Weekly Preview: Cup Series Return to Road America

Weekly Preview: Cup Series Return to Road America

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

This weekend the NASCAR Cup Series goes road racing once again in 2021, as we visit the track at Road America for the first time in the modern era.  The track located near Elkhart Lake, Wis., is a 14-turn, 4.048-mile long road course that is classified as an FIA Grade Two circuit.  The event is 62 laps, divided into three stages of 14 laps, 15 laps and 33 laps.  Top speeds are tempered by a modest mix of long straights and hairpin turns.  

The circuit is crafted for sports car racing and motorcycles but has played host to a number of major racing series over the years. Indy Car, IMSA and many others currently compete at this circuit.  The track opened in 1955 and featured NASCAR's top touring series for one event in 1956.  Tim Flock would run away from Billy Myers and Fireball Roberts to win that first and only Cup Series race at the Wisconsin circuit.  NASCAR's top division would never race again at Road America until now.  The Xfinity Series has raced at the facility for much of the last decade, so it's not completely foreign to the drivers.  Many of the younger competitors have made one or more Xfinity starts at Road America and are pretty familiar with the layout.  To help the teams and drivers adjust, NASCAR is performing practice and qualifying this weekend to help drivers get acquainted with the track. 

Since this is a completely new race, at a completely new course, we have

This weekend the NASCAR Cup Series goes road racing once again in 2021, as we visit the track at Road America for the first time in the modern era.  The track located near Elkhart Lake, Wis., is a 14-turn, 4.048-mile long road course that is classified as an FIA Grade Two circuit.  The event is 62 laps, divided into three stages of 14 laps, 15 laps and 33 laps.  Top speeds are tempered by a modest mix of long straights and hairpin turns.  

The circuit is crafted for sports car racing and motorcycles but has played host to a number of major racing series over the years. Indy Car, IMSA and many others currently compete at this circuit.  The track opened in 1955 and featured NASCAR's top touring series for one event in 1956.  Tim Flock would run away from Billy Myers and Fireball Roberts to win that first and only Cup Series race at the Wisconsin circuit.  NASCAR's top division would never race again at Road America until now.  The Xfinity Series has raced at the facility for much of the last decade, so it's not completely foreign to the drivers.  Many of the younger competitors have made one or more Xfinity starts at Road America and are pretty familiar with the layout.  To help the teams and drivers adjust, NASCAR is performing practice and qualifying this weekend to help drivers get acquainted with the track. 

Since this is a completely new race, at a completely new course, we have no historical loop stats to examine this weekend.  That does put us at a bit of a disadvantage.  However, we're not completely without some numbers.  For much of our analysis this week, we're going to rely on the statistics that our NASCAR Cup Series drivers have accumulated the last two seasons on the various road circuits of the Cup Series.  It's the only real measure of which drivers tend to thrive on winding circuits.  The data will be over the past three seasons (2019-2021), or seven races, so it will be fresh statistics.  In the table below are the driver's standard stats at Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen International, the Daytona Road Course, Charlotte Roval and Circuit of the Americas over the past three seasons, sorted by average finish.

DriverAvg. FinishWinsTop 5'sTop 10'sLaps LedAvg. Start
Chase Elliott4.05662385.7
A.J. Allmendinger6.0012220.5
Joey Logano7.0046349.6
Alex Bowman9.0015515.1
Denny Hamlin9.1034239.1
Martin Truex Jr.9.90351511.0
Kyle Larson10.8123724.6
Brad Keselowski12.00231012.7
Kurt Busch12.10241015.4
Ryan Blaney13.00241417.6
Chris Buescher13.7011020.0
Erik Jones14.1022121.0
Kevin Harvick14.7013347.1
Michael McDowell16.1003320.0
William Byron17.1003558.4
Chase Briscoe18.3001023.3
Tyler Reddick19.2001013.8
Aric Almirola19.4000017.3
Matt DiBenedetto19.6001019.6
Ross Chastain19.8012425.4

This weekend we will witness a little history being made.  For the first time in seven decades, NASCAR's top touring series will compete on the road circuit in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.  Road America is a challenging track which has hosted multiple racing series for many years.  Opened in 1955, it has quite a long history.  However, NASCAR's footprint here has been very small.  That will begin to change with Sunday's Jockey Made in America 250.  For the first time since the 1950's, NASCAR's brightest stars will take on the challenging circuit and look to etch their name on the first Cup Series trophy awarded at the track in the modern era.  

The 2021 Cup Series schedule has had an emphasis on road course racing.  There are seven events in the calendar this season, up from the typical three we've seen in recent years.  This added road course racing will favor a number of drivers who thrive at this style of racing.  As for this inaugural event at Road America, the drivers who have exceptional road racing skills will shine, and those who don't will struggle.  We believe the statistical table above will be our greatest aide in evaluating drivers this weekend and projecting potential performance.  We'll give you the drivers you need to succeed in your fantasy racing games for the Jockey Made in America 250 at Road America.    

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Chase Elliott – The winner of five of the last seven Cup Series road courses, and six career wins total enters Road America weekend as the clear driver to beat.  While Elliott has looked more human in his last couple starts on these style tracks, he's still led a lot of laps and even finished runner-up in his last time out at Sonoma in early June.  The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has two prior Xfinity Series starts at the Wisconsin road circuit, and those were a pair of fourth-place finishes in 2014 and 2015 while competing for JR Motorsports.  Elliott knows this track, and more importantly, he has the skill to be dominant here in NASCAR's top division debut at the track.  The Hendrick Motorsports star will have a huge target on his back this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Larson – We don't typically think of Larson historically when it comes to road course racing, but the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet served notice emphatically in his last two starts on these style tracks that he will be a driver to contend with going forward.  Larson led 4 laps in the rain at Circuit of the Americas in May and finished a brilliant runner-up in that event. He then headed to California in June and dominated to the Sonoma road circuit victory, leading 57 of the 92 laps that afternoon in the California foothills.  These last two starts are a pretty stunning reversal from his career marks on NASCAR road courses.  Larson made one Xfinity Series start at Road America in 2013 and collected a strong seventh-place finish in that outing.  The No. 5 team is red hot right now, and Larson is definitely showing that his racing skill set is deep.    

Joey Logano – The driver that is best positioned to challenge Elliott and Larson's potential dominance this weekend is Logano and his No. 22 Penske Racing team.  The star driver of that stable has been the strongest performer on the road circuits the last two seasons outside of the Hendrick Motorsports camp.  Logano has led a combined 34 laps and registered four Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in his last seven road course events.  29 of those 34 laps led have come this season alone, along with finishes of second-, third- and fourth-place between Daytona, COTA and Sonoma.  Logano has been just one tick off upsetting Larson and Logano's dominance in 2021.  He may get the nudge and the luck he needs this weekend to steal a road course victory from the Chevrolet camp. 

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing star hasn't won on a NASCAR road course the past two seasons, but he does boast four-career victories on these style tracks.  That fact sets Truex apart from the majority of the field this weekend.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota was sharp last time out collecting a brilliant third-place finish at Sonoma Raceway in early June.  That was one of three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes the last two seasons on the road circuits.  While it would take a bit of a Hail Mary pass for this veteran driver to upset the others in this contenders list, the reasonable ability to do so exists.  At the very least Truex has the wherewithal to peddle his Toyota Camry to a Top-5 finish in the inaugural Jockey Made in America 250 at Road America.    

 Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin hasn't been a world-beater on these circuits, but he's been very consistent.  The last two seasons have seen the Joe Gibbs Racing star grab three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes on the road courses.  This season alone he's nabbed third-place (Daytona) and eighth-place (Sonoma) finishes.  The average finish across the last two seasons stands at a respectable 9.1 and Top-10 rate of 57-percent.  That's the consistency we're looking for when filling out our fantasy racing lineups.  Hamlin has never turned a hot lap in NASCAR competition at Road America, but he'll have practice and qualifying to fall back on this weekend.  That will help things considerably.    

Alex Bowman – Last weekend's Pocono winner has been quite impressive on the road courses the last two years.  Bowman has registered five Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts on these winding tracks and the average finish checks in at an equally impressive 9.0.  His most recent work on these tracks netted eighth- (COTA) and ninth-place (Sonoma) finishes in May and June.  While the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has not shown to be a major threat to win these events, Bowman has shown the skill to race among the leaders and stay on the lead lap the full event.  That's more than half the battle when it comes to this style of racing.  The consistency of this driver and team should pay off in the Jockey Made in America 250.

Kurt Busch – After a slump to begin the 2021 campaign, Busch has been showing some major signs of heating up the last few events.  The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has grabbed Top-10 finishes in the three of the last four races and is racing well coming to Wisconsin this weekend.  Busch has always been a good hand on the road circuits.  With one-career win and 24 Top-10 finishes (53-percent) he checks in at a respectable career average finish of 14.2 on these tracks.  That's two positions better than his best oval tracks. Of late, Busch has been pretty sharp with three Top-10 efforts in the last four road course events.  That includes his 8 laps led and strong sixth-place finish at Sonoma recently.  Busch is a good bet to crack the Top 10 Sunday at Road America.  

AJ Allmendinger – The Xfinity Series regular and road racing expert will make a Cup Series start for Kaulig Racing this weekend.  Allmendinger has an impressive road course resume that includes one win and 11 Top-10 finishes over the years.  The 15.6 average finish on these style tracks is by far the best in his resume.  Allmendinger has seventh- (Daytona) and fifth-place (COTA) finishes in his last two road course starts in 2021 for Kaulig Racing.  This growing race team and veteran driver have been quite the combination this season on the winding circuits.  Allmendinger is a one-time winner and one-time runner-up finisher in the Xfinity Series at Road America, so you know he loves this circuit.  He'll be one of the top part-time drivers to depend on this Sunday afternoon.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history of road course racing & solid upside

Kyle Busch – We haven't typically recommended Busch in recent seasons with road course racing.  However, he's been good enough in 2021 to warrant sleeper list status for Sunday at Road America.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led a 14 combined laps, taken a stage win and picked up 10th- and 5th-place finishes in the last two road racing events at COTA and Sonoma.  Those efforts have caused us to reconsider Busch going forward on these style tracks.  The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is fresh off a runner-up and first-place finish in the Pocono weekend doubleheader.  Busch should be Top-10 material for the inaugural Cup Series race at Road America.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney reversed some May and June struggles with strong fifth- and sixth-place finishes at Pocono this past weekend.  The Penske Racing youngster has been a dependable performer on the road circuits in recent years.  Blaney has two Top-5 and four Top-10 (57-percent) finishes in his last seven road course races.  His last outing netted a steady 10th-place finish at Sonoma Raceway.  Blaney has one-career Xfinity Series start at the Wisconsin road course and it was an impressive runner-up finish in 2015's Road America 180.  That past experience will come in valuable this weekend for the No. 12 Penske Racing team.  Blaney should forge another Top-10 finish in Sunday's Jockey Made in America 250. 

Brad Keselowski – The Penske Racing star struggled through parts of May and June but appeared to right the ship last weekend at Pocono.  That twin bill yielded 10th- and third-place finishes to the driver of the No. 2 Ford.  Pocono Raceway is a great deal like a road course with its three distinctly different turns and long straights.  Keselowski's performance last weekend could be a good preview of what to expect at Road America.  The veteran driver has registered one Top-5 and two Top-15 finishes on road courses this season for a respectable 13.0 average finish.  Keselowski does have past Xfinity Series experience at Road America, but it came way back in 2010.  He posted a strong fourth-place finish in that outing many years ago. 

Ross Chastain – Chastain has been on the rise the last several weeks.  The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has posted three of his four Top-10 finishes of the season in just the last six events.  Interestingly enough, two of those have come on the most recent road courses.  Chastain was skilled enough to lead 4 laps and finish fourth in the rain at COTA.  He then followed that up with a strong seventh-place finish at Sonoma just two weeks later.  Chastain is coming off a tough pair of races at Pocono, but we believe he'll rebound solidly at Road America.  With five-career Xfinity starts at the Wisconsin track, he has more experience than most at this facility.  His last two starts netted a pair of seventh-place finishes in 2018 and 2020. 

Chris Buescher – The Roush Fenway Racing veteran will look to continue his steady road racing performance this weekend in the Jockey Made in America 250.  Buescher has nabbed one Top-5 and three Top-15 finishes in his last five road course starts.  All five starts have resulted in finishes on the lead lap and inside the Top 20.  That is the dependable consistency we look for deeper of the fantasy racing bench.  Buescher's extensive Xfinity Series career has seen him make two starts at Road America.  One of those netted a Top-10 finish and 13.5 average finish between the two.  That experience will be valuable in the Cup Series' first visit to the Wisconsin road circuit.  Buescher would seem to be a good bet for a Top-15 finish in this road racing weekend. 

Michael McDowell – The veteran driver to watch closely in the deeper tiers of weekly line up and salary cap leagues is McDowell.  He's been a consistent performer over the years on both the superspeedway ovals and the road circuits.  They're his best tracks by far.  McDowell earned a strong eighth-place finish at the Daytona circuit in February.  He and crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, have a good handle on these style tracks.  Blickensderfer guided Marcos Ambrose to several Top-5 and Top-10 finishes on the road courses between 2012 and 2014, so that experience is quite valuable to McDowell.  With two Top-10 finishes in his last three road racing events, we believe this driver and team are pegged to crack the Top 15 Sunday at Road America. 

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Kevin Harvick – It's been a tougher than normal season for Harvick and the No. 4 team in 2021.  Still winless to this point in the campaign he comes into Road America an uncharacteristic ninth-place in the driver standings.  The lean times have been most noticeable on the road circuits.  Finishes of sixth-, 37th- and 22nd-place have been Harvick's body of work so far on the road courses.  Trouble has found him in more ways than one this season in this style of racing.  Harvick has never taken a single hot lap in competition at the Elkhart Lake facility.  This weekend's practice and qualifying will be his first-ever action on the Road America circuit.  There are better fantasy racing options in the top tier this weekend.

William Byron – While Byron has had a fantastic season with one win and 14 Top-10 finishes so far.  He rides into Wisconsin a lofty third in the championship points.  But we believe this is a weekend to fade the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.  Byron's only struggles this season have come on the road course circuit.  Finishes of 33rd-, 11th- and 35th-place have been his results with the most recent being a crash and DNF at Sonoma.  Byron has been fantastic this season, but this Sunday is likely a good candidate to bench the Hendrick Motorsports sensation in weekly lineup and salary cap leagues. 

Aric Almirola –  Not much has gone right for Almirola and the No. 10 SHR team this season.  With just two Top-10 finishes so far and coming off a pair of so-so 16th-place finishes at Pocono, this is not the week to be shaking down a new race track.  While NASCAR will give the teams some rare practice and qualifying laps this weekend, we're still reserved on Almirola's chances.  He's finished 26th- and 27th-place in his last two outings at COTA and Sonoma, and that's likely a good indicator of what to expect this weekend.  The veteran driver of the No. 10 Ford has just an 8-percent Top-10 rate on these style tracks and his 21.1 career average finish on road courses is nothing to get excited about. 

Ryan Newman – Newman's tough 2021 campaign has seen just three Top-10 finishes and a distant 25th-place ranking in the driver standings.  He comes to Wisconsin looking for answers after 37th- and 22nd-place finishes at Pocono last weekend.  Newman is going to be fighting an uphill battle where he's never logged a competitive lap.  The road circuits have been a real bear for Newman and the No. 6 Ford team this season.  Finishes of 20th-, 24th- and 33rd-place work out to an inflated 25.7 average finish.  Newman would appear to be too high risk to chance any fantasy racing expectations on for the Jockey Made in America 250. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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