NASCAR visits the two-mile version of Auto Club Speedway for the last time End of this week. Let us bid you farewell by remembering five races that illustrate the track’s transformation from boring to lovable.
1997: First race
California Speedway, as it was originally known, was one of the four tracks that debuted in the late 1990s. Unlike the new tracks in TexasAnd Las vigas And homesteadCalifornia’s D-shaped track was two miles with 14-degree turns.
The NASCAR Cup Series has not raced in Southern California since the closure of Riverside International Raceway in 1988. By the weekend, Californian Jeff Gordon had collected six checkered flags in 14 races.
The opening race featured long green flag runs (averaging 45.6 laps) and 21 lead changes. Gordon led 113 of 250 lapsbeating second and third place finishers Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte.
The 250-lap (500-mile) race took three hours and 13 minutes — just 10 minutes longer than the 2022 400-mile race.
2004: Gordon’s win highlights a problem
All-new tracks are exciting by virtue of being new, but they rarely make for great racing. The new asphalt provides limited racing lines and makes passing difficult. When a driver gets the lead at California Speedway, he usually holds it for a while.
In six of the previous seven races, one driver had led 100 or more laps out of 250. The exception was 2001, when Rusty Wallace only led 95 laps.
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In 2004, Gordon led 81 laps en route to victory. But he, like Wallace three years earlier, led the last 47 laps. It was the fourth race out of eight without a lead change in the last 40 laps.
The closest it came to a late pass was Gordon’s first win at the track. He led the last 11 laps.
But Gordon didn’t just win the race. His margin of victory of 12.87 seconds is the largest in Track Cup Series history.
2011: First last-lap pass to win
The asphalt advance at what is now called Auto Club Speedway helped the race. Passes for the front were made near the end of the race: two checkered flag laps in 2006, as often as 10 to 25 laps apart.
but Attendance refuses and heat issues that plagued the races. In 2010, the race was cut from 500 miles to 400 miles. And in 2011, Auto Club Speedway returned to one race a year.
Another California native, Kevin Harvick, won the only race in 2011 by passing Kyle Busch on the last lap. Harvick led one lap of the race. Since stage racing had not yet been invented, it was only the course that mattered.
Three of the next four races also featured last-lap passes, as shown in the chart below.
2018: Martin Truex Jr. found The perfect grammar package – for him
Victory margins have decreased over the years, as the chart below shows. Excluding races ending under caution, six of the seven races between 2010 and 2017 have had margins of victory of less than one second.
NASCAR has been changing the rules packs as it searches for the best way to design its next generation car. In 2018, defending Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. was running for the team that will close out the year-end. The new package suited Truex, who won the title and both stages. He led 125 of the race’s 200 laps and won the race with a lap of 11.685 seconds, the second largest margin of victory at the track.
2022: The first Next Generation race
The first Next-Gen race at Auto Club Speedway was the third-ever Next-Gen race. The numbers show it.
The 2022 race tied 2008 for most cautions with 12. But the 2022 field narrowed the same number of alerts to 400 miles as the 2008 field which topped 500 miles. This race also set the record for most caution laps: 59 of 400 or 14.75% of the race.
In previous years, 20 to 25 drivers would rotate over the course of a season. However, this race featured five laps. Chase Elliott, who has spun four times in all of 2022, has spun twice in the race. (Elliott got a little help going into turn two). Between practice and the race, Ross Chastain wrecked two cars. Kyle Larson won the race.
But Auto Club Speedway had improved so much that most drivers were against changing lanes. NASCAR’s recent sale of much of the land surrounding the speedway leaves NASCAR racing in Southern California uncertain.
Teams have an additional year of experience with the next generation car. This weekend’s race should tell us if the new car is difficult to drive on this type of track, or if the drivers just need a little time to learn the new car. This, in turn, could have huge implications for car parity.
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