During NASCAR‘s testing of the Next Gen car ahead of its début season in 2022, among the sanctioning body’s talking points to develop hype was the intention of making a car that is more difficult to drive. Whether it be for that or Auto Club Speedway‘s aging surface or some other reason, drivers certainly seemed to have a hard time manoeuvring it during Saturday’s Cup Series practice and qualifying session.
Multiple drivers were involved in spins or accidents that stem from the Next Gen car having significantly less downforce than its predecessor, among other factors that increase its difficulty to control. Ross Chastain slammed into the wall during practice, while Kevin Harvick and Chris Buescher both spun in the session. Victims in qualifying included Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, and Brad Keselowski, the latter’s tyres also going down after his spin and causing his car to be beached on the backstretch infield. By the end of the day, Austin Cindric‘s burgeoning Cup career continued to take off as the rookie backed up last week’s Daytona 500 victory by winning his first pole in just his ninth start.
“I think [the increased driving difficulty is] enjoyable to a certain extent,” commented Cindric. “The hard-to-drive part is different than in years past when you go to Darlington or Fontana or Atlanta in the past it was hard to drive but controllable. I think with this car you don’t have as much sidewall deflection and you don’t have the side force. You’re hard to drive is defined by different things. I am not going to sit here and tell you that I know what all those things are. You have to be somewhat conservative in some areas and somewhat aggressive in other areas. I was having to talk myself into my lap because I wasn’t aggressive enough in a lot of areas. I think the learning process is different for every driver and every team. You key off different things and there is a lot that is different right now.”
Cindric is the first Team Penske driver to win the Cup pole at Fontana since Kurt Busch in the 2007 fall race, but the first in the spring event since Ryan Newman in 2002.
“Yhe last time I approached a qualifying session having to talk myself into my own lap as much as I had to today was back when I raced U.S. F2000 in 2013 or 2014 and went to IRP the night before the 500,” he added. “I know that is probably gibberish to the entire NASCAR fan base but that is what today reminded me of. There is so much learning and so much going on and it is all happening really fast. As a driver, you can’t be distracted by the crashes or mistakes or the short amount of time. I had all the data I needed today to learn what I needed to do and go apply it. It is fun to be able to go do that.”
The chaos of the qualifying session led to a bizarre top five as Erik Jones qualified second, placing the legendary #43 on the front row for the first time since Almirola at Chicagoland Speedway in 2012. While the #43 started first at the 2013 fall race at Talladega, qualifing was rained out and it is therefore not considered an official pole. Cindric’s #2 and the #43 also marked the first front row with the two numbers since Keselowski and A.J. Allmendinger achieved the feat in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600. Jones also secured his first front-row start since qualifying runner-up at the 2019 AAA Texas 500, and the fifth such run of his Cup career.
Daniel Hemric qualified fifth for his fifth top-five start; the first four all came during his only full Cup season in 2019. His Kaulig Racing team had its fifth Cup top ten start and fourth with an actual qualifying session after Allmendinger qualified seventh, third, and eighth at COTA, Road America, and Indianapolis in 2021.
Busch did not set a qualifying time after failing inspection multiple times on Friday.
|Position||Number||Driver||Team||Manufacturer||Best Time||Best Speed (mph)|
|1||2||Austin Cindric||Team Penske||Ford||41.226||174.647|
|2||43||Erik Jones||Petty GMS Motorsports||Chevrolet||41.342||174.157|
|3||18||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||41.437||173.758|
|4||11||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||41.529||173.373|
|5||16||Daniel Hemric*||Kaulig Racing||Chevrolet||41.585||173.139|
|6||12||Ryan Blaney||Team Penske||Ford||41.588||173.127|
|7||22||Joey Logano||Team Penske||Ford||42.197||170.628|
|8||9||Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||41.177||174.855|
|9||6||Brad Keselowski||RFK Racing||Ford||41.403||173.900|
|10||24||William Byron||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||41.478||173.586|
|11||8||Tyler Reddick||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||41.516||173.427|
|12||19||Martin Truex Jr.||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||41.517||173.423|
|13||5||Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||41.594||173.102|
|14||48||Alex Bowman||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||41.634||172.936|
|15||99||Daniel Suárez||Trackhouse Racing Team||Chevrolet||41.636||172.927|
|16||3||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||41.678||172.753|
|17||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||41.688||172.712|
|18||42||Ty Dillon||Petty GMS Motorsports||Chevrolet||41.777||172.344|
|19||20||Christopher Bell||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||41.888||171.887|
|20||17||Chris Buescher||RFK Racing||Ford||41.888||171.887|
|21||41||Cole Custer||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||41.940||171.674|
|22||21||Harrison Burton||Wood Brothers Racing||Ford||41.989||171.473|
|23||34||Michael McDowell||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||42.056||171.200|
|24||14||Chase Briscoe||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||42.140||170.859|
|25||7||Corey LaJoie||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||42.188||170.665|
|26||38||Todd Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||42.505||169.392|
|27||51||Cody Ware||Rick Ware Racing||Ford||42.634||168.879|
|28||77||Josh Bilicki*||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||42.957||167.609|
|29||15||Garrett Smithley||Rick Ware Racing||Ford||43.953||163.811|
|30||78||B.J. McLeod||Live Fast Motorsports||Ford||44.103||163.254|
|31||10||Aric Almirola||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||No Time||N/A|
|32||4||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||No Time||N/A|
|33||1||Ross Chastain||Trackhouse Racing Team||Chevrolet||No Time||N/A|
|34||23||Bubba Wallace||23XI Racing||Toyota||No Time||N/A|
|35||31||Justin Haley||Kaulig Racing||Chevrolet||No Time||N/A|
|36||45||Kurt Busch||23XI Racing||Toyota||No Time||N/A|
* – Ineligible for Cup points