NASCAR visits the 2-mile version of Auto Club Speedway for the last time this weekend. Let’s bid farewell by remembering five races that illustrate the track’s transformation from boring to beloved.
1997: The First Race
California Speedway, as the track was originally known, was one of four tracks debuting in the late 1990s. Unlike the new tracks in Texas, Las Vegas and Homestead, the D-shaped California track was 2 miles with 14-degree banking in the turns.
The NASCAR Cup Series hadn’t raced in Southern California since Riverside International Raceway closed in 1988. By race weekend, Californian Jeff Gordon had already collected six checkered flags in 14 races.
The inaugural race featured long green-flag runs (averaging 45.6 laps) and 21 lead changes. Gordon led 113 of 250 laps, beating out eventual second- and third-place finishers Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte.
The 250-lap (500-mile) race ran three hours and 13 minutes — just 10 minutes longer than 2022’s 400-mile race.
2004: Gordon’s win highlights a problem
Brand-new tracks are exciting by virtue of being new, but they rarely make for great racing. New asphalt offers limited racing lines and makes passing hard. When a driver got the lead at California Speedway, he typically kept it for a while.
In six of the prior seven races, one driver led 100 or more laps out of 250. The exception was 2001, when Rusty Wallace led only 95 laps.
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In 2004, Gordon led 81 laps on the way to victory. But, like Wallace three years earlier, he led the last 47 laps. This was the fourth race out of eight without a lead change in the last 40 laps.
The closest to a late pass for the lead was Gordon’s first win at the track. He led the last 11 laps.
But Gordon didn’t just win the race. His 12.87-second margin of victory is the largest in the track’s Cup Series history.
2011: The first last-lap pass for the win
Aging asphalt at what was now called Auto Club Speedway helped the racing. Passes for the lead happened closer to race end: Two laps from the checkered flag in 2006, more often 10 to 25 laps.
But attendance declines and heat issues plagued races. In 2010, the race was cut from 500 miles to 400. In 2011, Auto Club Speedway went back to one race a year.
Another California native, Kevin Harvick, won the only race in 2011 with a last-lap pass of Jimmie Johnson. Harvick led one lap of the race. Because stage racing hadn’t been invented yet, it was the one lap that mattered.
Three of the next four races also featured last-lap passes, as shown in the graph below.
2018: Martin Truex Jr. finds the perfect rules package — for him
Margins of victory decreased over the years, as the graph below shows. Excepting races ending under caution, six out of seven races between 2010-17 had sub-one-second margins of victory.
NASCAR changed rules packages as it searched for the best way to design the Next Gen car. In 2018, defending Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. was running for a team that would close at the end of the year. The new package suited Truex, who won the pole and both stages. He led 125 of the race’s 200 laps and won the race by 11.685 seconds, the second-largest margin of victory at the track.
2022: The first Next Gen 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 squeezed the same number of cautions into 400 miles as the 2008 field had over 500 miles. This race also set the record for most caution laps: 59 of 200 or 29.5% of the race.
In previous years, 20 to 25 drivers might spin across the season. This one race, however, featured five spins. Chase Elliott, who spun four times in all of 2022, spun twice in the race. (Elliott had a little help on the second spin). 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 the track. NASCAR’s recent sale of much of the land surrounding the speedway leaves NASCAR racing in Southern California uncertain.
Teams have an extra year of experience in the Next Gen car. This weekend’s race should tell us whether the new car is hard to drive at this type of track, or if drivers just needed a little time to learn the new vehicle. That, in turn, could have enormous implications on car parity.