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NASCAR brings out the ringers as Cup Series stages first road course race of the season at COTA

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — NASCAR’s return to the road courses always brings out the ringers.

Sunday's race at the Circuit of the Americas will be first of five this season on road or street courses, and will be the 2024 Cup Series debut for last season’s New Zealand debutant Shane van Gisbergen.

And Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi, one of the top road racers in the world, returns to a familiar race track, one built for Formula One where he’s put in laps in both F1 and endurance racing.

Van Gisbergen's profile on one of his social media pages simply reads “Race Everything," and he will be putting in a lot of work in Austin for Kaulig Racing. He will drive Saturday's Xfinity series race before the first of his seven scheduled Cup races this year.

“I love it," Van Gisbergen said Friday of his season so far in the Xfinity series. "It's something different every week. I’m learning so much.”

Van Gisbergen stunned NASCAR when he won his debut race at the Chicago street course race last July, then finished 10th on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a few weeks later.

That success launched the 34-year-old former three-time Australian Supercars champion into chasing a full-time career in NASCAR with a development program deal driving for Trackhouse Racing.

His first four races on ovals in Xfinity produced a top three finish in Atlanta and a top 10 in Phoenix. And now comes a road course where he's already considered among the favorites to win.

“I was more excited about the ovals, because it was learning. I know I’ll be good at these (road) tracks,” van Gisbergen said. “I’ve got no excuses not to do well at these.”

Van Gisbergen raced COTA in the Supercars in 2013, but the course was abbreviated and did not send the cars around the entire track.

Last year's Chicago race win came in damp conditions on a street course that played to his Supercars experience. At COTA he'll be surrounded by drivers who have already raced the track the past three years.

Cup Series leader Kyle Larson and Ty Gibbs (third) are also racing Xfinity on Saturday to get even more practice on a track that features drastic elevation changes, switchback corners and s-curves. Chase Elliott, who ranks first among active drivers with seven road coarse wins, including COTA in 2021, is looking to end a 39-race winless drought.

Last year's race winner Tyler Reddick is another one of those road course wizards who have already won at COTA. Three of Reddick's five career victories have come on road courses.

Reddick won last year in triple overtime by holding the lead over several multiple restarts.

“The way you run fast laps here is executing on all 20 corners,” Reddick said. “It's one of the most fun laps, car versus track, that we have, because of the corners.”

Kobayashi, 37, is a two-time World Endurance Champion and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2021. He will be racing Sunday for 23XI Racing.

Kobayashi said he expects to be better prepared than his first NASCAR race last year when he finished 33rd in Indianapolis. He was the first Japanese driver to run a Cup race in 20 years.

“I think I learned quite a lot about how you handle the car and how the race goes, and how the race weekend goes,” Kobayashi said. “I think the second time I can manage myself better, and I’m putting in the preparation now. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the simulator. We will see.”

As an F1 driver, Kobayashi started 75 races from 2009-2014, with one podium finish at the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix. His only F1 race at COTA was a 14th place finish in 2012. Between F1 and WEC, he has raced the circuit five times prior to this week.

“I think Indy, it was my first time ever racing there. But (Austin), I have more experience, so definitely looking forward to the race," Kobayashi said.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing