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Next Gen car proving to be a handful at Auto Club

Cup Series rookie Austin Cindric wins the Daytona 500 becoming the second-youngest driver to win the Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway.

As some of the NASCAR Cup Series’ top drivers struggled with their Next Gen cars Saturday at Auto Club Speedway, one Hall of Famer was pleased.

“Watching these guys spin out trying to qualify is what driving in NASCAR is all about,” tweeted Hall of Famer Mark Martin, who added that Cup cars should be one of the hardest to drive in motorsports and that “as a driver if you want to succeed in Cup you better pack your lunch.”

By the time the Cup practice/qualifying event ended, 10 of 36 cars entered for Sunday’s race had either spun or crashed.

Austin Cindric won the pole after Chase Elliott, the 2020 Cup champion, became the third driver to spin on their final round qualifying attempt. The other two were Elliott’s teammate, William Byron, and another former Cup champion, Brad Keselowski.

Cindric said he wasn’t surprised at everything that happened with all the variables in play - a new car, a track the series hadn’t seen since 2020, gusty conditions, and a condensed schedule thanks to NASCAR’s new practice/qualifying format.

But when asked if it was good that the Next Gen cars were hard to drive, Cindric felt it wasn’t his place to decide, instead saying they were “enjoyable to a certain extent.”

“The hard-to-drive part is different than in years past,” the Daytona 500 winner elaborated. “When you go to Darlington or Fontana or Atlanta in the past, it was hard to drive but controllable. I think with this car, you don’t have as much sidewall deflection and you don’t have the side force. Your ‘hard to drive’ is defined by different things. I am not going to sit here and tell you that I know what all those things are.

“You have to be somewhat conservative in some areas and somewhat aggressive in other areas. I was having to talk myself into my (qualifying) lap because I wasn’t aggressive enough in a lot of areas. I think the learning process is different for every driver and every team. You key off different things, and there is a lot that is different right now.”

Erik Jones endured Saturday’s challenges to qualify second for Petty GMS Motorsports. He too was asked about the Next Gen being hard to drive.

He responded by telling a story about Carl Edwards and a Joe Gibbs Racing tire test years ago at Watkins Glen. A particular tire was giving the team problems. But Carl still wanted to race with it.

“His opinion was that race cars shouldn’t be easy to drive,” said Jones, who used to compete for JGR. “It’s going to make the driver work, put it in their hands and make them work for it.

“I may be having a totally different feeling after Sunday if we go out and wad it up and get in trouble. But I don’t think race cars should be totally easy to drive.”

Jones simply sees Saturday as a first step in a learning process with the Next Gen car that will take time.

“Right now, I’m content,” he continued. “I’m happy with what the team has done to get it driving good. I feel like I have a feel for (Sunday) and what I need to do to stay out of trouble. And I think guys are learning quick. You’re seeing a lot of mistakes.

“But I think about when we went to the low downforce package a few years ago. We saw a lot of guys spin out with that too early on, until teams got better. We’ll see. If we need to make changes, we’ll make changes. But right now, I’ve been happy with it.”

Meanwhile, those struggling to unlock the Next Gen’s potential may need to take Martin’s advice and have a sandwich nearby. Hard work only gets harder on an empty stomach.