Saturday NASCAR At The Auto Club Speedway Fontana
Now You’re Up To Speed
You just never know what’s going to happen during a day at the races.
By Brian Kennedy
Sun, Feb 27, 2022 09:48 AM PST
Images by Brian Kennedy. More images to come.
Saturday in Fontana, CA at Auto Club Speedway, that was more than true. Action mixed with intrigue and confusion about the capabilities of the new NASCAR Cup car, drivers spun out qualifying, and the day ended with an Xfinity race that went way longer than scheduled.
It started with NASCAR Cup practice and qualifying. The cars are new, and very different than the last generation of NASCAR despite outward appearances. And it’s clear that nobody knows much about how they handle. They are labelled “more driveable” than earlier cars, but that doesn’t mean easier to drive. Rather, it means that the aero and the adjustments are less able to influence the car. It’s much more up to the driver to make the car work.
Several didn’t do well with it, not the least of whom was Kevin Harvick. He backed his car into the wall in the morning session. I circled past his garage several times as they day went on, and as late as 4:30, the crew still had the underneath of the car all apart. They apparently had replaced much of the mechanical bits.
It also seemed that they were taking parts off, or working on the setup, of Ross Chastain’s backup car, which was parked next to Harvick’s in the garage area. Chastain also had a whallop, and he destroyed the front end of his primary car. That was all disassembled in a different part of the garage when I went by, but there’s no way what was left was salvageable.
Harvick and Chastain weren’t the only ones to lose control during practice and qualifying. Others included ten of 36 cars, with drivers named things like Keselowski and Elliott. Yes, the big names.
Part of the problem there was that there were only fifteen minutes of practice, for each of two groups, and that wasn’t enough to make drivers comfortable. Add to that wicked winds that blew strong and changed directions. When I pulled into the track’s infield parking area, they were coming from north to south, blowing across the back and front stretches. Soon, the flags were indicating a west wind. Next it was from east to west. Hard to figure, but the gusts were blamed for at least some of the wrecks that populated practice and qualifying.
So this raceday hadn’t even reached noon, and Cup qualifying was causing havoc. The track itself is unchanged - maybe a little bit more bumpy than before, though they’ve also shaved down the rough spots, which is usual practice. But the new independent suspension cars are clearly not yet understood by crews or drivers, as is expected, right? The dialing-in process can’t happen in a weekend.
Erik Jones, who qualified in second, described the feeling of watching other drivers ahead of him in qualifying have problems: “I was nervous even before I went out there just seeing those guys make mistakes. A guy like Kevin Harvick’s not going to go out and wreck in lap one of practice, especially in the old car, so they’re just challenging. It’s really unknown, the driving style is 100 percent different. You cannot push the car as hard. There’s just a really fine line of pushing it hard to make speed and stepping over that line, and when you do, it’s hard to get it back. I don’t know how that’s going to change as the car develops, but it’s definitely the most challenging car I’ve driven in the Cup series.”
He summarized: “It’s a lot different, definitely a lot less feel than we had on the old [car].”
So with qualifying for Cup done, it was time for the Xfinity 300-mile (150 laps) race. Little did we know that the racing would not be finished until nearly 6pm, because the race, which proceeded slowly and with cautions in the early going, then sped through its middle section, ended up taking three overtimes to conclude.
The last slowdown of the day was caused by Sheldon Creed pushing Stefan Parsons into the wall. Neither of these guys even figured to be in on the winning, but Creed got a run up against the wall and ran into the other car. That caused Parsons to veer down and shove Brandon Jones into a spin of his own, which pitched the side of his car into the sand barrels which guard the end of the wall that runs along the outside of pit road. A bit of a scary moment, that was.
With sand barrels to clean up, the race was red flagged - the cars stopped on the front stretch and 5:30 pm coming and going. It gets dark in Fontana right around 6pm, so while the cars were parked, the lights at the track came on. The race would eventually end at 5:47pm.
Had that not happened, Anthony Alfredo might well have won from 25th on a late-race restart. He did it by putting on new tires, and leaping up ten spots at a time on a series of late-race restarts. He went from 25th, to 13th, to 3rd, the latter because he used the choose rule to take the inside position on the restart after the second overtime. Would he win? Keep reading - you’ll find the truth somewhere in the highlights below.
A number of highlights of the action are worth mentioning. First, Austin Hill, last week’s winner, got four laps down, but recovered two of them through the free pass handed out at caution periods. He was hoping for another, but Mason Massey got a lap down and got the pass. Hill never did recover, and in fact ended up in 27th, three laps down. His troubles started when Josh Berry pushed him down the back straight.
Second, Ty Gibbs did not back up his 12-place starting position after working his way up to fifth. He spun right through the big race logo across from the flag stand. He would end up 13th.
Third, Cole Custer was fast everywhere, sometimes hugging the wall going into turn one, and the next lap, coming by with his left tires underneath the white line and then drifting up to that outside wall but holding on to it.
Fourth, and this is easy: going into turn 1 on lap 91 of 150, the speed registered on the giant lighted sign on the outside of the turn was 191 mph. It climbed to 192. Then 193. Thrilling.
Fifth, Justin Allgaier figured in the lead pack action most of the way. He would end up in eighth. He led after the pit stop for Jade Buford’s wreck, over Berry and Sam Mayer. Berry eventually caused a caution of his own, hitting the wall in OT.
So who won? Well, that story rightly features the frontrunners all day: Cole Custer and Trevor Bayne. The latter has not been in Xfinity since 2016.
Here’s how it happened: Because of the OT situation, the luck seemed like it would fall to Alfredo, but despite starting behind Custer, he faded in the center lane as the two-lap overtime concluded. Custer got the win, with Noah Gragson, also a strong runner all day, in second, and Bayne third, followed by Josh Berry and Alfredo in fifth. Gragson had recovered from stopping outside his pit box and having to back up, leaving him out of the top ten after the pit stop with about 22 laps to go.
After the race, Custer said that the win in his hometown thrilled him and gratified his sponsor. He had won at Fontana before. He will race in the Cup race Sunday. “Those Cup cars are on the edge, as we saw today, so it’s going to be an interesting race tomorrow.”
What else do you need to know about Fontana? The crowd was moderate. Just a seat-of-the-pants feel for Saturday suggested lots of faithful race fans but not so many wandering the paddock area.
As I watched Harvick’s crew repairing his car from inside the garage, I couldn’t help but notice the preformed panels, including wheel wells that screwed on. A fan next to me said, “Wheel wells. When did they ever have those?” He proceeded to comment on the state of the sport.
“So complicated and expensive now. I remember the old days. I would write to the teams and ask for a pass, or maybe donate something, and they would get me in,” he said. “I used to donate tires to Joe Nemechek’s team, and they fixed me up.”
Now, he said, he had to buy a suite pass to get the access he was used to. He said he goes to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Fontana each year, and that last year’s cancellation due to Covid was a big disappointment to him.
“How much was your suite pass?” I asked.
“A thousand bucks,” he said. I don’t have a way to verify this, but the corporate look of the cars would suggest that somewhere, somebody’s got to be emptying their pockets to make all of this happen.
I hope you feel the anticipation for Sunday, when 36 cars, all of whom have nervous drivers who have no trust in the cars’ handling based on Saturday, take the green for a race 100 miles longer than Saturday’s marathon.
Austin Cindric took the pole, after which he had questions directed at him on three different fronts: How has he done this, given that this is his first full-time season in Cup? What was the track like, and how does the car work on this 2-mile oval? And has it yet sunk in that he is a Daytona 500 winner?
Here are some of his answers, starting with, “Just an awesome couple of days, but I don’t think it guarantees anything for the race.”
He continued: “There are a lot of things that are new, and you’re trained by muscle memory to key off different things. I’m not saying I’m doing anything different than anybody else, but you key off of certain things in race cars like when you get loose or you have a moment, when things are right or when things are wrong. When we have such a limited schedule on such a dynamic race track, it makes perfect sense to me why it was a challenge, for sure.” He said that if the race were four months from now when everyone’s had a chance to figure out the car, it would have made it easier for a lot of teams.
He said that the car being hard to drive is defined by different things than the prior generation car. “The learning process is different for every driver and every team, but I think … you key off of different things, and [this car] is a lot different right now.” He also said that there are a lot of unknowns due to the eight minutes of practice that he had. Is his car a long-run car? A short-run car? What’s the fuel mileage? All of that gives fans something to watch for on Sunday.
He later got to the point of the Daytona win. “The coolest, thing, and it will stay with me, is that my dad [Penske Racing’s Tim Cindric] got a voicemail from AJ Foyt. I’ve gotten a lot of text messages from a lot of people, and those are meaningful, but to hear AJ’s voice talk about me winning the Daytona 500 … is really, really special. I’m going to try to save it on a hard drive.”
So if you missed it all on Saturday, now you’re up to date. But maybe you should think about writing your own story. You can start by showing up for Sunday’s race.
About The Author
Brian Kennedy always wanted a ’66 Mustang. 10 years ago, he bought one – and he’s been restoring it ever since. Brian extended his passion for cars by covering events for magazines like Grassroots Motorsports, Sportscar, and Victory Lane – e.g., events in Cart, Pro Rally, Formula Atlantic, the SCCA Runoffs, Trans Am, SVRA, VSCDA, and VARA. He’s also profiled a number of cars and interviewed a number of personalities – among them: Gene Felton (IMSA), Hurley Haywood, Jerry Seinfeld, and Nigel Olsson.