NASCAR returns to Fontana with excitement and uncertainty

FONTANA, CA (AP) – The beautifully weathered asphalt at Auto Club Speedway is older than Austin Cendrick.

The next generation car that

California’s mix of old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, can make for a great Sunday race at Auto Club Speedway when NASCAR’s West Coast swing begins.

“For the next four months…it comes down to who’s the best learner,” Cendrick said.

Everything seems unexpected in NASCAR this year, as evidenced by the unexpected early season dominance of the 23-year-old rookie who raced to his first career pole one week after his first win.

“There’s a lot of learning and a lot going on, and it’s all happening really fast,” Cendrick said. “As a driver, you can’t be distracted by accidents or errors, or short time (in practice). I had all the data I needed today to know what I needed and start implementing it. It’s fun being able to do that.”

The second race of the NASCAR season is also the beginning of something big and a possible end to something loved.

Teams will begin the all-season challenge of getting to know their new gear in a series of unfamiliar settings. They were given just 15 minutes of practice on Saturday to prepare to qualify for their first race on the two-mile track with the new car, partly leading to a qualifying session with nearly a dozen wrecks and spins.

It’s an auspicious development for fans and TV viewers, but the start of a long night for the teams scrambling to get their cars together in time for Sunday’s race.

They will also be racing on the much-loved five-foot-tall Fontana asphalt that could be gone by the time NASCAR returns next year. Auto Club Speedway’s temporary plans to rip this historic veteran track into a short half-mile track reflect the sport’s evolution toward a different kind of racing, but drivers like Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch adore Fontana’s personality and sheer speed.

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“I’m going to miss her,” said Larson, the defending champion. “I love this style of track and the way the surface wears out. But as much as I love these mid-style tracks—and we’ve seen that on Clash—it’s the short tracks that make this sport, to me, exciting.”

The next generation car thrives on shorter tracks because it better deals with polluted air more efficiently. The new setup will make racing better on road courses and in tight, short-track quarters – and the general consensus is that these are far more entertaining for fans than stationary races at top speeds on NASCAR’s big ovals like Fontana.

“I’m for more short tracks,” Larson added. “They don’t suit me well, but I still think, in order to improve this sport, we need more of them. I would like to see it. I think it will make a lot of people more excited about this event.”

Back to the West

Fontana Racing is back again after a year-long hiatus. After Alex Bowman’s win in 2020, NASCAR did not race here last year for the first time since the track opened in 1997 due to the pandemic.

Not just yet

Most drivers hope the oval will be here at least next year. Plans to build the Short Trail have been indefinitely put on hold due to a combination of factors including the pandemic, rising construction costs, and the evolution of comprehensive plans for the entire property, which is located about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles.

“We drivers enjoy this place and love it for what it is,” said Bush. “We loved Atlanta the way it was, but it’s time for a change, it’s a new time. We all kind of learned. We saw that the new one could work with (Clash at the) Coliseum. I’ll sell you 99% that this place will get a clip.”

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The best way to live on the coast

Fontana is the first of three consecutive stops on NASCAR’s annual early-season trip to the West, followed by Las Vegas and Phoenix. Swinging was the last thing that happened in 2020 before NASCAR’s two-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it also included Larson’s last few events with Chip Ganassi Racing prior to his suspension.

versatility of the pen

The Cindric mogul was another achievement for team owner Roger Penske, who built the Auto Club Speedway a quarter century ago. Penske’s cars won the season’s opening Clash and Daytona 500, while Scott McLaughlin and Will Power sit in the front row this weekend for the IndyCar season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Possibilities and endings

FanDuel ties Sacramento-area Larson as the 4-1 favorite for another win in Southern California. Kyle Busch, who races about three hours from his hometown of Las Vegas, has 8 1/2 to 1 odds alongside famous Chase Elliott.

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