

“I wouldn’t say I survived. I feel like I’ve been beaten up. Every restart you get crushed in the front, back and side,” said Taylor after 24th place. “It was pretty much just survival. The guys knew I would be a little hesitant so they would take advantage of it.

“I would say it was a disappointing day. We had good pace but were just pushed back at every restart. Tough day.

And that’s what NASCAR street racing has become, especially with the durable next-gen car that can withstand significant bumps and knocks and still typically finish a race. Veteran Cup drivers have criticized the slacking on-track etiquette, which was evident at almost every restart on Sunday, when dozens of cars launched into the first corner with no regard for who or what they hit.

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Bubba Wallace (23) and Kyle Busch (8) drive out of Turn 1 during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at the Circuit of the Americas on Sunday, March 26, 2023, in Austin, Texas. Credit: AP/Stephen Spillman

Reddick said it was a combination of the car’s strength and aggressive drivers going for every possible position on the track.

“The way things have turned out, the front and rear bumpers on this car are really tough. You can hit someone really, really hard without knocking your car’s nose out. The rear bumpers are also very strong,” said Reddick. “Look at Turn 1 here, Turn 1 on the Indy Road Course, they are very inviting corners with a lot of space. It’s just a product of restarts and the nature of NASCAR racing and how aggressive all drivers are. Someone will be on the short end.

It made for a grueling end to the race with 10 cautions over the final 15 laps – enough for angry spectators to demand a mercy rule. Because there are only six street courses on NASCAR’s 38-race schedule — including the first street-course race scheduled in July in downtown Chicago — the current generation of drivers doesn’t have the street racing experience to produce a quality show.

The same thing happened in February at the pre-season exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where drivers struggled over a long course to complete more than a handful of laps under green on the temporary short course. While NASCAR likes to have different tracks on its schedule, a lack of practice and testing has made it difficult for many in the field to get comfortable at the unfamiliar tracks.

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That makes for sloppy racing for a series that bills itself as the best in the United States. If NASCAR really wants to diversify its product, it needs to give teams time on the track to get used 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 differently.

“We would rob the fans of a finish. They deserve it,” Reddick said. “You deserve a good finish to the end. They deserve us making it back to the white flag. I think the rule as it is is as it should be. The fans are paying a lot of good money to come here, to see a good race, a good finish. I deserve to release this product for the fans.”

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