CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The NASCAR field this Sunday will be stacked with two former Formula One world champions, an IndyCar driver and a sports car star who has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win on his resume.
What can these so-called ringers expect on the road course at Circuit of the Americas?
“To get run over,” Brad Keselowski said. “They are just going to get run over by another driver because we've gotten to this spot where wrecking, yeah, it's cool. And we don't see these guys again, and so what does it matter if you wreck them?”
That's hardly what Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Conor Daly and Jordan Taylor signed up for. Raikkonen, the 2007 F1 champion, made his Cup debut on the road course at Watkins Glen last year and seemed competitive until he was run off course on a restart and his race ended with a crash into a tire barrier.
Button, the 2009 F1 champion, is making his NASCAR debut, as is Taylor, a four-time IMSA sports car champion and class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Daly will be making his third career Cup start, and first since he qualified for last month's Daytona 500.
The quartet are all seasoned road racers — Raikkonen has made eight career F1 starts at COTA and his 2018 win there was the last of his 21 career victories — but probably don't stand a chance Sunday because of the sloppy state of racing.
The Truck Series and Xfinity Series races at Atlanta Motor Speedway last week saw a record number of cautions in both event. Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch even lashed out at the recent lack of respect being shown on the track.
Busch was specifically referencing a last-lap crash the week before at Phoenix, when former teammate Denny Hamlin admitted he intentionally wrecked Ross Chastain. Hamlin has been fined by NASCAR — he's appealing — but Busch couldn't help but note the change in etiquette on the track as a generation of drivers retired and were replaced by a younger, more aggressive group.
The days of Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart policing the garage and keeping order are, according to Busch, essentially over.
“We have completely lost any sense of respect in the garage area between drivers,” Busch said. “That’s where the problem lies. Nobody gives two (expletive) about anybody else and it’s just a problem where everybody takes advantage of everybody as much as they can.
“We’re all selfish, granted. But there was an etiquette that did live here. Mark started it, Tony really lived by it, I think Jeff lived by it. It did exist.”
Chastain scored the first Cup win of his career last season at COTA with an aggressive final lap three-driver battle in which Chastain essentially had to knock both AJ Allmendinger and Alex Bowman out of his way to get to victory lane. There were nine cautions in the race that contributed to 19% of it being run under yellow.
It could be more of the same Sunday. COTA marks the first road course race of the season for a group of drivers who specialize on ovals.
Allmendinger said he forgave Chastain for taking him out of contention last year, but acknowledged road racing has been hit-or-miss for NASCAR in terms of quality of show.
“Last year was interesting to me because half the road course races were great races, and then half of them kind of weren't. I don't know what made one race good and the next race maybe not good,” said Allmendinger, who noted the durability of NASCAR's stock cars make it easier for drivers to be overly physical.
“It's a unique thing to stock car racing, right? You use the front of (the car), use the sides of it, and for the most part, it's kind of ‘Have at it.’ I think it's probably more aggressive than it's ever been ... but it's on us to fix it. Otherwise you start asking NASCAR to make calls and I don't think anybody wants that. You don't want NASCAR up in the tower making a black flag on one guy for doing something and then the next person does something and nothing happens. It's just super aggressive and we've got to police it ourselves.”
Keselowski doesn't understand the mentality of many racers tearing up equipment instead of patiently trying to preserve a good finish.
“It’s a crazy thing to me because I am watching drivers right now who are incredibly fast and in very good cars and they are just wrecking the hell out of them, and it’s like ‘Dude, you don’t have to do that,'” Keselowski said. “I see guys now wrecking each other for 20th and you get out of the car and everyone is praising it as ‘good, hard racing’ and I’m sorry, but no, that’s just stupidity. You just destroyed a half-million dollar car going for 20th. That does not make any sense at all.”
Busch, for one, is fed up, weary of trying to address the issue and has a solution in mind should someone wreck him.
“I’ve tried to talk to guys. They don’t listen. So, I’ve lost interest in talking to them," Busch said. "When you intentionally drive over somebody because they made a move on you or something that you didn’t like, then, you know, you’re gonna get punched in the face afterwards.”