Friday 5: Auto Club Speedway presents challenge for NASCAR drivers, teams

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It was one thing for Cup teams to race without having any practice, competing with a car they knew so well.

But this weekend at Auto Club Speedway could present as much of a challenge as teams have faced. They’ll run the Next Gen car at a track that has not hosted a Cup race in two years. Teams, still trying to learn the new car, get only 15 minutes of practice Saturday.

“It’s a big challenge, for sure,” said Alex Bowman, who won the last Cup race at the Fontana, California, track in 2020.

Bowman said that while simulation programs will help teams prepare, “until you really do (get on track), who really knows?”

That’s how it is likely to be the next several weeks, as teams run on different style of tracks with the Next Gen car for the first time.

“I feel like if you show up at the racetrack and you’re not close, you’re probably not going to fix it by the race,” former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. told NBC Sports. “You’re not going to get it fixed during the race.”

“There’s going to be a lot of crazy storylines early in the year. There’s going to be a lot of surprises, and there’s going to be a lot of guys that have a good week, bad week, good week, bad week, hit and miss.

“I just feel like until we get some time under our belt and find kind of a baseline of what this thing wants at certain tracks, we’re all going to be searching. We’re all going to be taking gambles on what we’re taking to the racetrack, setup-wise.”

Auto Club Speedway marks the first time this season that teams will not have much track time before the race. 

At the Clash, teams had practice, heat races and some even had a consolation race before the main event. There were multiple practice sessions before the Daytona 500.

This weekend marks NASCAR’s revamped practice/qualifying schedule. Teams will be divided into two groups. Each group gets 15 minutes of practice before qualifying. 

Teams and NASCAR continue to learn nuances about the car — as was the case with series officials not penalizing Team Penske or RFK Racing for modifications to wheels at Daytona and then coming out with a change. 

Auto Club last hosted a race in 2020, shortly before the pandemic halted the sport. Last year’s race was moved to the Daytona road course because of pandemic regulations in California. 

Series officials had work done on the track recently to grind some of the bumps because the cars are so low to the ground. Officials also added resin to the track to provide more grip.

“It is really an unknown territory for us, and it’s probably one of the more challenging tracks we go to,” Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske, told NBC Sports. “The bumps, the way that works, in conjunction with a really aero-sensitive track, it makes it very difficult.”

The limited practice could make a turnaround like what Team Penske had at the Clash more difficult to achieve. The organization struggled in practice at the Clash but had time to make adjustments before Joey Logano won the event. Once practice ends at Auto Club Speedway, teams qualify, leaving time only for minor changes.

“We needed every run and every minute of practice we had (at the Clash),” Geisler said. “It’s a little bit intimidating when you look at 15 minutes with a very limited list of things to change. You just have to absolutely nail it off the trailer.”

2. Special memories

As Austin Cindric celebrated his Daytona 500 victory last weekend, Trevor Bayne was transported back to his surprise victory in 2011.

Bayne won the Daytona 500 in his second career Cup start. It came a day after he turned 20 years old, making him the youngest winner in the event’s history. 

The 23-year-old Cindric is the second-youngest Daytona 500 winner.

Daytona 500
Trevor Bayne celebrating his 2011 Daytona 500 win with his Wood Brothers Racing team. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Bayne said watching Cindric celebrate brought back memories from 2011.

“There’s really no way to put it into words, or explain to anyone else who hasn’t experienced that of how much that feeling is of ‘this has to be a dream,’” Bayne said this week. “’This can’t be real.’ I don’t know. 

“Your heart rate is up. You’re so excited in Victory Lane. You’re looking around – there’s nothing like it. It really did put that same emotion kind of right back into me when I watched him on TV winning, and I don’t know how else to say it – pure celebration and enjoyment when you see a young guy like that win.”

While their situations are not the same — Bayne was running only a partial schedule that year for the Wood Brothers, while Cindric is with a championship-caliber team at Team Penske — Bayne says there is one thing he would tell Cindric if he could.

“The thing I would tell Austin is just to enjoy where you are at right now,” said Bayne, who will run the first of seven Xfinity races for Joe Gibbs Racing this weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

“I think as race car drivers, as competitors, we are already looking to that next thing. … He’s probably already thinking about the next win, which is great and that’s what you want to do, but you also need to enjoy the moment a little bit because you don’t know when or if you are going to get that opportunity again. Be hungry to win, but also enjoy where you are at.”

Austin Cindric Daytona 500
At age 23, Austin Cindric is the second-youngest Daytona 500 winner. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

3. Crashes down in Daytona 500

The number of cars involved in crashes during last weekend’s Daytona 500 included more than two-thirds of the 40-car field. But it also marked the fewest number of cars in accidents in that race since 2016.

There were 27 cars in crashes in last week’s Daytona 500, based on NASCAR’s race report and video review. This marks the fourth consecutive year the total has dropped after 37 cars were involved in crashes in the 2019 Daytona 500. 

An average of 31 cars have been collected in accidents in the Daytona 500 since 2017.

The last time there was less than 27 cars to crash in the season-opening race was 2016. Eleven cars crashed in that race. 

A total of 75 vehicles were involved in crashes during the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series events at Daytona — the lowest number in more than a decade. Of course, this year marked the first time the Clash was not held at Daytona, moving to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Not having that event at Daytona contributed to the lower number of cars in crashes this year.

Here is a look at the number of cars crashed in the Daytona 500 since 2010:

 

4. New role

Mike Bugarewicz’s new role as performance director Stewart-Haas Racing, has the former crew chief busier than ever.

“Kevin (Harvick) was really excited and wanted me to do this position,” Bugarewicz told NBC Sports. “The first thing he said to me was ‘Mike, you need to run this how you ran your race team. Be strict. Be very detailed oriented. Ask questions. Be involved. That’s how you need to run this new position.’”

Bugarewicz oversees half of SHR’s engineering department, focusing on vehicle dynamics, speedway program, road course program, simulation, tire data, seven-post data and track testing.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the (SHR) teams on the development side of things, working on setups, going to the simulator,” said Bugarewicz, who won four races as a Cup crew chief from 2016-21, scoring victories with Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.

“We’re trying to be a few weeks ahead of (the SHR teams) to try and give them some things to look at that they can build on and improve it.”

But he’s also troubleshooting for all four SHR Cup teams. After last week’s qualifying races at Daytona, Bugarewicz spent the night running simulation and studying aero reports.

Stewart-Haas Racing placed two cars in the top five in last weekend’s Daytona 500. Chase Briscoe was third. Almirola was fifth. Cole Custer was 20th. Kevin Harvick finished 30th after he was collected in a crash.

5. Balanced results

It’s only one race — and a superspeedway at that — but 10 organizations were represented in the top 12 of last week’s Daytona 500.

Team Penske won with Austin Cindric and recorded a fourth-place finish with Ryan Blaney.

Bubba Wallace finished second for 23XI Racing.

Stewart-Haas Racing had Chase Briscoe third and Aric Almirola fifth.

Kyle Busch was sixth for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Michael McDowell finished seventh for Front Row Motorsports.

David Ragan scored an eighth-place finish for Rick Ware Racing.

Brad Keselowski was ninth for RFK Racing

Chase Elliott placed 10th for Hendrick Motorsports.

Ty Dillon finished 11th for Petty GMS Motorsports.

Daniel Hemric was 12th for Kaulig Racing.