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Feb 25, 2022
New car. Old car. No car.
Larson by a straightaway!
It’s already a meme, but the truth is that NASCAR’s brand-new world started to look much like the previous one by the end of the Wise Power 400: Defending champion Kyle Larson in victory lane.
Even though the finish looked somewhat familiar with Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske racing for the win, there was also Trackhouse, Richard Childress Racing and Petty GMS all in the mix. It’s early yet, but the race at Auto Club Speedway was the promise of parity delivered. In fact, the Wise Power 400 was the promise of Next Gen delivered altogether.
32 lead changes.
Nine different teams in the top 10.
Hard to drive race cars!
It was a thrilling weekend full of drivers on edge, swapping the lead, swapping paint and simply putting on a show.
This car is going to evolve, especially as teams begin to better understand the platform, but it was yet another tremendous day for NASCAR in a month full of them.
Fontana takeaways below:
Kyle Larson has now won 11 races in 38 starts across a little more than one season since joining Hendrick Motorsports. Sunday at Auto Club Speedway featured one of his best drives behind the wheel of a stock car yet.
Starting at the rear of the field due to an ignition issue discovered right before the start of the race, Larson wasted no time getting to the front. The Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 was scored fifth by the end of the first stage and was leading halfway through the second.
The Next Gen was designed to level the playing field, and you certainly saw a lot of that on Sunday, but it’s hard to level what Kyle Larson and Cliff Daniels bring to the figurative playing field each week. For the longest time, Larson was known as 'Two-Mile Kyle' due to his success at Fontana and Michigan.
You give that driver a low downforce rules package and it was inevitable that he would feast.
"It's definitely edgy," Larson said of the new car at Fontana. "Honestly, I enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to. I thought dirty air was going to be really bad behind people, and it didn't seem way worse or different than normal. So that was encouraging. I thought the runs were equally as big if not bigger down the frontstretch. Restarts were still crazy.
"Yeah, I thought it was way different, which was good for me anyways, and probably for us drivers. And then you have the part where, yeah, it's on edge, where if you get a little too stepped out, you spin."
The car control of an ace Sprint Car driver turned NASCAR racer was on full display.
And it stands to reason that the top organizations are only going to get more competitive as the season continues, which could be bad news for anyone hoping to topple Larson and Daniels with the Next Gen.
Even though Larson ultimately won again, it easily could have been a different narrative altogether under a slightly different set of circumstances.
Daniel Suarez of Trackhouse was leading with three laps to go while Tyler Reddick and Richard Childress Racing led the most laps. His teammate Austin Dillon was there at the end and Erik Jones of Petty GMS ran up front throughout the afternoon.
There is a lot of IndyCar theoretically built into the next generation racing platform. Even in a series dominated by Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport, any team with the right personnel could theoretically nail the set-up and win a race -- especially early in the development cycle.
Consider the 2013 IndyCar Series season, the second year of the DW12 chassis and universal aero kit, when AJ Foyt Enterprises, KV Racing Technology, Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Peterson all won races against the Penske-Ganassi-Andretti triumvirate. Maybe that’s not a realistic year one goal for the Next Gen but considering that this car is even more spec than the current Indy car, perhaps it is.
NASCAR wanted a platform that balanced the competitive scales between driver talent and engineering expenditures. The case could absolutely be made that Suarez and Jones punched above the expectations of where Trackhouse and Petty were in previous years on Sunday.
Hendrick Motorsports general manager Jeff Andrews expects even more evolution throughout the summer and fall but the car delivered on its core promises on Sunday.
"I feel certain by the time we get done at Phoenix that there will be some further revisions on things and rules and parts and pieces, but one thing is for sure, I think you saw a great product on track today from a racing standpoint," Andrews said.
"There were a lot of position changes for the lead, a lot of close side-by-side racing, and that's a product of the car really being so close technically to each other across all the teams."
Much will be made about the Kyle Larson versus Chase Elliott storyline over the course of the week, and that’s okay!
That the past two Cup Series champions, and two of the most popular drivers in the discipline could potentially feud is a great development for the industry. That the incident compelled the usually reserved and mild-mannered Elliott to launch a verbal tirade over the radio against his teammate on two different occasions is great for the sport.
After all, NASCAR is a discipline driven by competition, storylines and rivalries.
But here’s the thing: This whole topic is largely much to do about nothing and has likely already been addressed by the two drivers and their leadership group at Hendrick Motorsports well before this was even published.
Things happen fast at Auto Club Speedway. The Next Gen car has a tremendous amount of drag built into it and it produced tremendous drafting opportunities down the frontstretch and backstretch.
Tyler Monn, Larson’s championship winning spotter misjudged Elliott’s run while he was focused on Joey Logano running door-to-door with his driver right below them into corner entry. Again, things happen fast.
Larson and Monn, while proud of their victory are also going to hate that it potentially came at the expense of their teammates.
"I should have had more awareness in my mirror," Larson said. "My spotter could have told me he was coming with a big run, and we would have avoided that mess. I would have probably not been side drafting on Joey as hard as I was. I would have been more so protecting on Chase than worrying about Joey.
"It happened, and I hate that it did. I know they're upset. But we'll talk, and hopefully we'll get on the same page. I would never run into my teammate or block him that aggressively and that late on purpose."
And the moment all of this gets said in a group setting at the shop in Concord, North Carolina, it immediately will become a non-issue. The two championship drivers don’t have a history of conflict and this was simply the byproduct of having two really fast cars racing for the win.
It’s fundamentally no different than the very brief conversation Austin Cindric needed to have with Penske teammate Ryan Blaney after pinching him into the wall to win the Daytona 500.
It’s a good storyline that will generate enthusiasm and conversation from fans entering the weekend at Las Vegas, but Hendrick Motorsports isn’t going to let it boil over.
Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson
Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson
This isn’t new to Rick Hendrick and Company.
Now, if it happens again, that’s a different story.
"I'm not too worried about it," Larson said. "I think if anything, it's probably a small bump in the road. I think if things happen more so in the future, then yes, it gets out of hand. But Hendrick Motorsports, I don't think, will ever let it get to that point. Like I said, we have enough respect for each other that I don't think it will get out of hand at all."
This post is an editorial and the opinions expressed above solely belong to its author.
Yes, this is a problem and NASCAR is starting to work towards a long-term solution to prevent teams from suffering DNFs simply because they had a flat tire and lost too many laps getting towed back to pit road.
Some things to understand, undeniably:
The new tire does not have an inner liner and there is no way to include one because there simply isn’t any room for it. The Next Gen feature a very large brake package. NASCAR can’t simply remove the underwing because that would fundamentally change how the car races and considering it took two years of debate and some tension to even get it on the track as is, that’s not the immediate answer either.
This could be solved with a ride height adjustment, but again, this also creates a fundamental change in how the cars currently race.
So, this is not a simple fix and NASCAR is working towards something.
In the meanwhile, NASCAR is allowing drivers to stay in their cars when they get beached with a flat tire and that means its not an automatic DNF in this scenario. Until otherwise addressed, a flat tire is a costly issue but at least its not a reason to not finish the race.