NASCAR drivers battle learning curve with new cars at Fontana

NASCAR drivers battle learning curve with new cars at Fontana

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

FONTANA, Calif. — Drivers have said NASCAR’s new Next Gen car would be more difficult to drive than their previous car, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

They proved it Saturday morning at Auto Club Speedway, a 2-mile track in Fontana (Calif.) with an old surface that lacks grip.

Fontana practice: “The best drivers were spinning”

Fontana practice: "The best drivers were spinning"

Bob Pockrass shares his “Fast Thoughts” on the Saturday practice in Fontana. “The Cup practice and qualifying session was wild in Fontana. Maybe more wild than preferred, but nothing to panic about.”

Ten of the 36 drivers spun either during their 15-minute practice sessions or their single-car qualifying runs. High winds, teams getting adjusted to the 18-inch tires (from 15 inches with the previous car), navigating resin put on the track to help with tire wear and a dusty surface all could have been contributing factors.

“The cars are hard to drive,” Brad Keselowski said before becoming one of the 10 cars that spun. “They’re supposed to be that way. A lot of the drivers asked for it. We got what we wanted.”

The drivers asked for more horsepower and a small rear spoiler so they would have the ability to work the throttle to make passes. They got what they wanted when NASCAR changed the package for all races bigger than 1.3 miles, going from 550 to 670 horsepower and decreasing the rear spoiler from 7 inches to 4 inches — giving drivers the same aero package for all ovals, big and small.

They wanted that type of car even though ever since the first tests of the car, drivers have commented how they are more prone to snapping loose than the previous car, which was easier to straighten during a spin.

Ross Chastain slams the wall in practice at Fontana

Ross Chastain slams the wall in practice at Fontana

Five minutes into Cup Series practice, Ross Chastain slams the wall, suffering significant damage.

“With such a condensed schedule on such a challenging dynamic racetrack, I think it makes perfect sense to me why today was a challenge for sure,” said Austin Cindric, who backed up his Daytona 500 victory by winning the pole for Sunday’s Wise 400.

Austin Cindric on Fontana: “This track is tough”

Austin Cindric on Fontana: "This track is tough"

Austin Cindric says there were a lot of mistakes made Saturday in Fontana.

“I think if you put this race in the middle of the summer when we have had four months to figure out the cars and make things easier and more refined, I think today would have probably been a lot easier for a lot of teams. That isn’t how the schedule laid out and this track is as tough as it is talked about.”

Although several drivers spun, only one — Ross Chastain — had to go to a backup car. 

Kevin Harvick had significant damage to the rear of his car, but the team made repairs. Because parts and pieces are at a premium with the new car, Harvick’s organization (Stewart-Haas Racing) had just one backup car at the track for all of its teams.

Kevin Harvick spins out early in Cup practice

Kevin Harvick spins out early in Cup practice

Kevin Harvick loses control of his Subway Ford and brings out the caution in Cup Series practice at Fontana.

Despite the shortage, drivers had to push their cars to the limits in order to learn the limits of the new car. It is in some ways just part of the learning process.

Erik Jones, who will start on the front row beside Cindric, says NASCAR should take a wait-and-see approach before considering any changes to the car.

“I’ve felt good about it this morning,” Jones said. “So I would say race it. … Guys are learning quick. You’re seeing a lot of mistakes. But I think about when we went to the low downforce package a few years ago, we saw a lot of guys spin out with that, too, early on until teams got better. We’ll see. If we need to make changes, we’ll make changes. But right now, I’ve been happy with it.”

Erik Jones on how twitchy cars are at Fontana practice

Erik Jones on how twitchy cars are at Fontana practice

Erik Jones on controlling the new cars: “Part of it is tires, part of it is suspension. There’s so many factors, it’s not one thing.”

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!


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