With all due respect for the accomplishments of Austin Cindric winning the Daytona 500, the real NASCAR Cup Series season started this weekend on the two-mile oval outside Los Angeles, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. While Daytona is the biggest race of the year, NASCAR’s premier contest of the year, it’s only the beginning of the season. And this year’s season is going to be a learning one for everyone, from NASCAR to its teams and suppliers, as well, dealing with a new car and the variables that must be learned.
NASCAR made this week’s second contest of the season into a two-day affair, something the teams likely appreciated after the slugfest that was Daytona. There were some very torn-up racecars after that elongated contest ended with a pile of cars needing parts – and parts availability is a real problem for NASCAR’s Cup and Xfinity teams. It’s more so for the Cup competitors, as they’re dealing with a new car and new engine regs.
Probably the biggest bone of contention last week at Daytona was the efficacy of the new, spec wheel. Team Penske got in trouble for modifying their wheels, had them all confiscated but still won the race with their rookie driver on team owner Roger Penske’s 85th birthday, even as they tried to explain to NASCAR that there was a problem getting the wheels off and new ones seated during pit stops. At Auto Club Speedway, again there were issues with the wheels, but mostly the issues drivers and teams faced was the lack of practice time to understand what the new generation of cars would do once they went into battle with one another.
There were spins and hits in both practice and qualifying. To a man most everyone was glad to have the ability to practice and qualify again; it made the young 2022 season feel almost “normal” – but with only 15 minutes of green flag running in practice for two groups and a single lap to qualify, again in two groups, this 400-mile race was still a crapshoot. Joey Logano was one of the many drivers who crashed during qualifying but he wasn’t alone hitting the wall or even spinning without contact. It’s a learning experience for everyone.
At the close of 200 laps of racing on the 2-mile oval, played out before an enthusiastic and large crowd at Auto Club Speedway on a beautiful, warm winter day that was very much unlike Saturday’s practice and qualifying that were impacted by high winds, it was reigning champion Kyle Larson’s No. 5 earning his second victory at this track after finishing fifth in both of the two stages prior to the final run to the checkers.
Larson’s Chevrolet was hounded to the checkered flags by the Chevy of Austin Dillon just 0.195 seconds behind the winner, with front-row starter Erik Jones third in Richard Petty’s Chevy and Daniel Suarez fourth in Trackhouse Racing’s Chevy. Logano’s Ford was fifth, followed by the Fords of Aric Almirola and Kevin Harvick. Kurt Busch’s second race in the No. 45 Toyota Camry netted eighth spot, followed by Daniel Hemric’s and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Chevys.
Pole man Austin Cindric, hoping to earn a second consecutive victory, never led a lap and finished 12th, but was the highest finishing rookie in the 25th anniversary race for this track. He followed Cole Custer’s No. 41 Ford, after Custer earned the Xfinity Series crown on Saturday night. Fully 23 cars finished on the lead lap with the final driver to complete the 200-lap enduro being Justin Haley in Kaulig Racing’s No. 31 Chevy.
Larson, who said the seams and patches at Auto Club Speedway reminded him of dirt tracks where he’s raced, led 28 laps in earning his 17th Cup Series race, but he wasn’t the top lap leader. That came to Tyler Reddick in Richard Childress’ No. 8 Chevy, which held the front of the pack for 90 laps before a deflating left-rear tire and contact with Hendrick’s William Byron left him in 24th overall. Reddick won the first two stages and looked exceptionally strong, as did his crew chief Randy Burnett.
Because of all the spins and hits on Saturday, many expected this second race of the year to be one of attrition, and with 12 caution periods for 59 total laps. One of the final drivers to get caught up in the mayhem was 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, who ended up two laps down after scraping the wall on the 33rd lap and coming together with Larson as he battled with the eventual winner and Logano for the lead. Larson pinched Elliiott into the outside wall and immediately told his team he had no idea his teammate was outside.
That incident set up a dramatic four-lap hunt to the checkered flags and allowed Larson to come from the rear at the start of this contest due to unapproved adjustments, bided his time at mid-event and held off all comers to earn his first victory of the year, after visiting Victory Lane ten times in 2021. “We just kept our heads in it all day. It was a long race and restarts were crazy,” Larson allowed. “Definitely wild, but cool to get a win here in California – and hope we get on a little streak.”
NASCAR haulers are now located next to Nellis Air Force Base north of Las Vegas as they prep for the third race of the year on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway oval. While it was fun to watch crew chiefs and drivers learn about their new cars in action on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval, Las Vegas is more of a “normal” track for the Cup Series, and should indicate more about the competitive nature of both the new cars and their drivers as the series settles into its lengthy season.