|PHOTO: Brock Beard|
Rarely in NASCAR history has so much changed in so short a time. In 1981, when rule changes narrowed the cars’ wheelbase to 110 inches, the season opener in Riverside still saw full-bodied Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles race against a smattering of smaller Pontiac Grand Prix and Ford Thunderbirds. In 2007, the rollout of the “Car of Tomorrow” involved just 16 of the 36 races. Even when the “Gen 6” made its debut in 2013 as a cosmetic upgrade to the “CoT,” the Busch Clash was still held at Daytona.
But walking casually past the parks and museums at the University of Southern California to see a NASCAR race has been a downright surreal experience. No amount of coverage could prepare me to see a fleet of 36 brand-new cars with unusually clean wheels and displaced door numbers, each lined up in a parking lot sectioned off with fencing. Cars that, hours later, would be lined up in parking spots of their own under shade trees. Only when the cars traveled leisurely through a winding tunnel to finally enter the tiny quarter-mile track – constructed in just 41 days – did anything feel even close to normal.
Harrison Burton and his #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford were the first to roll onto the track in Saturday’s two-hour practice session. “(It's) a new car for the teams to work on,” he said afterwards. “And, it makes it challenging - you have limited time to try and figure all that out. So we tried a lot of stuff, got better throughout practice. And I think we'll be all right here - we just were a little off, but we know what we got to do to be fast enough. So try and move on from there.”
Since Burton’s group of 12 cars was the first to hit the track on Saturday, most tip-toed around the track for the first few laps, clocking in laps of over 14 seconds. By the next group, sub 13-second laps were the norm, and by the fifth group, a 14-second lap ranked just 29th overall. With this increase, drivers had to figure out how to navigate traffic. Those like Burton, who ranked 32nd of the 36 drivers in practice, found there was little one could do to get out of the way.
“There's not much room to move,” said Burton. “In the race itself, you're never gonna let somebody go too often. And if you're in a transfer spot especially. But if you are going to let somebody go, you pull down maybe on the straightaway and let them go on the outside so you don't get a freight trained. That's the problem - once you go on the outside, you're committed to the outside. So you might see guys - maybe it's first and second or third and second - where the position doesn't mean a ton, where they'll pull down and let the guy go on the outside and then keep going. Because if you pull to the outside, someone's gonna fill the hole. So there's not a lot of room, you kind of got to be smart about how you do it. And that's what makes these guys good is they know when and where to do what. So it's a good challenge.”
Burton did improve significantly in qualifying. He took 10th overall, far ahead of fellow rookie challengers Austin Cindric (20th) and Todd Gilliland (29th).
Kaulig Racing had a good showing through the first hour of practice. While A.J. Allmendinger finished the session 28th in his #16 chevyliners.com Chevrolet, teammate Justin Haley claimed 4th in the #31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet. Near the end of his group’s first run, Haley turned the fastest overall lap at 13.674. “It's good,” Haley said simply. “These guys at Kaulig Racing have been working really hard. It was just a feat to get out here for us. So to be that fast with how late they were working each night is pretty cool.” When asked what his expectations were, he shook his head. “We have no expectations. The good part about it is Matt (Kaulig) and everyone at Kaulig (Racing), we don't know where we're at. We don't know if we're a first place team or 15th place team or whatever. So we're gonna go into it and see what it gives us.” Haley continued to show speed in qualifying, taking the provisional pole through the first round of 16 cars. He ultimately ranked 3rd, bested only by the late draws of Kyle Busch and Tyler Reddick.
A surprising development over the offseason was the hiring of Ryan Preece to a reserve driver contract with Stewart-Haas Racing, which has itself entered a technical alliance with Rick Ware Racing. The net effect of this put Preece into Ware’s #15 Jacob Companies Ford for Sunday’s Clash, where after his first run he joined Daniel Suarez as the only two drivers in the 13-second bracket. “I think they went relatively well,” said Preece. “And obviously, we're just going to continue working towards getting a little better. But as far as maneuverability and how this track is - it's awesome. I enjoyed it. And I think a lot of people are enjoying it. And just - it's a lot of fun. So. . .I think the audience and everybody watching on TV are gonna be pretty pleased.”
Preece also believed NASCAR’s new NextGen car handled closer to a modified than the "Gen 6" car, retired at the end of 2021. “Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I mean, it drives - I mean, yeah, they're 1000 pounds heavier. But these cars drive so much closer to a modified than any stock car, I mean, other than a super late model, but I mean, they drive very similar. . .In any racing, you do whatever your car is doing. So if your car needs you to diamond it, you're going to diamond it. If you need to arc it, you arc it. But I think there's gonna be multiple different ways to skin a cat here and go about doing it.”
The same tide that lifted Preece also helped Cody Ware, whose #51 Nurtec ODT Ford ranked as high as 6th overall. The team showed equal determination. After Ware’s car stalled, requiring a push to the infield, the #51 returned to the track and ran its best lap near the end of the session. Ware ranked 13th overall, two spots ahead of Preece. Both will have to make up ground in Sunday’s heat races, however, as Preece ranked 28th with Ware in 35th – next-to-last ahead of a trailing Ty Dillon.