Just six days after capturing the Daytona 500 as a rookie, in his eighth career start, Austin Cindric won the pole for this weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway. Erik Jones will start alongside, raising eyebrows in his No. 43 Petty GMS Racing Chevrolet after snagging his best starting spot in almost two and a half years.
Everyone else? They were simply trying to survive on a Next Gen debut weekend that brought an unexpected surprise: cars crashing all over the place.
“It’s definitely the most challenging car,” Jones said after his second-place run, “I’ve driven in the Cup Series.”
Early results on this intermediate seem to bear that out. Keep in mind the last ACS race run here, in 2020, had a total of just three cautions. Two of them were for stage breaks. As recently as 2012, this event was run caution-free for 125 laps before the rains came. While the track has become one of the sport’s more competitive ones at this distance, an abrasive surface causes handling problems that tend to spread the field out, not send them slamming into the wall.
Try saying that to drivers like Joey Logano. Kevin Harvick. Chase Elliott. All of them are former Cup champions having to deal with the fallout of crashes in either practice or their qualifying lap. Harvick didn’t even take a qualifying time, forced into the lone backup Stewart-Haas Racing brought to the track as supply chain issues continue to ravage the buildout of these Next Gen cars.
When the dust cleared, a total of six drivers didn’t even take time in qualifying; four more suffered damage while trying for the pole in round two. Suddenly, Auto Club Speedway has turned into a junkyard as drivers are simply struggling to keep control of their cars.
“I wasn’t even hardly on the throttle,” Harvick radioed to his team prior to the wreck. Indeed, it seemed like the Gen-7 chassis, unlike the short track of L.A. and the specialty pack racing down in Daytona, will snap around at this place on a moment’s notice.
We’re this far down and we haven’t mentioned the other unknown entering the weekend: the sport’s new, wider tire with only one lug nut. Two wheels were lost on track during the Daytona 500 while several other crews had problems securing them. How will they last during a full green-flag run at this track (if we even get that far)?
It all adds up to what should be a wild, unpredictable race for the second straight week. Even us experts are scratching our heads as it seems no lead (or leader) is safe. That’s a great thing for the sport as fresh faces and big surprises continue to mark the first few weeks of Next Gen competition.
Wise Power 400
Date: Sunday, Feb. 27
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, California)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Austin Cindric
For the first time in 10 years, a rookie came out a winner in the Daytona 500. Cindric bested Bubba Wallace by just 0.036 seconds in a nail-biting NASCAR Overtime finish. The 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion triumphed in just his ninth career start, beating the former driver of his No. 2, Brad Keselowski, in the process. Keselowski led a race-high 67 laps but couldn’t get a tandem draft going in OT and was forced to settle for ninth after crashing at the finish line.
How did Cindric follow that up, a whirlwind week filled with a national media tour and little sleep? By earning the pole and putting himself in position to start the season with back-to-back Cup wins. It’s hard to start your freshman year any better.
Who's at the Back: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin starts fourth on Sunday but needs a recovery race after a disappointing Daytona 500. The three-time winner didn’t even make it through the first stage this time around after getting swept up in a wreck not of his making. It marked Hamlin’s first-ever DNF in the Great American Race and the first time he finished outside the top 5 since 2017.
Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing (RFK Racing) and Team Penske were not penalized by NASCAR after their wheels were confiscated prior to the Daytona 500. Both teams claimed they made adjustments after discovering safety issues with the new wheels that could have jeopardized their cars in the race. Instead, NASCAR may have taken them up on those concerns, claiming after discussions they “made small adjustments to increase the upper tolerance on pin and pilot bores for Fontana.”
On the other hand, NASCAR still followed through with penalties for The Money Team Racing (No. 50) and Kaulig Racing (No. 31) for losing wheels on the racetrack at Daytona. The crew chiefs of Kaz Grala's team (Tony Eury Jr.) and Justin Haley's team (Trent Owens) were suspended four races along with the crew members responsible for handling the tire in question. TMT is not entered at Fontana but that will count as one of their four suspended races.
Former NASCAR Cup driver Ryan Newman has found himself a new home this season: SRX. The 44-year-old Newman, who lost his ride in RFK Racing’s No. 6 this offseason, will join former NASCAR stars Greg Biffle, Michael Waltrip and Bobby Labonte in the second year of the six-race All-Star series this summer.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Incidents of drivers spinning or hitting the wall in Saturday's Fontana Cup practice and qualifying session.
Accident in 200 laps during the last Auto Club Speedway race held at the track in 2020.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Could Sunday play into Kyle Busch's hands? The driver has an outstanding track record at Fontana, posting three consecutive podium finishes including a win in 2019. A third-place qualifying effort flexed some muscle on a weekend where the cars have proven near impossible to drive. Isn’t that when a two-time champ like Busch heads to the front?
Another driver to keep an eye on is defending Cup champion Kyle Larson. He struggled in qualifying, landing 13th, but has a victory here (2017) and two other runner-up finishes. Even a weekend of playing it safe, watching chaos spark around him, could lead to a top-5 finish in Hendrick Motorsports equipment.
Austin Dillon is often overlooked at Richard Childress Racing due to the success of teammate Tyler Reddick. Take advantage for your fantasy team at a track he’s shown some real consistency. Four of Dillon’s seven ACS starts have resulted in a 10th- or 11th-place finish; his overall average of 15.1 is highly competitive. Starting 16th on Sunday, there's an opportunity for position differential bonus at a cheap price.
How about Brad Keselowski following up an impressive Daytona performance with a ninth-place qualifying run? It's still uncertain how RFK Racing will perform with a team that’s underachieved on intermediates. But Keselowski's running a streak of four straight top-5 finishes at ACS and has one of the best career averages here (13.7) of anyone in the field.
You’ve got to ride the hot hand of Erik Jones, right? There’s a good chance he could back up that second-place starting spot with a top-5 finish as all teams are created equal with Next Gen notes. We see this type of hot start early in the season from a smaller team; remember how Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was third out of the box at Las Vegas Motor Speedway back in 2020?
Cole Custer hasn't been heard from in the Cup Series for ages. Last season, the 2020 Rookie of the Year could do no better than 10th in any race despite Stewart-Haas Racing equipment. But out of nowhere, Custer emerged victorious in the Xfinity Series race held Saturday in Fontana. Could that lead to a confidence boost and a charge from his 21st-place starting position in Cup?
What Vegas Thinks
According to vegasinsider.com, Kyle Larson leads the way for Fontana with +400 odds to win the race. Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch slot in second (+800) while Denny Hamlin is right behind them at +850.
Looking for a longshot? Austin Cindric was just +3500 entering the weekend in his bid to go two-for-two (although odds are going down after he won the pole).
What I Think
I’m putting my money on Kyle Busch to win a weekend of survival when it comes to the Next Gen car. With that said… all bets are off in a race that could find almost half its drivers collected in some sort of on-track incident.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.