"It's a war out there, a battle of attrition."
And so begins in earnest, the Next Gen era of the NASCAR Cup Series as there were 10 spins or crashes throughout 15 minutes of practice and then single car time trials on Saturday afternoon at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California.
It would be an understatement to say that drivers had their hands full in the first downforce race track session using the brand new racing platform. It became apparent less than one minute into Group A practice when Kevin Harvick spun his No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford Mustang and hit the outside retaining wall.
The organization pulled out its only backup car to use as spare parts to get the 2014 champion on the grid come Sunday. Harvick was not able to post a qualifying lap as a result.
When the track again went green, Ross Chastain broke loose and drilled the Turn 4 wall head-on, with Chris Buescher spinning in the middle of Turns 3 and 4. In the final moments of Group A practice, Christopher Bell went around. Bubba Wallace also crashed during his practice run and wasn't able to make a qualifying attempt.
Despite spinning his car, Bell was smiling and laughing on pit road when asked about the conditions on one of the bumpiest, fastest tracks on the schedule with a new car on a day where winds also played a factor in track conditions.
"These cars are really hard to drive," Bell said. "I’m excited about it. It’s going to be a lot of fun."
This is what a large majority of drivers in the Cup Series garage had asked for over the past three years in which the highest level featured a high downforce, low horsepower rules package that increased on-throttle times in the corners on the largest tracks on the schedule.
It’s something they pushed back against with the new car following a November test at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- resulting in a reduction of downforce and an increase in horsepower during a follow-up test that eventually became the rules package for the 2022 season.
Brad Keselowski said this was going to produce one of the most exciting qualifying sessions in recent memory and he was right.
"The cars are hard to drive and they're supposed to be that way," Keselowski said. "… A lot of the drivers asked for it and we got what we wanted. After practice, I thought, 'wow, this thing is bad, we're really terrible,' and then I saw everyone else I realized we're not that bad."
Keselowski was one of four drivers to spin in time trials.
Joey Logano scraped the wall during his final round run. Chase Elliott and William Byron both spun going for the pole as well.
Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric backed up the acquisition of the Harley J. Earl trophy with a hard-earned pole in the second points race of the year. He says today was about risk versus reward and mistake management from a driver’s standpoint.
"I can’t tell you the last time I’ve had to talk myself into doing a lap like that for quite a while," Cindric said. "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."
Were the crashes driver mistakes or a flaw with the racing platform of some kind?
"If I spun and hit the wall, I'd view it as a mistake on my part," Cindric said. "I'm the one driving the car, that's not someone else’s fault. That doesn't mean it's easy by any means. There are a lot of things that are new, and when you have this many things that are new and you're used to a certain race car, you're trained by muscle memory.
"I'm not saying I'm doing anything better than anyone by any means but when you have such a condensed schedule on such a challenging race track, I think it makes perfect sense why today was a challenge for sure.
"If we put this race in the middle of summer once we've had four months to figure out the race car, make things easier and more refined, I think today would have been a lot easier for a lot of teams but that's not how the schedule is laid out. This track is as tough as is talked about."
On the outside pole, Erik Jones said drivers are going to have to ‘race it,’ regarding the Next Gen on Sunday at Fontana. He said he was sick to his stomach with nervousness before his qualifying attempt watching others spin or crash.
"It’s definitely the most challenging car I’ve driven in the Cup Series," Jones said.
Hamlin backed up that sentiment but detailed the fundamentals of the challenge. The Next Gen has a largely symmetrical body and has considerably less sideforce than its predecessor. Combine that with the lower profile tire, a green race track that hasn’t been raced on since March 2020 and a lot of wind, and drivers absolutely were challenged by the conditions.
"Hard to drive is okay," Hamlin said. "You just can't get sideways with these cars. No rear side force and they just spin out."
But it's been several years since the cars at the highest level of the discipline were this much of a handful. Is that a good thing?
"That's not for me to decide," Cindric said. "I think with this car you don’t have as much sidewall deflection and you don’t have the side force. You ‘hard to drive’ is defined by different things. I am not going to sit here and tell you that I know what all those things are. You have to be somewhat conservative in some areas and somewhat aggressive in other areas."