After an impressive and exciting Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series headed west to the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. One of the more intriguing elements heading into the weekend is the brand new generation of car on a track where setup and handling will be given its first true examination in the public eye. Before the first green flag of the first session of practice could even be holstered, a fresh narrative is underway.
With hardly enough time to even digest the new A&B group practice/qualifying format Kevin Harvick quickly spun and backed the rear end into the turn 4 wall. “Snapped, I wasn’t hardly in the throttle” stated the former Cup champion.
With a new car, new tires, and an extensive amount of cross wind on track, the Cup series practice turned into more of a trial by fire than a chance to dial in a competitive setup. After a hard crash by Ross Chastain that may have been due to tire or part failure, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Christopher Bell each had single car spins during their practice sessions.
Rampant speculation becomes the name of the game in moments like this. Are the tires lacking grip? Is the wind too much? Is the side force of the new car not enough? Is this exactly what we wanted but NASCAR fandom is a disease that blinds us from a sense of satisfaction? Well it’s probably a bit of all four but in any event the drivers are working harder on a lap to lap basis, and that’s going to be even more interesting heading into Sunday.
Taking a clear back seat to car handling, the new practice and qualifying format is a purposefully lean and tight show that combines the whole experience into one pre-race day program. A group drive experience with the single car time trialing gives us a little bit of everything. This feels like a decent compromise from the old days of multi hour practice sessions and the covid era of no practice at all.
Perhaps the most satisfying element of qualifying Saturday was the strength of the teams usually branded as mid level against the old guard on the speed charts. Teams like RFK, Kaulig, and Petty GMS advanced to the final round of qualifying, and with that shows a glimmer of hope. There’s a lot of promise to the supposed leveling of the playing field, and the opportunity to “nail the setup” rather than being the guy with the best engine and aero budget.
Still, despite all the overreaction, car handling really is going to be an issue come race time. In the first rounds Aric Almirola had a spin, but the final round became it’s own animal. Brad Keselowski, William Byron, and final runner Chase Elliott each had a spin, and Joey Logano slapped the wall out of turn four, all seemingly on fast lap runs. If nothing more, this car doesn’t seem to forgive the moonshot pole run on the old Fontana pavement.
Sunday is looking to be one hell of a ride. I’ll be watching!
Austin Cindric picks up where he left off and starts on pole for the Wise Power 400.
Unofficial Top 10 after Qualifying
- Austin Cindric
- Erik Jones
- Kyle Busch
- Denny Hamlin
- Daniel Hemric
- Ryan Blaney
- Joey Logano
- Chase Elliott
- Brad Keselowski
- William Byron
Catch the Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway at 3:30pm est Sunday on Fox.