Tyler Reddick had the lead and the fastest car on the track when calamity nearly struck, while Formula 1 World Champions Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button toiled hard all day, enjoying their NASCAR cameos at COTA on Sunday.
Caution. Restart. Caution. Restart. Caution. Restart. Enough slowdowns to make a driver lose his mind. Or at least his cool.
Reddick handled it nearly to perfection Sunday, earning his first victory with new team 23XI Racing by holding on over multiple late restarts to win in triple overtime Sunday at Circuit of the Americas, the first road course race on this year’s NASCAR schedule.
Raikkonen drove Trackhouse Racing’s Project91 entry that is designed to give a seat in NASCAR to drivers from others disciplines. He finished 27th. Raikkonen was running as high as fourth on a late late restart but was quickly shuffled into the pack.
Inspired by Tom Cruise’s NASCAR hit movie – Days of Thunder – Button drove the No. 15 Mobil 1 Ford Mustang for Rick Ware Racing as part of a three-race deal for road courses this season. He was 18th.
Another “road course ringer” on the track Sunday was sports car driver four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor driving for injured Chase Elliott, who is still recovering from a fractured leg in a snowboarding accident and participated in the Fox Sports broadcast booth remotely from Colorado. Taylor finished 24th.
Reddick’s victory was the first of the year for Toyota and his first since joining the team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. It was Reddick’s fourth career Cup Series win, third on a road course. Reddick won a year ago at Road America and on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his final season with Richard Childress Racing.
This one might have been the most nerve-wracking, Redick said: “Didn’t quite get the restarts perfectly, but we got the one that mattered. The last one.”
Reddick had to hold the front through the elevated, switchback left-hand turn that saw the field bunch up and smash each other time after time on the restarts. The race had eight cautions for 17 laps and went to three overtimes and seven laps past the scheduled distance.
Hamlin said Reddick showed poise to match talent that could lead to a whole lot of victories. He got Reddick to agree to sign with 23XI with a full year remaining on his RCR contract, and then was able to secure Reddick early for 2023 when Kurt Busch was forced to retire because of a concussion.
“I knew he was going to be the most coveted free agent in a very, very, very long time. That’s why I got the jump on it and it cost me a lot of money to do it,” Hamlin said. “You have to have that driver you feel can carry you to championships … I feel like we have that guy.”
Kyle Busch, who pushed Reddick through the final three restarts, finished second in the Chevrolet for RCR that became available to the two-time Cup champion when Reddick jumped to 23XI.
“When we tested here, they were lights out,” Busch said of 23XI. “Tyler obviously is a really good road racer. He proved it driving this car here last year. I’ve been trying to emulate the things he did in order to make this car fast last year, but not quite all the way there.”
Alex Bowman, who had a chance to win on the final lap at COTA last season, was third in a Chevrolet from Hendrick Motorsports.
Ross Chastain, the defending race winner, finished fourth and was confronted post-race inside his car by Trackhouse Racing teammate Daniel Suarez over the aggressive nature of the race. Suarez also exchanged words with Bowman. NASCAR may take action against Suarez for using his car to bump both Bowman and Chastain on pit road.
“He just thought I drove in and tried to drive through him,” Bowman said. “Daniel and I, we’ve been teammates in the past, raced together a long time. I respect the hell out of him. I’m sure he’s still not super happy. Just tried to explain that I wouldn’t race him like that, that I was shoved in there.”
William Byron finished fifth for Hendrick and Austin Cindric was the highest-finishing Ford driver in sixth for Team Penske.
There were no stage breaks for the first time this season under a rule change introduced for the six road course races in 2023. That left teams to manage different pit stop strategies.
Reddick appeared to have managed the perfect strategy before the rash of late collisions, caution flags and restarts left him with a harder path to win.
Trackhouse team owner Justin Marks expects Project91 to run several times this season. Project91 ran only Watkins Glen with Raikkonen last season: “We’re going to definitely race this car multiple times this year.
After three years racing at the track built for F1, signs point to a possible return for NASCAR in 2024.
Speedway Motorsports, which runs the event and rents the track for a week, has an option to return next season. Ticket holders have been given an option to reserve spots for 2024.
The series moves to short-track racing next Sunday at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner.