Getty Images

In the two centuries that have passed since men like Stephen F. Austin and Davy Crockett made it so, the state of Texas has stood for a spirit of adventure and exploration. Those qualities are what has drawn so many to the Lone Star State, and they're also what spurred the creation just over a dozen years ago of a new, purpose-built facility for Formula 1 racing in the United States -- the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

That vision was realized when Circuit of the Americas -- COTA, for short -- became the site of F1's United States Grand Prix. But it's a vision that has since been expanded upon through NASCAR. And this weekend's third annual EchoPark Texas Grand Prix will reflect both the track's original vision and its new standing as NASCAR's first road course race of the season, as some of the best drivers in all the world will compete against the best drivers in NASCAR.

How to watch the NASCAR Cup Series at Circuit of the Americas

  • Date: Sunday, Mar. 26
  • Location: Circuit of the Americas -- Austin, TX
  • Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
  • TV: Fox
  • Stream: fuboTV (try for free)

What to watch

  • Last year at Watkins Glen, NASCAR received significant international attention when 2007 Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen made his Cup Series debut behind the wheel of Trackhouse Racing's Project 91 Chevrolet. Now, the F1 to NASCAR pipeline is being doubled down upon, as Raikkonen makes his return to the grid with another former F1 champion in a Cup ride alongside him.

    Raikkonen will return to Trackhouse's No. 91 to make his season debut, as he looks to improve upon his Watkins Glen debut that was cut short when he was collected in a mid-race accident. This time, he will be joined by 2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button, who will make his NASCAR debut behind the wheel of Rick Ware Racing's No. 15 Ford in conjunction with Stewart-Haas Racing. While Raikkonen had previous NASCAR experience during a pair of one-off appearances in 2011, this weekend will mark Button's first-ever experience behind the wheel of a stock car at the sport's highest level.

    F1 isn't the only other racing discipline represented in the field, as IMSA star Jordan Taylor will make his NASCAR debut behind the wheel of Hendrick Motorsports' No. 9 Chevrolet as the substitute driver for Chase Elliott. Taylor, a two-time IMSA champion and a member of the winning team at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2017, will compete for a team that has been one of NASCAR's best on road courses, as Elliott has won seven times on road courses since 2018 -- Including the inaugural race at COTA in 2021.

    Beyond those three road course ringers, Sunday's star-studded field will be rounded out by Jimmie Johnson and Conor Daly, both of whom return to the field after last racing in the Daytona 500 to open the season.
  • This weekend at Circuit of the Americas will feature two major changes to race procedure, with the most notable being the elimination of competition cautions at the end of stages. Since the introduction of stage racing to NASCAR in 2017, every single stage has been promptly followed by the yellow flag, providing a natural break within the race and resetting the field after the issuing of championship and playoff points.

    The stage system has worked perfectly fine on ovals, but its effect on road course racing strategy had been a common critique among fans and competitors alike. While stage points will still be handed out on a designated lap, the race will continue to run under green, allowing for more natural and traditional road course strategies to be practiced.

    The nature of Circuit of the Americas will exacerbate the need for strategy, as the track's 3.42 mile configuration with wide racing surfaces and runoff areas generally does not lend itself to a lot of driver error or incidents that can yield a full-course caution. Last year's race, for instance, saw green flag runs of 16 and 14 laps in the first half of the event before stage yellows bunched the field back together. Should long green flag runs occur and the field get spread out, it will be imperative for each crew chief in the field to employ strategies which will allow their driver to make up time and track position in big chunks.
  • Sunday will also see the reversion of the Restart Zone back to 2022 specs after a five-race experiment with a larger restart zone to open the 2023 season. In the first five races of the year, the restart zone was made 50% longer -- 25% in each direction -- in order to give the race leader more of an advantage.

    However, competitors found that the change had only a negligible effect on restarts, prompting officials to return to the zone's previous length. The dimensions of the restart zone at each track is calculated by multiplying the pace car's speed by four.

    "The drivers didn't feel like -- and I don't know that the industry did as well -- that we really accomplished anything there that they were looking for," NASCAR senior vice president of competition Elton Sawyer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "... It didn't quite give us what we were looking for, so we'll go back to the original dimensions."

Pick to win

(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)

A.J. Allmendinger (+1200): This weekend, A.J. Allmendinger will be making his 400th career Cup start since his debut a full 15 years ago at Bristol. Of his 399 starts so far, both of his Cup wins have come on road courses. And in this race last year, he would have gotten a third had he successfully been able to get away from Ross Chastain after putting the bump-and-run on him to take the lead on the final lap.

Allmendinger is back in the Cup Series in large part because his exceptional ability on road courses makes him and Kaulig Racing a threat to win and put themselves in the playoffs any time the Cup Series comes to a road course. Now having the benefit of being a full-time Cup driver again and being a threat to win every time Cup cars go left and right, The Dinger should be considered a serious threat to get an early season win that will raise the stakes for him and his team moving forward.