COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – With COVID-19 on the downswing, NASCAR makes a thundering return to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend after last year’s race was canceled.
Forty drivers in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, stock car racing’s top minor league, will take on the 13-turn natural terrain road course with an early afternoon green flag.
Saturday’s B&L Transport 170 is the only time this year that the Xfinity Series, usually the undercard for the major leaguers in the Cup Series, will be its own main event. It’s also NASCAR’s only stop in Ohio.
Additionally, Friday’s support race from the Ohio-based ARCA Menards Series will show off NASCAR’s next stars.
Road course racing offers a special treat for stock car fans used to seeing drivers race on ovals. The elevation changes of Mid-Ohio’s 2.258-mile facility atop the rolling hills of Morrow County will be challenging even to road regulars.
Here are the drivers and teams to watch this weekend:
Austin Cindric: The champ returns home
2021 is all about defense for Columbus native Austin Cindric, driving Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford Mustang. He’s the defending Xfinity Series champion and the defending race winner at Mid-Ohio.
Cindric’s roots at the track run deep. His mother’s side of the family – including her father, the late Columbus sports car and Indy car owner Jim Trueman – owned the track until 2011. And Cindric’s grandmother, Barbara Trueman, will be at the race on Saturday.
“(I) went there a lot as a kid. I know all the hills, all the corners, all the best places to watch, where all the good trees are,” the 22-year-old said. “It’s somewhere I know very well, so I’m looking forward to coming back.”
Relying on a few years of open-wheel and rallycross experience before joining NASCAR in 2017, Cindric has emerged as one of its best road course racers. He has five wins in 17 road course starts across NASCAR’s three national touring series. And his 2019 win at Mid-Ohio earned him a perfect driver rating of 150.
“I would call it kind of the short track of road courses,” Cindric said, as racing is often tight with a lot of contact, and limited passing opportunities make track position more important.
“There’s a lot of blind corners, a lot of tight corners,” he said. “And it’s well known that NASCAR cars don’t stop or turn very well. And you have to be able to stop and turn very well at Mid-Ohio.”
Cindric, the Xfinity Series points leader, will start on the pole Saturday since NASCAR COVID-19 protocols prevent practice and qualifying at most tracks this year. Cindric is locked into the 12-car playoffs with three wins in 12 races this season.
He also leads all Xfinity drivers in statistics like average running position (5.9), laps led (399) and fastest laps (200).
Although drivers may have to shake off more cobwebs than usual because of the two-year gap in Mid-Ohio races, pit strategy will play less of a factor.
Because Xfinity teams often borrow pit crew members from Cup Series teams – who are racing in California this weekend – pit stops will only happen during cautions or the two stage breaks: laps 25 and 50 of 75. Pit stops can only be for tires or fuel, and drivers will exit pit road in the order they entered.
Kaulig Racing: Trio of top drivers for Ohio-owned team
Saturday’s 75-lapper is something of a home race for Kaulig Racing and its three drivers, Jeb Burton, Justin Haley and A.J. Allmendinger.
The team is based in North Carolina like most in NASCAR, but owner Matt Kaulig – a Columbus native – lives in and runs the team from Hudson, Ohio, outside Akron.
Allmendinger has the most road course experience of the Kaulig trio, touting a resume that includes Indy car racing and IMSA sports cars. Five of his six career NASCAR wins have come on road courses, including the inaugural 2013 Xfinity Series race at Mid-Ohio.
Central Ohioans may also recognize him from his sports car driving for Pataskala’s Meyer Shank Racing.
Allmendinger was also the last road course ringer – a driver who enters only road races – to win a Xfinity Series race when he won for Kaulig at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course in 2019. He now races the full schedule.
“You’ve got to make your own passing zones,” Allmendinger, 39, told reporters this week of the tight, technical Mid-Ohio course.
He mentioned turn 2 – “The Keyhole” – and the straightaway right after as good passing zones, if drivers can out-brake or get a fender on the car ahead. As the tires on these heavy stock cars wear on long runs, Allmendinger added, it’s easier for drivers to wheel-hop or lock up the breaks on the slick surface, which opens passing opportunities.
“With our cars, we have the luxury of being able to use the bumpers a little bit and being able to force somebody into a mistake if that’s what you have to do,” he said.
Allmendinger’s road course finishes this year are second at Circuit of the Americas two weeks ago and 35th at Daytona International Speedway’s road course layout (after damage from an incident with Cindric). He sits third in points, locked into the playoffs with his win at Las Vegas in March.
Allmendinger starts 12th on Saturday, and his young teammates Burton, 28, and Haley, 22, will start fourth and 10th, respectively. Look for Haley in the No. 10 Chevrolet Camaro, Haley in the No. 11 and Allmendinger in the No. 16.
Saturday is also a home race for Tuscarawas County-raised Matt Mills. The 2016 graduate of New Philadelphia High School starts 32nd in the No. 5 B.J. McLeod Motorsports Camaro.
Ty Gibbs: Phenom continues breakout year
Possibly NASCAR’s most promising young talent, other than Cindric, is 18-year-old Ty Gibbs.
The grandson of NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs became the first driver ever to win his Xfinity Series debut with no prior national series experience when he won at the Daytona road course in February.
With that victory, Gibbs also became the third-youngest winner in series history, behind future Cup champions Joey Logano and Chase Elliott.
Since then, the full-time ARCA Menards Series driver has notched four more top 5s in a limited Xfinity Series schedule, including a win last Saturday on the Charlotte oval. And later that night, he led every lap in the ARCA race and won that, too.
Gibbs starts second on Saturday in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Supra, and a win may give fans a reason to save their tickets for posterity (or eBay).
Click here for the full, 40-car Xfinity Series starting lineup.
ARCA undercard features rising stars
The Xfinity Series’ main support race is a historic one. For the first time in 56 years, the ARCA Menards Series takes on Mid-Ohio, and it’s also the 1,500th race in series history.
ARCA (pronounced AR-kuh), based in Toledo, is the highest level of stock car racing before NASCAR’s three-step national ladder. Friday evening’s 42-lap Dawn 150 will be ARCA’s first race at Mid-Ohio since Dayton’s Jack Bowsher drove his Ford to victory in 1965.
The 20,404 days (55 years, 10 months, 11 days) between events is the longest for a track in series history.
“We are ecstatic to be back in central Ohio for the first time in many seasons,” ARCA president Ron Drager said in a statement. “We raced at the now-closed Mansfield Motorsports Park a couple of times about a decade ago, and we’ve had a lot of great conversations with the team at Mid-Ohio in recent years.”
The 16-car field on Friday features a number of rising stars, including the No. 18 Toyota of Gibbs, who sits second in series standings, behind leader Corey Heim. Gibbs has four wins in six Menards Series starts this year, including three in a row heading into this week.
Gibbs led every lap in two of his wins, a rare feat in top stock car racing nowadays. A win at Mid-Ohio, though, would be Gibbs’ first ARCA win on a road course. The 18-year-old has won 12 of his 31 career ARCA starts.
Another driver to watch Friday is Thad Moffitt in the No. 46 David Gilliland Racing Ford. Sitting third in points and chasing his first career win, Moffitt is the grandson of NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
“I’ve enjoyed it a lot and just being part of that legacy,” he said, “and trying to build my own legacy at the same time.”
Moffitt, who comes from an oval background, said he’s spent more time on his racing simulator to learn Mid-Ohio. Particularly giving him trouble is the blind drop in elevation coming out of turn 5.
“You top the hill and there’s a right hander, and by the time you get to the right hander you’re supposed to be in a braking zone. And being a racecar driver, I just stay in the gas all the way until the top of the hill,” Moffitt laughed. “So, I’ve had a lot of offs on the simulator, and I can just press the reset button, but I can’t do that in the car.”
Unlike in the Xfinity Series, ARCA drivers will benefit from 45 minutes of practice Friday afternoon. Also notable is that ARCA pit stops are noncompetitive, meaning drivers exit pit road during cautions in the order they came in. This is to increase parity between the big and small teams.
Moffitt said the ARCA race will be an opportunity for fans to scout the next generation of NASCAR drivers.
“After (Dale Earnhardt) Jr. left the sport and then Jimmie Johnson leaving the sport, it seems like I’ve talked to a lot of fans that are looking for their next driver,” he said. “And I think that in the ARCA series right now with the competition we have – Ty Gibbs, Corey Heim, Nick Sanchez, Jack Wood – I mean, there’s a lot of good, up-and-coming drivers that need to be out in front of people.”
Click here for the full ARCA entry list.
Race notes, TV details and weekend schedule
Mid-Ohio is not setting a cap on tickets for the 80,000-spectator facility. The track tells NBC4 that advance ticket sales are tracking higher for this year’s event than in 2019. Advance tickets are $60 for the weekend and $50 for a single day.
Since Ohio’s COVID-19 orders lifted on Wednesday, the track lifted its specific protocols. Click here to read more.
ARCA Menards Series race (Friday, June 4)
- 42 laps, 94.84 miles (152.62 km)
- Green flag: 6 p.m.
- TV: Fox Sports 1
- Radio: MRN (Motor Racing Network), SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (ch. 90)
NASCAR Xfinity Series race (Saturday, June 5)
- 75 laps across three, 25-lap stages. 169.35 miles.
- Green flag: 1 p.m.
- TV: Fox Sports 1
- Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Two series other than ARCA will provide support races for NASCAR this weekend. The Yokohama Drivers Cup, a Porsche racing series, has races at 3:50 p.m. Friday and 10:45 a.m. Saturday. And the Stadium Super Trucks will race at 11:40 a.m. Saturday and after the NASCAR race.
Super Trucks drivers include former NASCAR winner Robby Gordon; reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed; Matthew Brabham, grandson of three-time Formula One champion Jack Brabham; and Arie Luyendyk Jr., son of the two-time Indy 500 winner.