Each of the three Cup races held since the Daytona 500 has featured an unknown.
Those races – at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix – each featured a different form of the 2019 rules package for teams to figure out.
Atlanta saw cars with 550 horsepower and brake ducts. Las Vegas swapped in aero ducts. The 1-mile ISM raceway in Phoenix had cars with 750 horsepower and brake ducts.
This weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway will be the first to use a package for a second time, as teams take to the 2-mile track with 550 horsepower and aero ducts.
Add the package to the track’s worn surface and wide corners, there’s one aspect of the race drivers seem to agree on.
Like Phoenix, restarts will be pivotal. But they’ll also be wild.
“I think the crew chiefs will be covering their eyes on restarts,” Clint Bowyer said in a media release. “These restarts are going to be crazy. They have been in the past at that track, so who knows how wild they’ll be this weekend.”
The first restart in the Auto Club 400 last year came with 18 laps to go in the stage and featured cars as many as four to five-wide in Turns 1 and 2.
In a media release, Ty Dillon said cars can be taken seven-wide in the corners “if you wanted to.”
When talking about restarts, Bowyer sounds like he’s mulling strategy at Daytona or Talladega when deciding whether to race with the lead pack or avoid a multi-car wreck by riding in the back.
“As a driver, you think I should get up there and race and get as many positions as I can,” Bowyer said. “But, part of you is thinking that maybe I should just be safe this early in the race, hang back a bit and make sure we survive. Problem is, if you hang back and they don’t wreck, you feel stupid.”
But what should be expected after the first lap?
“I think those first four or five laps are going to be really crazy still,” William Byron said in a release. “I think that the lane choices that you have at Auto Club Speedway will help keep the racing a little bit closer, and with that, you are going to have to kind of be gritty throughout the run to keep your position.
Matt DiBenedetto thinks complaints of “dirty air” inhibiting the ability to pass will be less frequent on Sunday.
“You can go into the corner and run about ten different lanes, so I don’t think that we’ll have that problem,” DiBenedetto said in a media release. “We’ll be able to go and get the clean air in the corners and then draft on the straightaways, so I think it will work this weekend where we can actually pass quite a bit, unlike at some other tracks so far.”
A small example of what could be seen on Sunday was displayed in January during a Goodyear tire test at the track. It saw Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez swapping positions as if they were in a race, an unusual sight for a tire test.
Though cars will feature aero ducts like at Las Vegas, DiBenedetto’s crew chief, Mike Wheeler, anticipates the racing will look “like the racing we saw in Atlanta,” which also features an aged, rough surface.
“Cornering won’t be as difficult as what you would have seen at Fontana last year, because you’re still going to be wide open through the corners and then being trimmed out to go as fast as you can down the straightaways,” Wheeler said in a media release. “Ultimately though, that top speed in the 170’s will still be that same top speed no matter what track we go to. California, unlike Michigan and Texas, can wear tires out so that could also become more of a factor this weekend.”
Then comes pit strategy.
As one of the larger ovals on the NASCAR circuit, Auto Club Speedway invites a variety of decisions on when a team chooses to get four fresh tires if they must during a green-flag run.
“When you add in the tire falloff, then it becomes strategy and how many laps do you stay out when everybody else starts pitting because you’re going to give up three seconds a lap,” Kevin Harvick said in a media release. “If the caution comes out, you can get caught a lap down. So there are so many things that come into play, but it has become a great race and a great racetrack to race on.”