Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – FONTANA, CA – In a qualifying session that should have merited hazard pay for the 10 final-round drivers, Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric backed up his victory in the Great American Race with a pole-winning run on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Cindric will start where he finished the 500 in Sunday’s Wise Power 400 NASCAR Cup Series event at the 2-mile track (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford posted a lap in 41.226 seconds (174.647 mph) to score the first pole of his Cup career six days after claiming his first win.
The last driver to attempt a lap, Chase Elliott, tested the apron in Turn 3 and spun in Turn 4, posting no time. As a result, Erik Jones will start second after a lap in 41.342 seconds (174.157 mph).
In a session that featured two groups of 18 drivers each in Round 1, with the five fastest drivers from each group advancing to the final round, four-time Fontana winner Kyle Busch qualified third, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.
“It’s such a challenging race track, and, obviously, a lot of newness for everybody,” Cindric said while waiting for Elliott to run his qualifying lap. “Overall, it’s been an awesome week for me, and I’m honestly real happy to get back to work and figuring out this process.
“I can’t tell you the last time I’ve had to talk myself into doing a lap like that for quite a while. There are so many unknowns. Everybody’s constantly learning. I think we’ll be halfway through the race until anyone knows what they really have.”
Elliott wasn’t the only casualty in the final round. Joey Logano, who was fastest in Group A in Round 1, also tried the apron and smacked the outside wall at the exit of Turn 4. Brad Keselowski and William Byron also spun during their money laps but kept their cars off the wall.
Daniel Hemric and Ryan Blaney will occupy the third row for the start of Sunday’s race, with Logano, Elliott, Keselowski and Byron sixth through 10th on the grid, respectively.
Reigning series champion Kyle Larson starts 13th after failing to advance to the final round, and 2020 race winner Alex Bowman will take the green flag from 14th. There was no event at Auto Club Speedway in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Note: Bubba Wallace, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Justin Haley, Kevin Harvick and Ross Chastain did not post qualifying times and will start from the bottom six positions in the 36-car field. Busch’s No. 45 Toyota failed inspection three times and was not allowed to qualify; Almirola spun on his Round 1 qualifying lap; and the other four drivers wrecked during practice.
Kevin Harvick’s car spins into wall on first lap of practice
In the first 15-minute practice session of 2022, Kevin Harvick stopped the clock early in the session when his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford snapped loose in Turn 4 on the first lap of practice and backed into the outside wall.
As soon as practice resumed, Ross Chastain’s Chevrolet jumped out of control near the same spot where Harvick wrecked and slammed nose-first into the outside SAFER barrier. Behind Chastain, the Ford of Chris Buescher slid sideways but avoided a collision with the wall.
With inventories of backup cars spread thin, it was not an auspicious start to the Cup weekend. Stewart-Haas had one backup for its entire four-car organization and rolled it out for Harvick. The primary car was towed to the garage, rendering Harvick ineligible to participate in time trials.
But Harvick has faced adversity before. In 2020, he won a NASCAR Cup Series-best nine races. Last season he won none. In both years, however, he made the Playoff and finished fifth in the final standings.
“Last year is irrelevant,” Harvick said during a question-and-answer session with reporters before practice. “There is nothing to take from last year. It’s all so much different. We could have a good week or a bad week, and last week is irrelevant, too.
“It’s no different. In the end, you look at the box score, and we finished fifth in the points both years. Top-10s, top-fives—we were about the same. We just didn’t get to Victory Lane, but we had our chances to win a few of them and didn’t get to Victory Lane. It’s just the way this works.”
Kyle Larson has a vision with new late model race he’s promoting
Kyle Larson has a dream—or, more precisely, a prelude to a dream.
Partnering with streaming service FloSports, Larson is promoting a dirt late model race at Volunteer Speedway in Bulls Gap, Tenn., on April 14, three days before the NASCAR Cup Series is scheduled to run on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“It kind of came together late, just through my relationship with FloRacing,” Larson said on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway. “Initially, the idea of it started because I want to someday, somehow, bring back something similar to the Prelude to the Dream.”
The Prelude was a charity dirt late model event organized by Tony Stewart at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. It preceded the annual Dirt Late Model Dream at the half-mile track and attracted drivers from a variety of racing disciplines, including an array of Cup stars.
“So, I got talking with (FloSports vice president of motorsports) Michael Rigsby about that. That kind of turned into—well, there’s no (late model) race at Bristol leading up to the Cup race like they had last year where a lot of the Cup guys went and ran. So then, Bulls Gap kind of got thrown around and we ended up putting on that event. It should be a lot of fun.”
Located roughly 50 miles southwest of Bristol, Volunteer Speedway is a .4-mile track banked at 32 degrees in the corners and should provide racing characteristics similar to those found at half-mile Bristol.