FONTANA, Calif. – When NASCAR introduced the Gen-7 car to the track this year, it left many questions unanswered. During the off-season, social media buzzed with concerns, doubts and criticism from the number placement to the handling, including the body design and the single lug nut wheels.
But after NASCAR’s success from the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum and the fourth closest finish in the history of the Daytona 500, the future looks high during the west coast swing starting at Auto Club Speedway in California.
“There is so much optimism starting the year,” said Aric Almirola in what was announced to be his last full-time NASCAR Cup Series season.
The primary focus for NASCAR as an organization appears to be the new wheels. Two wheel failures came after damage to Justin Haley’s car last weekend at Daytona and from another mishap with Kaz Grala’s machine. That same week, NASCAR applied a rule to strengthen the mount itself.
“NASCAR met with Next Gen suppliers and several race teams this week to discuss wheel specifications,” read a NASCAR statement. “Following that discussion, NASCAR made small adjustments to increase the upper tolerance on pin and pilot bores for Fontana. NASCAR will reevaluate with suppliers and race teams to determine a path forward following this weekend’s race.”
Aside from the sanctioning body, the drivers and teams are learning each week with the new car. Even on tracks that are unique in the schedule, it appears that Sunday’s Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway will be the first true test of the new car.
“This weekend will be the biggest test,” said Chase Briscoe before Saturday’s practice and qualifying sessions. “This will be its traceability, durability, how hard it will be on the equipment, and all on a slick track.”
The veterans of the sport appear to be taking on the challenge head-on as well. Past winners of the speedway, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson, know the personality of the track
“There will be lots of trial and error,” Harvick stated, winner of this race in 2011. “I don’t have any expectations. When we drop the green flag, that’s when we’re going to start learning.”
“It has it’s differences,” said Larson, the 2019 race winner. “I don’t know what to expect. I didn’t have much experience in the car this off season, so I was learning a lot when I got to the Clash and even Daytona. This west coast swing is a good test of what we’ll feel for the rest of the year.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, rookie Austin Cindric qualified on pole for Sunday’s race. Not only did he come off his iconic Daytona 500 victory but Cindric continues his strong start to 2022 by leading the field in California. While he never would have expected this much success early on, he continues to stay focused on learning what he can.
“It is about who is the best learners,” said Cindric after his first pole in nine Cup Series starts. “That isn’t just the drivers, it is the crew chiefs and the teams and the manufacturers. I think the west coast swing is a great opportunity for us to gauge where everything is and where our strengths and weaknesses are for a lot of reasons. I think it is way too early and you have way too few data points to make any conjectures. From that standpoint, you have to keep focusing on the things you have learned and how to apply them as quickly as possible.”
Kyle Busch, four-time winner at the 2-mile oval, remembers their similar race package from 2018 regarding the higher horsepower and lower downforce combination. When looking back at his third place finish and 62 laps leading the field, he holds similar expectations with the Next Gen car.
“I think it’s going to be more similar to the 2018 cars when we were here with the smaller rear spoilers and the lesser downforce where you are going to be slipping and sliding a little bit,” Busch shared. “It’s not going to be locked down – great grip, almost wide open the last two times we ran here in 2019 and 2020 with the big, high downforce package and 550 horsepower package. I think you are going to see a greater separation of the haves versus the have-nots just because who has this car figured out and who doesn’t yet.”
After the exhibitions and the first official race of the year under the checkered flag, there are still 35 races left in the year, plus the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway. But for now, everyone’s focus will be the high and slippery speeds at Auto Club Speedway. It will be a much different 400 miles on Sunday, which will also be different at the 1.5-mile oval of Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the 1-mile of Phoenix Raceway. Kyle Busch knows the biggest challenge that lies ahead for all 40 entries will show itself during these three races, and most likely set the tone for the championship hunt and Playoff grid.
“You are going to see a greater separation of the haves versus the have-nots just because who has this car figured out and who doesn’t yet.”