NASCAR History Is on the Side of Winless Cup Drivers at COTA
This weekend, the Cup series race features some very talented racers looking for their first NASCAR win.
Ross Chastain got the first of his two career victories last spring at COTA, several weeks before backing it at Talladega.
Hardly anyone remembers that Ricky Rudd gave himself and owner Richard Childress their first victory, at Riverside in 1983.
With the first of this season’s six road races looming on Sunday at Circuit of the Americas near Austin, this recent trend bears watching: three of last season’s five first-time NASCAR Cup Series winners got their breakthrough victory in a road race.
And this weekend, the Cup series race features some very talented racers looking for their first NASCAR win, including IMSA star Jordan Taylor, full-time IndyCar driver Conor Daly and a pair of Formula 1 champions in Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button. Each is more than comfortable driving on a road course.
History say the newbies might be in the right place.
Ross Chastain got the first of his two career victories last spring at COTA, several weeks before backing it at Talladega. Later in the season, Trackhouse Racing teammate Daniel Suarez broke through on the road course at Sonoma. And even later in the year, Tyler Reddick got his first career victory at Road America, then backed it on Indy’s infield road circuit and much later at Fort Worth for Richard Childress Racing.
(BTW: rookie Austin Cindric got his first career victory in the season-opening Daytona 500, his eighth career start for Team Penske. And two weeks after Cindric won in Daytona Beach, 2020 Rookie of the Year Chase Briscoe got his career first victory near Phoenix for Stewart-Haas Racing. It was the most successful year for first-time winners in recent Cup Series history).
Through the years road courses have been played an important role in NASCAR history. It’s often overlooked in the small print that a handful of current and former stars got their breakthrough victory on a road course. Many came to big-time stock car racing after honing their skills with sensitive, twitchy go-karts on road courses. Others, like AJ Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Dan Gurney came to NASCAR with a strong background in open-wheel road racing.
Hardly anyone remembers that Ricky Rudd gave himself and owner Richard Childress their first victory, at Riverside in 1983. Bill Elliott got the first of his 44 career victories at Riverside, also in 1983. The late Tim Richmond won five times at Riverside—including his first Cup victory in 1982. But nobody owned Riverside like Gurney, who got all five of his NASCAR victories there between 1963 and 1968. He won the first one for Holman-Moody and the next four for Wood Brothers Racing.
Like his father, Chase Elliott got his breakthrough victory on a road course. Now an 18-time winner, No. 1 came at Watkins Glen International in 2018. (He went right back to Victory Lane there in 2019). All told, his road course resume shows those two WGI victories, plus two on the Roval at Charlotte, one on the road course at Daytona International Speedway, and another at Road America. Speaking of the Daytona infield course: current Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell got the first of his four Cup victories there in 2021.
It seems like Allmendinger is always a road course threat. Both of his Cup Series victories have come on road courses, including his breakthrough at Watkins Glen in 2014 and then in the 2021 Indy Grand Prix. He also has nine Xfinity road course victories, including one each at Road America, COTA, and Indy, two at Mid-Ohio, and four on the Charlotte Roval. Almost regardless of the quality of the ride, don’t discount “Dinger” when races goes left and right and up and down.
Both of former driver Marcos Ambrose’s Cup victories came at Watkins Glen, the first in 2011 and again the next year, both for owner Richard Petty. Montoya got his breakthrough Cup victory with Chip Ganassi at Sonoma in 2007, then won at WGI three years later. The first of Steve Park’s two career victories came at Watkins Glen in 2000, just six months before team owner Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Chastain led 31 of last year’s 69 laps at COTA, including the last two over—drum roll, please—Allmendinger, with Reddick finishing third. Later in the year Chastain finished seventh at Sonoma and fourth at Elkhart Lake, but struggled at Indy and Watkins Glen, and on the Charlotte Roval.
Despite those poor finishes, he stands among the favorites on Sunday near Austin. That’s certainly true more than last year on this weekend.