No surprise: Five-time Fontana winner Jimmie Johnson fastest in Friday Sprint Cup practice

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Jimmie Johnson was fastest in Friday afternoon’s solo pre-qualifying practice session for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Surprised? We aren’t.

Johnson has won a track record five times at what he considers his home track, having grown up about 115 miles southwest of Fontana in El Cajon, a San Diego suburb.

Johnson led the way with a top speed of 188.664 mph. In fact, it was a Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut near the top of the speed charts, with teammates Jeff Gordon second-fastest (188.511) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth-fastest (187.740).

The other member of the HMS clan, Kasey Kahne, had struggles and was only 19th-fastest at 184.667 mph.

Rounding out the top 10 were third-fastest Clint Bowyer (187.774), Sprint Cup points leader Brad Keselowski fifth (187.003), sixth-ranked Kevin Harvick (186.645), seventh-fastest Matt Kenseth (186.446), eight-ranked Kurt Busch (185.926), Brian Vickers (185.744) was ninth-fastest and rounding things out was Tony Stewart (185.219).

Danica Patrick was 16th-fastest (184.919).

Sprint Cup rookie Parker Kligerman continued to struggle this season, managing to be only 40th-fastest (178.749).

But having the most trouble was Landon Cassill, who wrecked about midway through the session, coming out of turn 3 and slamming the turn 4 wall.

It was the second straight week that Cassill has wrecked his No. 40 Hillman Racing Chevrolet, having done so last Saturday at Bristol.

Both were hard wrecks, and it appears Cassill will have to go to a backup car for Sunday’s race, just like he had to do at Bristol.

“It’s tough on us as a team,” Cassill said. “That’s two weeks in a row we’ve wrecked a car in practice. Last week, the rear end housing broke and (today) something in the right front broke going into turn three.

“I saw something fly out of the cowl, a piece of metal the size of a socket, and we hit the wall. We’ve had a lot of highs and lows this first part of the season and we’re real fortunate to be in the position we’re in, but we’re having to earn it right now.”

Here’s how the field looked in the solo pre-qualifying practice:

1 Jimmie Johnson 188.664 mph

2 Jeff Gordon 188.511

3 Clint Bowyer 187.774

4 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 187.740

5 Brad Keselowski 187.003

6 Kevin Harvick 186.645

7 Matt Kenseth 186.446

8 Kurt Busch 185.926

9 Brian Vickers 185.744

10 Tony Stewart 185.219

11 Denny Hamlin 185.214

12 Greg Biffle 185.142

13 Kyle Busch 185.066

14 Marcos Ambrose 185.047

15 Aric Almirola 185.009

16 Danica Patrick 184.919

17 Austin Dillon 184.838

18 Martin Truex Jr. 184.824

19 Kasey Kahne 184.667

20 Carl Edwards 184.644

21 Ryan Newman 184.544

22 Joey Logano 184.398

23 Kyle Larson 184.219

24 Jamie McMurray 184.200

25 Casey Mears 184.148

26 AJ Allmendinger 184.049

27 David Gilliland 183.468

28 Brian Scott 182.992

29 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 182.922

30 David Reutimann 182.811

31 Matt Crafton (for Paul Menard) 182.403

32 Michael Annett 182.260

33 Cole Whitt 181.703

34 Justin Allgaier 181.557

35 David Ragan 181.356

36 Alex Bowman 180.591

37 Ryan Truex 180.014

38 Travis Kvapil 179.574

39 Josh Wise 179.064

40 Parker Kligerman 178.749

41 Reed Sorenson 177.993

42 Joe Nemechek 177.607

43 Landon Cassill 177.550

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NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”