NASCAR returns to Fontana with excitement and uncertainty – 95.5 WSB
FONTANA, Calif. — (AP) — The beautifully weathered asphalt at Auto Club Speedway is older than Austin Cindric.
The Next Gen car that the Daytona 500 champ drove on asphalt to pole on Saturday is so new that most NASCAR Cup Series drivers still haven’t figured out how to stop it from spinning or crashing from the wall.
This California combo of old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, could make for a fascinating race Sunday at Auto Club Speedway when NASCAR’s West Coast swing begins.
“For the next four months… it’s about who is the best learner,” Cindric said.
Everything seems unpredictable in NASCAR this year, as evidenced by the unlikely early season dominance of the 23-year-old rookie who claimed his first career pole a week after his first win.
“There’s so much learning and so much going on, and it’s all happening really fast,” Cindric said. “As a rider you can’t be distracted by crashes or mistakes, or the short time (in practice). I had all the data I needed today to know what to do. and go apply it. It’s fun to be able to go do that.”
The second race of the NASCAR season is also both the start of something great and the possible end of something beloved.
Teams will begin the season’s challenge to familiarize themselves with their new gear in a series of unfamiliar settings. They had just 15 minutes of practice on Saturday to prepare to qualify for their first race on a 2-mile track with the all-new car, which in part led to a qualifying session with nearly a dozen wrecks and tendrils.
It’s an auspicious development for fans and viewers, but the start of a long night for teams scrambling to get their cars together in time to race on Sunday.
They will also race on the much-loved five-wide Fontana asphalt that may be gone when NASCAR returns next year. Auto Club Speedway’s tentative plans to tear up this seasoned historic track to turn it into a short half-mile course reflect the sport’s evolution toward a different kind of racing, but drivers like Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch love Fontana’s character and sheer speed.
“I would miss it,” said Larson, the defending Cup champion. “I love this style of track and the way the surface wears. But even though I love these intermediate style tracks – and we saw that at the Clash – the short tracks are what make this sport, for me , exciting.”
The Next Gen car thrives on shorter tracks as it handles much better and also navigates more efficiently in dirty air. The new setup will make races better on road courses and in tight short quarter-tracks – and the general consensus is that these situations are much more entertaining for fans than more static racing at extreme speeds on NASCAR’s big ovals. such as Fontana.
“I’m all for shorter runs,” Larson added. “They don’t fit very well, but I still think, for the sake of the sport, we need more. I would like to see that. I think a lot of people would be even more excited about this event.
RETURN TO THE WEST
The Fontana race is relaunched after a one-year hiatus. After Alex Bowman’s 2020 victory, NASCAR did not race here last year for the first time since the track opened in 1997 due to the pandemic.
Most drivers hope the oval will be there next year at least. Short runway construction plans are on hold indefinitely due to a combination of factors including the pandemic, rising construction costs and changing overall plans for the entire property, which sits at about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles.
“We drivers appreciate this place and love it the way it is,” Busch said. “We loved Atlanta the way it was, but time for change, time for new. We’ve all learned. We’ve seen that new can work with the (Clash at) Coliseum. I’ll sell you 99% that this place will get chopped.”
BETTER COASTAL LIFE
Fontana is the first of three consecutive stops on NASCAR’s annual season-opening trip west, followed by Las Vegas and Phoenix. The swing was the last thing to happen in 2020 before NASCAR’s two-month hiatus for the coronavirus pandemic, and it also included Larson’s final events with Chip Ganassi Racing before his suspension.
Cindric’s pole was another landmark achievement for team owner Roger Penske, who built the Auto Club Speedway a quarter century ago. Penske cars won the season-opening Clash and Daytona 500, while Scott McLaughlin and Will Power sit front row this weekend for the IndyCar season opener in St. Florida.
FanDuel considers Larson, a Sacramento-area native, the 4-1 favorite for another win in Southern California. Kyle Busch, who runs about three hours from his hometown of Las Vegas, has odds of 8 1/2 to 1 with the ever-popular Chase Elliott.
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