On March 1, 2020, Alex Bowman won the NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway.
Less than two weeks later, and after one more race at Phoenix, NASCAR began to postpone races as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States.
NASCAR eventually returned to racing. It’s taken longer for Auto Club Speedway to do so. Pandemic and logistical issues compelled NASCAR to move the track’s planned events for 2021 to the Daytona International Speedway road course.
But, at long last, America’s most popular motorsport returns to the 2-mile oval this weekend.
At the risk of stating the obvious, a lot has changed for the sport since March 1, 2020.
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson continues his adventures in IndyCar and IMSA.
Michael Jordan, Pitbull, Floyd Mayweather and Emmitt Smith have become team owners.
And an all-new car is taking the sport into the future.
Auto Club Speedway may have been standing still. But time has not.
Digging out of a hole
While the Daytona 500 officially opens the season, it’s an event unto itself. For most drivers and teams, they’re more focused on the win than positioning themselves in the standings.
That said, as Auto Club Speedway beckons, a lot of important names find themselves with work to do as the grind of the “real” season begins.
While rookie Austin Cindric enjoys the limelight after winning Sunday’s “Great American Race,” seven drivers from the 2021 Cup playoffs – Bowman, Larson, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin and William Byron – are all sitting 25th or worse in the Cup standings.
Of that group, only Bowman managed to finish Sunday’s race, and he ended up four laps down in 24th. The rest were eliminated by accident or, in Harvick’s case, under the damaged vehicle policy. Bowman himself took damage in a Stage 1 wreck that eliminated Hamlin and Byron (and sent Harrison Burton briefly upside down).
With only one race on the board in 2022, there’s plenty of time to recover. But they’ll all want to put their rough rides at Daytona behind them quickly.
Start strong, finish strong
As of late, figuring out the eventual Cup winner at Auto Club Speedway has been straightforward.
Since the inception of stage racing in 2017, the Stage 1 winner at Auto Club Speedway has gone on to win the race: Kyle Larson in 2017, Martin Truex Jr. in 2018, Kyle Busch in 2019, Alex Bowman in 2020. Truex and Kyle Busch won both stages on the way to their victories.
Those last four winners at Auto Club Speedway all led the most laps that day, and each led over half of the laps to boot. Larson led 110 laps in 2017, Truex led 125 laps in 2018, Kyle Busch led 134 laps in 2019, and Bowman led 110 laps in 2020.
A little more time?
Back in September 2020, NASCAR revealed plans to transform Auto Club Speedway’s 2-mile oval into a half-mile short track.
But the 2-mile oval is still here. COVID-related disruptions and ongoing supply chain issues have left NASCAR’s plans stuck in neutral.
And earlier this month during Clash weekend in Los Angeles, track president Dave Allen couldn’t say if the short track would be ready for the 2023 season.
So, as it stands now, fans may have a little more time to enjoy Auto Club Speedway as it’s been since its opening in 1997.
The 2-mile oval produces multi-groove racing from top to bottom on its rough, worn-out surface – the oldest asphalt surface in Cup.
New look practice and qualifying
NASCAR welcomes back regular practice and qualifying in 2022 with a revamped format that debuts this weekend at Auto Club Speedway.
For a majority of the Cup schedule, the field will be split into two groups and take part in a joint practice/qualifying event.
On most ovals (including Auto Club Speedway), each group begins with 15 minutes of practice. Then, each group takes part in single-car, single-lap qualifying. The top five drivers from each group go to the final round, where they have another single-car, single-lap qualifying session to determine the pole winner.
As for the Xfinity Series, its practice/qualifying event for most ovals (including Auto Club Speedway) features a 20-minute practice, then single-lap qualifying for all entries.
36 cars are on the preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Cup race.
41 cars (previously 44) are on an updated preliminary entry list for Saturday’s Xfinity race. This race will have a 38-car field.
This weekend’s schedule and forecast
(All times Eastern)
Saturday, Feb. 26
Forecast: Mostly sunny, high of 70 degrees, low of 41 degrees
- 12 p.m. ET – Xfinity practice (all entries; FS1)
- 12:30 p.m. ET – Xfinity qualifying (single lap, single car, all entries; FS1)
- 2 p.m. ET – Cup practice (Group A & B; FS1, MRN)
- 2:35 p.m. ET – Cup qualifying (Group A & B … single lap, single car, two rounds; FS1, MRN)
- 5 p.m. ET – Xfinity race (150 laps, 300 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
Sunday, Feb. 27
Forecast: Partly cloudy, high of 73 degrees, low of 45 degrees
- 3:30 p.m. ET – Cup race (200 laps, 400 miles; FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)