NASCAR returns to Southern California this weekend a bit rattled, a bit nostalgic and with its top drivers eager to race again on one of their favorite tracks.
The Auto Club 400 on Sunday will be the third race of the season for the stock-car racing’s premier NASCAR Cup Series, after Denny Hamlin prevailed in a frightening Daytona 500 and Joey Logano won last weekend in Las Vegas.
The sport and its fans were shaken when Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Ford was involved in a harrowing crash as the field crossed the finish line at Daytona. Yet Newman, 42, walked out of the hospital only two days after his car slammed the wall, was crushed by an oncoming car, went airborne and skidded down the track on its roof and on fire.
Newman, who drives for Roush Fenway Racing, later issued a statement saying he was being treated for an unspecified head injury and was “looking forward to getting behind the wheel and battling for another race win.” The timing of his return hasn’t been determined.
An array of safety initiatives in the last two decades — after the death of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the Daytona 500 in 2001 — were credited with saving Newman’s life. They include a safer car, energy-absorbent walls at tracks and devices to restrain the head and neck in crashes.
“We’ve done a tremendous job to continue to add safety to our sport, but there’s still the risk that’s out there,” driver Kurt Busch said after Newman’s crash.
“Everybody knows the danger of it,” said Busch, driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet for the Chip Ganassi Racing team. “It’s racing. It’s cars going 200 mph.”
They’ll reach 200 mph again this weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, and it’s the next stop in the farewell tour for seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. He’s tied for the most titles with Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Johnson, 44, has announced this is his last full-time season — dubbed “One Final Time” — and the El Cajon native also holds the record for Cup victories at Fontana with six, the most recent in 2016.
The drivers are scheduled to hold two practices Friday, at 1:05 p.m. and 2:35 p.m., followed by qualifying Saturday to set the field’s starting order. NASCAR’s second-level Xfinity Series also races Saturday at 1 p.m.
Johnson isn’t the only driver eager to get back on the sweeping, 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval, where the cars often fan out four- or five-wide, especially on restarts.
“Auto Club to me is maybe one of the coolest racetracks we go to,” Logano, the Cup series champion in 2018, told reporters last week before his Las Vegas win.
“There are a lot of great things about it — being able to move around the racetrack, tire wear, the draft,” said Logano, who drives the No. 22 Ford for Team Penske and is seeking his first Fontana victory. “It makes for a really, really fun race.”
Busch — who won at Fontana in 2003 and then captured the Cup title the next year — agreed it’s “one of the most fun tracks to drive” because it’s covered with “the same asphalt which was originally laid down in the ‘90s,” an old surface that exacerbates tire wear and leads to the drivers sliding around its corners.
“When you win there, it takes the perfect combination of teamwork, aero balance, handling and driver feedback” to his team, Busch said. “The teams that win there also have some of the fastest pit crews.”
Busch’s younger brother Kyle Busch won the Auto Club 400 last year in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on his way to capturing his second series championship.
Kyle Busch’s victory at Fontana last year was his 200th win across NASCAR’s three national series: The Cup series, Xfinity Series and the sport’s truck series. His first Cup win also came at Auto Club Speedway in 2005.
The winner of the Xfinity race last year at Fontana was Cole Custer, 22, who has since moved up to the Cup series, driving the No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.