Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric kept his momentum rolling, securing the Busch Light Pole Award on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway as the NASCAR Cup Series debuted its new practice and qualifying format for intermediate tracks for the 2022 season.
Cindric clocked a clinching best lap of 174.647 mph in the final round of qualifying in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. It marked his first pole this season and the first of his Cup Series career.
“Pretty dramatic. I thought my lap wasn’t going to stand,” said Cindric, who notched his first Cup Series win last weekend in the Great American Race. “I thought my (turns) one and two was money, but my three and four were a bit conservative mostly because my one and two was money. I didn’t talk myself into going deep like I wanted to in three. Anyway, just an awesome couple of days and an awesome way to start things out, but I don’t think it guarantees anything for the race but is certainly a lot of fun to be able to go through that.”
Erik Jones was second-fastest at 174.157 mph in the No. 43 Petty GMS Motorsports Chevrolet, grabbing the other front-row starting spot for Sunday’s Wise Power 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). It’s Jones’ best starting position since a second-fastest qualifying effort at Texas Motor Speedway in November 2019.
Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Daniel Hemric finished out the top five in that order.
Different practice and qualifying formats were used at the Busch Light Clash exhibition in Los Angeles and in the season-opening Daytona 500. For Auto Club, the 36-car field was divided into two groups (A and B) for 15 minutes of practice/warm-up each, then for single-lap qualifying. The fastest five from each qualifying group advanced to the last round, where Cindric topped the 10 finalists.
Brad Keselowski made the final 10 but spun exiting Turn 2 during his qualifying lap. He did not make contact with the No. 6 RFK Racing Ford, but the car was towed back to the garage area. Joey Logano was the next finalist to qualify, but he lost control and scrubbed the Turn 4 wall with the No. 22 Team Penske Ford during his lap. Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Chase Elliott suffered nearly the same fate during their final-round laps, but both managed to avoid contact.
In the opening round, Logano (174.090 mph) was fastest in Group A, and Elliott (174.855 mph) sat atop Group B.
Kurt Busch did not participate in time trials after his 23XI Racing No. 45 Toyota failed pre-qualifying inspection three times. The team will start at the back of the pack, and Busch will have to serve a pass-through penalty at its soonest opportunity after the green flag. Additionally, No. 45 car chief David Bryant was ejected.
Kevin Harvick, Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace also did not register speeds in qualifying after incidents during practice.
Alex Bowman, the most recent Cup Series winner at the 2-mile California track, was 14th-fastest in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.
Hamlin, Reddick top incident-filled practice sessions
Denny Hamlin (173.415 mph) bested the Group A session, and Tyler Reddick (172.472 mph) was fastest in Group B – third overall.
The practice sessions were eventful from the start, with the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Kevin Harvick spinning and backing into the Turn 4 retaining wall just two minutes into the Group A session.
“I wasn’t even hardly in the throttle,” Harvick radioed his No. 4 crew after skidding to a stop. His car was towed back to the garage with significant rear-end damage.
Two minutes later, Ross Chastain crashed hard in the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet in Turn 4, almost simultaneously while Chris Buescher looped the No. 17 RFK Racing Ford behind him in Turn 3. Christopher Bell capped the first 15-minute session with another Turn 4 spin in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Bubba Wallace scraped the outside wall in Turn 1 nearly four minutes into Group B, causing minor right-rear damage to the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota.
The on-track activity was the first for the NASCAR Cup Series at Auto Club Speedway since 2020. COVID-19 concerns nixed last year’s scheduled event, which was reassigned to the Daytona International Speedway road course.