Alex Bowman isn’t the only NASCAR driver looking forward to racing at Fontana
Sadly, Alex Bowman has not kept his promise.
Two years ago, the Hendrick Motorsports driver made a bet with buddy Aaron Gillespie: if Bowman won NASCAR’s Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, he’d get an “88” tattooed on his neck, a tribute to the car he drove at the time.
Sure enough, March 1 rolled around and Bowman dominated, leading 110 out of 200 laps in a convincing victory. But he never made it to a tattoo parlor. He had a reasonable excuse — the pandemic shut down indoor businesses within a matter of days after his win.
“I just couldn’t get booked,” Bowman said. “I guess I owe [Gillespie] on that.”
After Auto Club was taken off last season’s Cup Series schedule because of COVID-19, its reigning champion Bowman will have a fresh chance to defend his crown on Sunday and finally visit that tattoo parlor. The ink on his neck would look slightly different, though — he’s driving the 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports this season.
Albert Pujols will serve as honorary pace car driver and Andrew Whitworth will be grand marshal for the NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway.
For drivers such as Bowman, Sunday is a wistful reunion with an old friend. Fontana is one of the favorite tracks on NASCAR’s schedule for those behind the wheel, a course celebrating its 25th anniversary race this season.
“There are so many things you can do to manipulate the racecar, to move around between the different lanes, the seams, the bumps,” Bowman said. “A lot of places we go, you’re locked into what you have, and there’s nothing you can really do. Fontana has so much character that you can move around and change things.”
The year away from those lanes, seams and bumps, however, adds a level of uncertainty for drivers.
Rookie Austin Cindric came away with a thrilling surprise win in the season-opening race at the Daytona 500 — such an unknown commodity that his last name was misspelled “Cendric” on his garage at the race. Even with the bright-eyed 23-year-old’s newness to the Cup Series scene, however, he had some background from racing at Daytona in 2021. He has little idea what to expect up in Fontana, with all its patchy runway.
“It’ll be interesting to see how much it’s aged over the last couple years,” Cindric said. “I think that’s probably a big question mark for a lot of the drivers … lot of different variables to pay attention to, and not a lot of time to prepare for it.”
The only prep time drivers will have, in fact, is a roughly thirty-minute practice followed by a qualifying round on Saturday. That leaves an open field for the top contenders heading in.
Bowman will look to reassert himself at Auto Club after a ho-hum effort to open the season at Daytona. Kyle Busch, the active leader in Fontana victories with wins in 2005, 2013, 2014 and 2019, is always a threat. Keep an eye on last season’s Cup Series winner, Kyle Larson, who was given the highest odds by NASCAR.com to win at Fontana and could roar back onto the scene after an accident at Daytona caused a 32nd-place finish.
Bowman’s success in 2020, he said, came in large part because of his comfortability with a quick car where side force pushed against a loose right rear tire. Another variable to this season’s Auto Club mix, however, is the introduction of NASCAR’s NextGen car.
In Bowman’s experience, he said, this new model is “unhappy” when the rear tire is loose, prone to spinouts. He and his team can’t rely on the same formula for a victory as they did two years ago.
“The bumps are going to affect it quite a bit more,” Bowman said of the NextGen car. “It’s just going to be way different than anything we’ve had there in the past. Trying to find that balance is going to be really tricky.”
Veteran Kevin Harvick, who won at Fontana in 2011, said the car can develop “aggressive tire wear” in certain situations and drivers will need to prepare accordingly with the abrasiveness of Fontana’s asphalt. Harvick mentioned that resin will be laid at the corners of the track to help enhance that tire wear.
“I think you’re still going to have some people spinning out and handling way off, because you’re really guessing as to what you think the balance of the car needs to be,” Harvick said.
Whoever can best find that balance at Auto Club could slide into the driver’s seat in the early-season push for the top of the Cup Series rankings.
“Fontana itself — really, our West Coast wing between Fontana and Vegas and Phoenix — is where we’re going to see who has the edge with this new car,” Cindric said.
If Bowman can figure out the NextGen’s aerodynamics in time for Fontana, he’s still got a bet to complete.
Note: The Wise Power 400 kicks off at 12:30 Sunday. Tickets are still available, ranging from $40 to $150. Collective Soul will perform in the event’s Fan Zone at 10:30 Sunday, which also features a new 80-foot mobile gaming truck for attendees.
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