USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Hembree previews the upcoming race at Auto Club Speedway.
USA TODAY Sports
FONTANA, Calif. — The starting grid for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway will be one of the zaniest in recent years.
Of the 37 drivers in the starting lineup, 13 failed to make qualifying runs Friday because their cars didn’t pass inspection. Their “speeds” on the official starting lineup sheet are all zeroes. They will start at the rear of the field Sunday based on positions in the point standings.
Cars must pass pre-qualifying inspection before drivers are allowed to take the track to post time-trial speeds. Several teams made repeated trips through NASCAR’s new Optical Scanning Station but failed to meet the aerodynamic measurements set by the sanctioning body.
The process became something of a zoo as the normally pressure-packed multi-round nature of qualifying dissolved into a “Who’s Not On First” comedy session as teams lined up for inspection and then lined up for inspection again.
Of those who passed pre-qualifying inspection, Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. was fastest. He won the pole with a speed of 186.567 mph.
Originally, those who failed inspection were scheduled to start the race with a benefit of sorts. Drivers begin the race with the tires they used for qualifying. Since the 13 didn’t go on the track, their tires will be “stickers,” or new.
This would give them a slight advantage at the start of the race because the other starters would have been on tires that are somewhat worn from turning qualifying laps. NASCAR corrected that situation Friday night by announcing that the teams that made qualifying runs could put on new tires to start the race.
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NASCAR doubled down on its response Saturday morning in advance of Saturday afternoon’s Xfinity Series race at ACS.
NASCAR told Xfinity teams that drivers whose cars do not pass inspection prior to qualifying will start at the rear of the field and must also serve a pass-through penalty on the first lap after the green flag. After the start of the race, the driver would be required to drive through pit road at pit-road speed before returning to the track, a significant penalty and the possible loss of a lap.
The change is expected to become permanent for all three national series. If implemented, it would begin for the Cup Series next week at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
Among the drivers who missed qualifying Friday were Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson.
Hendrick Motorsports vice president Jeff Andrews said the issues with the team’s cars centered on the rear decklid.
Especially at high-speed “downforce” tracks like ACS, where slight differences in car shapes can add speed, teams toy with NASCAR parameters in attempts to gain every possible advantage. Friday’s inspection issues and bizarre qualifying session are evidence that some teams are pushing the edges too far.
Follow Hembree on Twitter @mikehembree
AUTO CLUB 400 LINEUP
Friday’s from the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. (car number in parentheses):
1. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 186.567 mph.
2. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 186.437.
3. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 186.128.
4. (20) Erik Jones, Toyota, 186.047.
5. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 185.711.
6. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 185.577.
7. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 185.185.
8. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 185.076.
9. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 184.848.
10. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 184.436.
11. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 184.360.
12. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 184.341.
13. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 184.743.
14. (21) Paul Menard, Ford, 184.596.
15. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 184.115.
16. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 183.819.
17. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 183.683.
18. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 183.397.
19. (43) Darrell Wallace Jr., Chevrolet, 182.848.
20. (23) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 175.161.
21. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 183.870.
22. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford, 183.603.
23. (00) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 176.043.
24. (55) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 133.735.
25. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 0.000.
26. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 0.000.
27. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 0.000.
28. (88) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 0.000.
29. (24) William Byron, Chevrolet, 0.000.
30. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 0.000.
31. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 0.000.
32. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 0.000.
33. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 0.000.
34. (95) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 0.000.
35. (51) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 0.000.
36. (15) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 0.000.
37. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 0.000.