When Erik Jones laid down the second-fastest qualifying lap on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway, it resulted in an obligatory appearance in the media center. Jones didn’t mind the walk from pit road to its location. He needed the time to calm down.
“I felt sick to my stomach until I got over here,” said the Petty GMS Motorsports driver.
Jones wasn’t dealing with any sort of illness. Not unless you count the side effects of driving a brand-new race car.
“I was nervous before I even went out for practice just seeing those guys out there making mistakes,” said Jones. “A guy like Kevin Harvick is not going to go out and wreck on lap one in practice, especially in the old car. So, they’re challenging. It’s really unknown.
“The driving style is 100% different. You cannot push [this] car as hard as you could [the other one], and there’s just a really fine line of pushing it hard to make speed and really stepping over that line, and when you do, it’s hard to get it back.
“I don’t know how that’s going to change as the car develops and what goes forward with it. But it’s definitely the most challenging car I’ve driven in the Cup series to this point.”
What Jones said and experienced over the weekend – and he wasn’t alone – should have resulted in viewer satisfaction. NASCAR racing is hard again and at Auto Club Speedway, drivers were earning their paychecks.
Harvick backed his Ford Mustang into the wall less than two minutes into practice. It was a rare sight but just the start of the action; multiple drivers had single-car spins late in the afternoon during qualifying.
There were seven more single-car spins on Sunday afternoon and tire management was vital. The last Auto Club event in 2020 had three cautions, just one for a single-car incident.
Next Gen leaves little to no room for error. In years past the car would catch itself or allow the driver time to correct when getting out of shape. It seems much harder to do now. Side force is gone because the car is symmetrical, the car’s overall feeling and balance are different, and drivers are being forced to learn a new feel on the right rear.
The challenges of adapting to the Next Gen have been welcomed by drivers like Brad Keselowski: “We got what we wanted.”
Christopher Bell smiled in his television interview after spinning in practice. He seemed right at home having to drive his race car and make the difference.
“Obviously, these cars are really hard to drive,” said Bell. “I’m excited about it. I think it’s going to be a ton of fun once we get going and get into a routine here.”
For all the good and bad changes NASCAR made over the years, the cars became easy to drive somewhere along the way. Driver talent took a backseat to speed, aerodynamics and downforce. So. Much. Downforce.
Suddenly, drivers weren’t making mistakes. Or if they were, they weren’t paying the price for making one.
If Cup Series drivers are indeed the best stock car drivers in the world, a little more effort shouldn’t be too much to ask. Seeing them find the absolute edge of the cliff without stepping over is good racing. And if a driver does go too far, it proves not only are they human and make mistakes, but the car isn’t going to save them.
Theoretically, the car being hard to drive should showcase driver talent and bravery.
To his credit, Carl Edwards was a big proponent of having to drive the race car – racing shouldn’t be easy. As cool as it is to see Kyle Larson make a “video game” move at Darlington Raceway last season or Edwards do a similar thing trying to beat Jimmie Johnson at Kansas Speedway back in 2008, it shouldn’t be able to happen. Drivers should make what they do look easy but not have a car that makes it look like Sunday has an “easy mode” button like on the Xbox.
Brad Keselowski has been the same way. Keselowski has never been afraid to muscle a car around, and he didn’t seem to mind having to do so in Fontana.
“The cars are hard to drive; they’re supposed to be that way,” he said. “I think a lot of the drivers asked for it and we got what we wanted.”
The comments about the difference in the car started to come out during testing. Drivers noticed right away they were no longer dealing with the Gen 6 or any of the previous iterations of car they’ve driven. Next Gen is unforgiving, and through multiple tests on the Charlotte Roval and oval, drivers began saying it was harder to drive.
But drivers saying the cars are hard to drive during testing is one thing. Seeing it in action, as was the case throughout a race weekend, and having drivers sick about it, is another. And it is a beautiful sight.