Saturday, May 18, 2024

Alexander: Bowman knows another NASCAR win in Fontana won’t be the same

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On Saturday morning Alex Bowman joined the Auto Club Speedway Walk of Fame, and he is now an indelible part of the Fontana track’s history. He’s the last guy to win a NASCAR Cup Series race there, his triumph on March 1, 2020, coming before COVID-19 upended all of our lives.

NASCAR’s schedule last year gave Fontana all of 2021 off. The circuit returns to the Inland Empire this weekend, but when the field assembles for Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. WISE Power 400, the defending champ might not recognize the conditions.

Yes, it’s still a 2-mile oval. They haven’t converted it to a short track yet, though that seems to be in the works. But the “Next Gen” cars are different, and what had become a popular track surface with the drivers as it had aged is different as well.

It’s the oldest asphalt surface on the circuit, according to NASCAR, and was last repaved before the track’s inaugural race, the California 500, in June 1997. Because of 24 months of inactivity since the 2020 race, work was done on the surface to grind down bumps in the backstretch, a “tire dragon” was used in the corners to reapply rubber, and resin was added to speed the rubbering process.

Oh, and while competitors are again able to practice on the track, those sessions are limited to just 15 minutes leading up to Saturday qualifying, which doesn’t provide much opportunity to get used to a different car on a different surface. “You might have time to make one change,” Bowman said.

So when he was asked during a Zoom session what he’d learned from that 2020 race that could help this week, the obvious answer was not much.

“We had a really good car and we were really good the entire weekend from the time we unloaded,” he recalled of the 2020 race. “So that made my job a bit easier than normal. I don’t think you can drive this year’s car as loose as you could with the previous (generation) car, and I was really loose the whole weekend. It was just really fast. So I think (we’re) kind of going a little bit different direction than we were then. And this car is so different in every way that it’s hard to apply much.

“But I’m excited to get back to a really fun, really technical racetrack.”

When Bowman won in 2020, by 8.904 seconds over Kyle Busch, it was his second career victory, the first coming the previous June outside Chicago. He had joined Hendrick Motorsports as a fill-in in 2016 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepped away for a time because of concussion symptoms. When Earnhardt returned to racing, Bowman opted to stay with Hendrick, spending a year testing and driving a simulator before getting back to a full-time spot in 2018.

He’s made the NASCAR postseason playoffs each of the past four seasons, finishing 16th, 12th, sixth and 14th in the points standings. Fontana was Bowman’s only victory in 2020, but he won four times in 2021 – at Richmond, Dover, Pocono and Martinsville – and had eight top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 36 races.

“It’s kind of cool to actually get to go back to somewhere that I’ve won,” he said. “I got to go back to Richmond last year, but other than that I haven’t gone back anywhere as a winner, so it’s cool to be able to do that and (I’m) excited for that experience.”

But, he stressed, “Nothing from 2020 is going to apply to 2022, I don’t think. I wish there was a secret. I think the secret is a fast race car that works really well. That’s what we had in ’20, and hopefully we have a similar thing in ’22. I think it’s going to take a much different balance than it took back then, but we’re doing our best to make it happen.”

Bowman was asked if he was prepared to lobby to keep Fontana a 2-mile oval. He might have a better answer after this race, but the reality is that NASCAR wants to turn it into a half-mile layout, and the largest question is when it will happen.

The original idea was that it would be done by now. NASCAR president Steve Phelps said in November he was “hopeful” it would be a short track by 2023. But Auto Club Speedway president Dave Allen tapped the brakes when the subject came up three weeks ago at the Coliseum, before the Busch Clash exhibition race. Allen stressed that the project was still in the planning stages and had to clear the regulatory process before a definite time frame could be established.

“I’m not sure there are really hurdles as much as (it is) if we do it, we want to do it right,” he said

So how does the newest member of the track’s Walk of Fame really feel about that potential change?

“It’s an amazing racetrack,” Bowman said. “Super bumpy, really slick. The seams add a whole other element to it. It’s a track that drivers really like. But at the same time, (a race) typically gets won by 10 seconds. … So I think I totally understand why they want to go to a short track, and I think the Next Gen car is way better suited to short tracks.

“I mean, I love the track the way it is, but I think the short track would be great for everybody as well.”

That’s diplomacy.

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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