California Dreamin’

February 28, 2022 | Blog

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Blog Owner’s Note: This is the first time I’ve written about NASCAR since I left the sport full-time in July 2020. Occasionally on this blog, I’ll post my thoughts on all the musings across the motorsports world, and I’m starting following NASCAR’s return to Auto Club Speedway for the first time in two years.

Let me start by saying I love this new racecar. This dynamic, new, 3400-pound sports car (basically it’s what it is anyway) that NASCAR debuted at the Busch Light Clash at the LA Coliseum earlier this month is the most dramatic change that NASCAR has ever made in a single sitting with it’s premier series car. It’s sporty. It’s racy. It’s twitchy. I like that.

But my question after watching Sunday’s Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway (as well as last Sunday’s Daytona 500) is this: with flat tires essentially causing a driver to lose upwards of 3 laps as a result of having to get towed back to pit road because the cars clearance is so low that when a flat occurs the car is basically immobile, is it time to panic?

Race Results | Standings

Following Sunday’s race I saw people jump on Twitter saying that we need to make changes and we need to make them now. I think part of that backlash is the average fan’s displeasure with moving away from metal wheels that require 5 lug nuts to fully attach the tire to the wheel to this year’s aluminum, single lug setup.

I don’t think it’s time to panic, but I do think it’s the right time to assess what can be done to allow a car to drive back to pit road (as we’ve seen in the past with the smaller 15-inch wheel) so a car doesn’t lose multiple laps due to a flat tire. As we approach the middle race of this year’s west coast swing on Sunday at Las Vegas, the odds of NASCAR making changes to allow cars to continue to roll on flat tires are slim. Likely what I think will happen is NASCAR will look carefully at options and perhaps make updates to the underside of the car sometime around late-March.

Why that long? Part of it is the West Coast Swing (that still has two races to go.) Part of it is supply chain issues that have been(?) plaguing the mass production of this new car. And part of it is because by mid March we’ll have raced at virtually every type of track we’ll see throughout the year.

We started at the bullring at the LA Coliseum, moved to a 2.5-mile superspeedway at Daytona, a beyond worn-out 2-mile surface at Auto Club Speedway in California, 1.5-milers at Las Vegas and Atlanta (albeit with the reduced horsepower superspeedway package), the flat 1-mile Phoenix Raceway (where the season finale will be held in November), and the road course at Circuit of the Americas in Texas.

This two-month stretch paints a perfect picture of what’s to come for 2022’s NASCAR Cup Series schedule and a great idea of how the cars should behave at all types of racetracks.

Time to panic? Heck no. Time to assess? Absolutely.

To Change, or Not to Change?

I love the racing at Auto Club Speedway (something that 15 years ago I never would have admitted.) But with a 25-year old racing surface that lacks grip and reminds me of driving down a dirt road in rural Kershaw County (SC), in addition to this new car, the racing is spectacular. And greatly missed last year due to the pandemic. Talk about reconfiguring the 2-mile track into a short half-mile with long straightaways and high banks (kind of a Martinsville/Bristol hybrid,) has come and gone over the last two years. If Auto Club Speedway is to be reconfigured, I hope NASCAR does make it unlike anything out there.

And if we simply choose to repave, I hope the sanctioning body uses techniques we’ve seen in other construction projects the last two decades to make the racing great sooner, rather than waiting 10 years for the surface to wear out again. After seeing 3-,4-, and 5- wide racing this weekend, follow the leader will be a letdown for sure.

The King’s Court

I’m impressed as heck with Erik Jones and the No. 43 team for Petty/GMS Motorsports on Sunday. Jones qualified second, led laps, and ran up front all day at California. It wasn’t pit strategy that got him up front at the end, he was strong all day. His average running position through the first two races of the season is 8.2, third overall in this young season. And 18 laps led Sunday at California is already more than he led in all of 2021. It was good to see a Petty car run up front. I was excited about this partnership Petty and GMS entered into in the off-season. Jones is clearly the front-runner for this bunch, and while Ty Dillon finished a modest 17th in the team’s No. 42 Camaro, I think the future is bright for this two-car operation.

Not Hot: Fox

I’m not one to complain about television coverage. After spending 7 years in the NASCAR TV compound, I understand how hard the networks work to bring racing into people’s homes every weekend. That being said, something is lacking on the Fox shows this year. They missed A LOT at the LA Coliseum. They almost missed the initial green flag by showing crowd shots. They missed a key battle for position in the Duals at Daytona for a spot in the Daytona 500. Sunday, they missed Chase Elliott falling back after making contact with the wall while battling for the lead late with teammate Kyle Larson. We saw a replay of Elliott making contact with the wall entering Turn 1 after Larson leaped up the track and then had no idea what happened to the No. 9 Camaro until we saw him spinning several laps later.

It just feels like Fox is off this year and I can’t put my finger on why. But we’ve missed several storylines this year that have played crucial in the outcome of the broadcast. Maybe they’re missing that input and experience from veteran pit road reporter Matt Yocum, who has gone on to SRX coverage on CBS. Maybe it’s something else. But for a network that now is in its 22nd year of covering NASCAR, I’m expecting a bit more.

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