Right. Left. Right. Hard on the gas. Light touch to the brake for a quick left-right-left. Quick on the gas. Light tap to the brake. Hard right and then hard on the gas. There is a cadence to road racing. There is a rhythm, similar to that of an elaborate foxtrot featuring an accelerated pace and intricate footwork, crafted to the design of the track and a driver’s racing style.
Artistic form aside, road racing is a challenge and requires a rigor that NASCAR drivers don’t get to experience on a weekly basis. As a veteran driver in the NASCAR Cup series, Denny Hamlin is well-versed in the unique demands of road-course racing. Of his 619 career starts in NASCAR’s top touring series, 45 have taken place on a road course.
The 42-year old driver will make his 46th career road course start this weekend in the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) road course in Austin, Texas. It marks the first of six road-course events that make up the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series schedule and just the third time the series has competed at the 3.4-mile track on the outskirts of the state capital. And the third is shaping up to be quite the spectacle.
It will be a star-studded field racing in the 2023 edition of the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix. Former Formula One champions Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen are scheduled to compete, along with accomplished sports car racer Jordan Taylor and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who just completed a two-year stint competing in the IndyCar Series where road courses make up the majority of the schedule, before returning to the Cup Series ranks for a limited schedule this season.
“These are legit, big-time drivers that have their own accolades in different series and are just superstars in their own right,” Hamlin said. “Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Jordan Taylor – I mean that’s quite the list. It’s great that we have those guys joining us. There certainly should be a lot of buzz around this weekend’s race. It’s going to be cool to share the track with them.”
Hamlin has competed in both previous Cup Series races at COTA. He finished 14th in the inaugural event in 2021 and 18th last year. The final result, however, isn’t always reflective of the performance. In 2022, for example, Hamlin won the second of the three stages in the race but wound up further back in the field once varying strategies started to unfold as the laps wound down.
As the series prepares to head to Austin once again, the level of star power isn’t the only change drivers will negotiate this weekend. NASCAR announced at the beginning of the 2023 season that stage breaks would be eliminated for the Cup Series for the entirety of the road-course racing schedule. For his part, Hamlin is conflicted on the elimination of stages at those races.
“I think stage racing has been a good thing for our sport, so I’m torn on that,” he said. “I’m not sure whether that’s a good call or the right call, but we’ll just wait to see how it plays out. I know teams really used to strategize on fuel mileage before we had stage breaks and that made it really cut and dry on what your strategy was going to be. I would just say that, without stage breaks at a road course, things could get spread way out. When I say way out, I mean way out. Everyone watching will need to temper expectations on getting the crazy restarts we’ve gotten used to since stage racing started.”
While he’s still looking for a top result at COTA, Hamlin has experienced road-course racing success, scoring a win at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in 2016. Hamlin started sixth and raced solidly among the top-10 throughout the race before taking the lead with 10 laps to go en route to the victory. In addition to that win, Hamlin’s resume when it comes to NASCAR Cup Series road-course races includes 13 top-five finishes and 19 top-10s and 197 laps led. This weekend’s race is the first of six road-course races this season in which Hamlin will be able to add to his record.
Supporting that effort at COTA is an “Outrageously Dependable” partner in Texas-based Interstate Batteries. The longtime founding partner for Joe Gibbs Racing is taking over the primary role on the No. 11 Toyota Camry TRD this weekend – its first time operating in that capacity.
“Interstate Batteries is so important to Joe Gibbs Racing and, honestly, to NASCAR in general,” Hamlin said. “They have been part of the sport for more than 30 years. There aren’t many companies in our sport with that kind of tenure. I speak for all of the JGR drivers when I say we all want to win in that car. We’ve all been part of the Interstate racing family, so it’s going to be nice to be able to finally wear those colors in a Cup race this weekend.”
● Current Situation. Hamlin enters the race at COTA ninth in the NASCAR Cup Series driver point standings, 37 points out of first place. Through the first five races of 2023, he has two top-10 finishes – a pair of sixth-place finishes scored at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California and Atlanta Motor Speedway, respectively.
● On the Road Again. This weekend’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix is the first of six road-course races that make up the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Hamlin has participated in both Cup Series races that have taken place at the 3.4-mile road course since the series started racing there in 2021. Hamlin won a stage during the 2022 race in Austin but his best result is the 14th-place finish he scored during the inaugural race in 2021.
● Road Racing History. Racing in Austin only tells part of Hamlin’s road racing history. Since he started competing in the NASCAR Cup Series fulltime in 2006, he’s made a total of 45 starts on road courses. In those starts, Hamlin has one win – 2016 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International – 13 top-five finishes and 19 top-10s. He’s led a total of 197 laps and has an average finish of 15.6.
● It’s Actually Quite Easy Being Green. Interstate Batteries is the founding partner for Joe Gibbs Racing and, for the first time since the organization started racing in the NASCAR Cup Series in 1992, Interstate Batteries will serve as the primary sponsor for at least one race on each of the four Toyotas fielded by the team. This weekend is the first time the iconic Interstate Batteries brand will appear in the primary role for the No. 11 Toyota Camry TRD.