By Brennen McCall, Racing Contributor

After two thrilling endings to the Pocono Doubleheader, NASCAR returns to road course racing and perhaps a new tradition on Independence Day. For what seemed like forever Daytona International Speedway hosted Cup races on the 4th of July. Teams would show up in American Flag paint schemes ready to conquer the high banks in a hot summer night. The 2021 schedule revamp replaced many of the traditional dates to bring in new venues, and what better facility to celebrate America’s independence than a track that bares its name.

Road America has been a staple in auto racing since 1955. Located between the cities of Milwaukee and Green Bay, the 14-turn circuit hosts over 400 events a year and has managed to maintain its original layout. Major racing series like Indycar, NASCAR, Sportscar Racing, Trans-Am, and super bikes all make yearly trips to the 640-acre facility. The NASCAR Cup Series will return this weekend for only the second time in history. The only other Cup race at Road America was all the way back in 1956.

Road America is fast and treacherous. Long straightaways are combined with fast corners, leaving little room for mistakes. Cup drivers that have mastered the high speeds of Watkins Glen may have an advantage, but Road America is worn out and bumpy. The track surface has not been repaved in many years. A rough track means high grip levels are scarce, especially on old tires.

When starting a lap at Road America it is crucial to get a good run out of the final corner to begin the long climb up the hill toward start/finish. The elevation change is not extreme, but enough to barely see the flag man at the bottom of the hill. As cars hit the crest, speed begins to pick up even more. Cars will draft off one another to try and set up a pass. It’s hard on the breaks into turn one. A quick right hander.

Back on the power through turn 2 to approach turn 3. Before entering the corner, the track dips down slightly forcing drivers to break earlier than they would like. Another right hander, but just tighter than turn 1. There is no runoff at turn 3, so drivers need to be careful not to clip the grass. Now it’s back through the gears flying through a slight slip in the road at turn 4. Still wide open. The track dips drastically until the cars are heading downhill picking up more speed to a heavy breaking zone to enter turn 5. 5 is a tight left hander with plenty of runoff room for driver to make their move. Back on the power again up the hill to another left hander at turn 6.

The entrance of turn 6 sits just after the crest of a hill, meaning drivers must begin turning their car over the crest. Not a massive concern, but turning over a crest can upset a car’s balance especially when racing side by side. Not it’s on the power again to turn 7, a slight right hander. Just a dab of break before running hard downhill again to a left hander at turn 8. Turn 8 is another popular passing zone a decent amount of runoff area. Once making it safely through 8 it’s back on the power briefly toward turns 9 and 10.

Nicknamed “The Carousel”, turns 9 and 10 combine for a long, sweeping right hander. It’s very easy to overdrive as it’s flat surface doesn’t allow for high speeds. Drivers will be feathering the throttle throughout to try and maximize their time. Stepping over that line will result in toughing the grass on the left side. The grass at these speeds can reach out and pull a car off the road.

After exiting the Carousel it’s back on the power to the dangerous “Kink”. The Kink allows drivers to carry a ton of speed given that it is only a slight right hander, but it also has claimed many racecars in its barriers. It is in a driver’s best interest to run single file through this corner.

Following a good run through the Kink it’s up through the gears to Canada Corner at turn 12. This right hander provides a terrific passing zone with plenty of runoff to make a late breaking move.

Finally, it’s up a slight hill though turn 13 and into the final corner at turn 14. A bad run through this right hander can compromise your entire run down the front straightway, so it’s crucial to hit this right hander perfectly to maximize lap time.

Pit road will also have its own set of challenges. Cars enter pit road differently than a traditional oval. Normally, crew members jump off the wall to service a car that’s coming from their right. At Road America, everything is the opposite. Cars are entering pit road from the left which means everything pit crews normally is now the opposite. Imagine playing 95% of your games in an NHL season with a ride-handed stick, then you’re handed a left-handed stick to play maybe 3 games a year. It’s difficult to adapt. To make matters worse, many crews will be servicing their cars in uneven conditions due to the elevation change on the track. This will result in more pit road penalties.

Who are the cars to beat this Sunday? Many would be quick to point out some of the biggest names like Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott, but don’t sleep on some former Xfinity Series winners starting in the Cup race. Austin Centric, Christopher Bell, AJ Allmendinger, and Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell have all found victory lane. With practice and qualifying playing a factor in the starting lineup, look out for these drivers to make a splash against the big names.

Kyle Larson may have had a little wind taken out of his sails at Pocono, but he is the last driver to win on a road course in Sonoma earlier this year. Larson continues to win on local dirt tracks against some of the best talent in the nation, so he’s poised to be on his game go for another win and snag the regular season points lead.

Chase Elliott won earlier this year at the rain-shortened Circuit of the America’s and finished second to Larson at Sonoma. While he may no longer considered the car to beat this weekend, he should be a front runner.

Martin Truex Jr. finished third at Sonoma but has been quiet since. Could he turn up the heat with another solid finish?

Kyle Busch won the second of two Pocono races last weekend. While he didn’t have the dominant car, he managed his fuel enough to be there at the end to earn his second win in 2021. Maybe he can rise with wave of momentum into another victory.

Another driver to keep an eye on would be Joey Logano. Logano is riding a streak of four straight top-5 finishes on road courses and six straight top-10s.

Road America might be the new home for NASCAR on 4th of July. While tuning into the race, be sure to pause to remember those who fought and died to give us our freedom. Fast cars and freedom! What more could you ask for? Let’s go racing!

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