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Alex Bowman returns to Auto Club a winner but with uncertainty

The last time Auto Club Speedway was on the NASCAR schedule, Alex Bowman was the one speeding through the checkered flag first in March 2020.

That was a long time ago -- it will be 728 days between Fontana Cup races, to be specific.

“It feels like it’s been forever,” Bowman said in a Thursday Zoom conference.

The track is still old and worn; the track is still a 2-mile oval; and he’s still driving a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet with crew chief Greg Ives atop the pit box. That’s about where the similarities end.

Now piloting the No. 48 car rather than the No. 88 he won with nearly two years ago, Bowman and the rest of the Cup Series finally return to Fontana, California, with hopes of ending the day in that same victory lane. The most obvious and significant challenge stems from the Next Gen car, which hasn’t seen the Southern California oval since William Byron tested a prototype there in 2020 and subsequently crashed.

“I think this is going to be a big test on how it drives and how we’ve guessed at the best setup and how we stack up to start the year,” Bowman said. “It drives so different than what we’ve had in the past. And obviously not having been there before and how slick it is and abrasive it is, we haven’t really been to a place like this with it yet.”

Indeed, Sunday’s race marks the first true race for the new vehicle on an intermediate-style track. The only real-world experience teams have comes from test sessions and mock races at the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval in November and December. Charlotte’s 1.5-mile track doesn’t compare exceptionally well to Fontana.

Still, anytime a driver can find success at a racetrack provides a reasonable notebook to look back on. Prior to Bowman’s 2020 triumph, his best Auto Club finish in four starts was 13th in 2018, his lone top-20 finish there. The key then was a car that rotated well through the center of the corner. But the balance now shifts to wondering how free the car can be before crossing over the edge of control.

“I don’t think you can drive this year’s car as loose as you could with a previous (generation) car,” Bowman said. “I was really loose that 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 so different in every way that it’s hard to apply much, but excited to get back to a really fun, really technical racetrack.”

Another wrench in this weekend’s preparation is the resin that will be applied to the track in each of the corners, an attempt by NASCAR officials to help the track hold tire rubber better and more quickly. And while it’s meant to help, Bowman remains unsure how much it will help.

“It’s definitely laid out in a strange manner,” he said. “The way it’s kind of tapered into Turn 1, I feel like it might make passing harder on entry to one just because if you’re inside of somebody, you’re going to be out of the resin, and they’re going to be in it. So it’s gonna be a little interesting to see how it all works out.”

With Auto Club’s spacious lanes comes room to explore and find grip. But if the grip is all in the resin, that could lead to a more condensed racing groove than in years past. Bowman believes that as the race wears on, those multiple grooves will still come into play.

“I think we’ll widen it out, regardless of the resin,” said Bowman, who won a career-high four races in 2021. “The way that resin was put down and laid out is interesting. I don’t necessarily know that it’s going to be great right away. But I think as it wears out, it’ll, it’ll make you move around.”

NASCAR had experimented with different traction compounds like PJ1 dating back to 2017 but debuted its resin application for the inaugural Cup event at Nashville Superspeedway last June.

“We saw in Nashville, right at the end of practice, (the resin) really started to come on,” Bowman said. “But then we kind of wore it out in the race and had to move around. So (Fontana) will still be wide like normal. You’ll still use the seams, you’ll still be slipping and sliding all over the place.”

Bowman just hopes he slides into victory lane by the end of this race.