NASCAR is heading back to Auto Club Speedway for the first time in two years.
The next-to-last NASCAR Cup Series contest was held at the 2-mile Fontana, California, circuit before the coronavirus outbreak forced professional sports in the United States to a standstill.
Alex Bowman finished the race for the second time in his career, giving him a total of 6 victories.
The WISE Power 400 on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the first full-field competitive test of NASCAR’s new Next Gen racing vehicle on a downforce circuit.
Kyle Busch, for one, is excited about the opportunity. The two-time series title winner is the only current driver with more than one triumph in Fontana, with the most recent triumph coming in 2019.
“I love going out to California,” Busch said. “It’s a driver’s track, and it’s aged over time … You can run all over it. Typically, recently you run up around the wall in the turns, but you can still move around a bit. I hope the Next Gen car will also allow us to move around and be pretty racy.”
Busch is the present driver with the most career titles, with 59. His first came on Sept. 4, 2005, at Fontana, where he beat Greg Biffle by.554 seconds in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“We ran in the top-five all day long, but we really didn’t think we had a winning car,” recalled Busch, who has claimed his three most recent Auto Club Speedway victories since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008. “When we got the lead a few times throughout the race, we just pulled away and led by quite a bit.
“It was really cool to have a really dominant race car. I remember having to drive the car really loose. That was the loosest I think I’ve ever driven a race car that was still moving forward.”
Since Bowman’s triumph in 2020, an epidemic has happened, as well as the development and introduction of the Next Gen race car.
“It feels like it’s been forever,” Bowman said. “I feel like our mile-and-a-half program had gotten pretty good at that point… I felt like we had a really good car there and were really good from the time we unloaded.
“As far as applying that to this year’s car a couple of years down the road, I don’t think you can drive this year’s car as loose as you could with the previous gen car. I was really loose that whole weekend—it was just really fast.”
In Sunday’s race, circuit position is expected to be essential, so qualifying will be crucial.
Busch won his maiden pole position of his career at Fontana for the season’s second race in 2005. With NASCAR introducing a two-hour-long session on Saturday that includes both practise and qualifying, the driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota will have an opportunity to capture a second Auto Club pole.
Before the time trials, the 36-car field will be separated into two groups performance based metric rank, with each group receiving fifteen minutes of practise. The top five cars from each group will battle for the pole in Round 2 after a knockout single-lap qualifying session.
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