NASCAR returns to Fontana with excitement and uncertainty
FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — The beautifully weathered asphalt at Auto Club Speedway is older than Austin Cindric.
The Next Gen car that the Daytona 500 champion drove over that asphalt to the pole Saturday is so new that most of the NASCAR Cup Series drivers still haven’t figured out how to keep it out of spins or off of the wall.
This California combo of the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar, could make for a fascinating race Sunday at Auto Club Speedway when NASCAR’s West Coast swing gets underway.
“For the next four months … it is about who is the best learners,” Cindric said.
Everything looks unpredictable in NASCAR this year, as evidenced by the unlikely early season dominance of the 23-year-old rookie who sped to his first career pole one week after his first victory.
“There is so much learning and so much going on, and it is all happening really fast,” Cindric said. “As a driver, you can’t be distracted by the crashes or mistakes, or the short amount of time (in practice). I had all the data I needed today to learn what I needed to do and go apply it. It’s fun to be able to go do that.”
The second race of the NASCAR season also is both the start of something big and the possible end of something beloved.
The teams will begin the season-long challenge of familiarizing themselves with their new equipment in a series of unfamiliar settings. They were given only 15 minutes of practice Saturday to prepare for qualifying for their first race on a 2-mile track with the brand-new car, which partly led to a qualifying session with nearly a dozen wrecks and spins.
It’s an auspicious development for fans and TV viewers, but the start of a long night for teams scrambling to get their cars together in time to race Sunday.
They’ll also be racing on the much-loved, five-wide Fontana asphalt that could be gone by the time NASCAR returns next year. Auto Club Speedway’s tentative plans to tear up this seasoned, historic track to turn it into a half-mile short course reflect the sport’s evolution toward a different kind of racing, but drivers like Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch adore Fontana’s character and pure speed.
“I would miss it,” said Larson, the defending Cup champion. “I love this style of track and the way the surface is wore out. But as much as I love these intermediate-style tracks — and we saw it at the Clash — short tracks are what makes this sport, to me, exciting.”
The Next Gen car thrives on shorter tracks because it handles much better and also navigates dirty air more efficiently. The new setup will make racing better on road courses and in tight short-track quarters — and the general consensus is those situations are far more entertaining to fans than more static racing at extreme speeds on NASCAR’s big ovals such as Fontana.
“I’m for more short tracks,” Larson added. “They don’t suit me very well, but I still think, for the betterment of the sport, that we need more of them. I would like to see it. I think it would get a lot of people even more excited about this event.”
BACK OUT WEST
The Fontana race is on again after a one-year pause. After Alex Bowman won in 2020, NASCAR didn’t race here last year for the first time since the track opened in 1997 due to the pandemic.
NOT JUST YET
Most drivers are hoping the oval will be here next year at least. The plans to build a short track are on hold indefinitely due to a combination of factors including the pandemic, rising construction costs and evolving overall plans for the entire property, which sits about one hour east of downtown Los Angeles.
“Us drivers enjoy this place and like it the way it is,” Busch said. “We liked Atlanta the way it was, but time for change, time for new. We all kind of learned. We saw that new can work with the (Clash at the) Coliseum. I will 99% sell you that this place will get chopped up.”
BEST COAST LIVING
Fontana is the first of three consecutive stops on NASCAR’s annual early-season trip out west, to be followed by Las Vegas and Phoenix. The swing was the last thing to happen in 2020 before NASCAR’s two-month pause for the coronavirus pandemic, and it also comprised Larson’s last few events with Chip Ganassi Racing before his suspension.
Cindric’s pole was another banner achievement for team owner Roger Penske, who built Auto Club Speedway a quarter-century ago. Penske cars have won the season-opening Clash and the Daytona 500, while Scott McLaughlin and Will Power are sitting on the front row this weekend for IndyCar’s season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida.
ODDS AND ENDS
FanDuel pegs Sacramento-area native Larson as the 4-1 favorite for another win in Southern California. Kyle Busch, racing about three hours from his native Las Vegas, has 8 1/2-to-1 odds along with the ever-popular Chase Elliott.
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