Dr. Diandra: Five races to remember at Auto Club Speedway


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.

MORE: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. reflects on his path to Daytona 500 win

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.

A bar chart showing the lap on which the last pass for the lead over the history of Auto Club Speedway, including five races to remember

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.

A bar chart showing the margins of victory over the history of Auto Club Speedway, including five races to remember
The three empty spots are races that ended under caution.

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.

Denny Hamlin wins Cup pole at Sonoma


SONOMA, Calif. — Denny Hamlin won the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway, as Toyota took five of the top eight spots in Saturday’s qualifying session. It is Hamlin’s 38th career Cup pole.

Hamlin led the way with a lap of 92.178 mph. Tyler Reddick, who drives for the 23XI Racing team Hamlin co-owns with Michael Jordan, qualified second (92.068 mph), giving Toyota ownership of the front row.

MORE: Sonoma Cup starting lineup

Toyota, which struggled at road courses for much of last year, had only one of its drivers qualify in the top 10 at Circuit of the Americas, the only road course race this season.

Michael McDowell qualified third for Ford after a lap of 92.060 mph. Christopher Bell put his Toyota fourth after a lap of 91.877 mph. AJ Allmendinger was the top Chevrolet, qualifying fifth after a lap of 91.873 mph. Toyota also had Ty Gibbs (91.819 mph) sixth and Martin Truex Jr. (91.736) eighth.

The top two drivers in the points did not fare well in qualifying. Ryan Blaney, who took the points lead last week, qualified 31st. William Byron, who is second in the points, qualified 26th.

Chase Elliott, returning from a one-race suspension, qualified 10th. Grant Enfinger qualified 35th for Noah Gragson, who is sitting out this week after suffering concussion-like symptoms from a crash last weekend at WWT Raceway.

Sonoma Xfinity starting lineup: Kyle Larson wins pole


SONOMA, Calif. — Kyle Larson will start on the pole for Saturday’s inaugural Xfinity Series race at Sonoma Raceway.

Larson won the pole with an average speed of 91.393 mph around the 1.99-mile road course. Justin Allgaier joins Larson on the front row after a lap of 90.562 mph. Sheldon Creed (90.429 mph) qualified third. Aric Almirola (90.375) will start fourth. AJ Allmendinger (90.274) will start fifth.

MORE: Sonoma Xfinity starting lineup

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Larson is one of seven Cup drivers entered. The others are Almirola (starting fourth), Allmendinger (fifth), Ty Gibbs (seventh), Ross Chastain (15th), Daniel Suarez (17th) and Ty Dillon (32nd).

The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:20 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1.

Could Daytona International Speedway host NFL games?


The president of Daytona International Speedway says track officials plan to speak with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars about hosting the team’s games if Jacksonville’s stadium is renovated.

The Jaguars will need a temporary home site if plans go forward to renovate the team’s stadium. Daytona International Speedway has been mentioned as a possible candidate. The Jaguars released details Wednesday of what the stadium will look like after the renovation project.

Provided the project is approved by the city of Jacksonville, it is believed the Jaguars would need to find another home site for a couple of seasons while work is being done to its stadium. Daytona International Speedway is among possible sites for the Jaguars to play. More than 100,000 people saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. win this year’s Daytona 500.

“Daytona International Speedway is a world-renowned sports and entertainment venue and hosts a full schedule of events each year,” said Frank Kelleher, president of Daytona International Speedway, in a statement. “As good neighbors in the Florida sports community, DIS will be speaking with the Jacksonville Jaguars to see if we can assist them with their potential upcoming facility needs around our scheduled events.”

Daytona International Speedway hosted Soccer Fest in July 2022. An announced crowd of 7,573 fans saw the Orlando Pride and Racing Louisville play in a National Women’s Soccer League game at Daytona.

NASCAR displays counterfeit part from Chase Briscoe car


SONOMA, Calif. — NASCAR displayed the counterfeit part from Chase Briscoe‘s car on Saturday at Sonoma Raceway, showing how the part did not correspond to what should have been in the car.

NASCAR found the issue at its R&D Center after last month’s Coca-Cola 600. The sanctioning body fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him for six races. NASCAR also docked Briscoe and the team 120 points and 25 playoff points for the L3 infraction.

“We want to be transparent on the penalties,” said Brad Moran, managing director of the Cup Series as he displayed the counterfeit part to media.

Moran displayed a a portion of the engine panel from Briscoe’s car. He noted the engine duct was counterfeit. He said the proper pieces are 3D printed at the R&D Center and Fiberworks Composites sells them and installs them for teams. Moran said the duct is “in the bottom of the car under the engine panel. It’s to help cool the driver. It was added prior to the first race. During testing … we realized we wanted to get heat out of the engine compartment, and that’s what this piece does.”

Moran noted that with the counterfeit part, “we can clearly see the textures are different (from the proper part).”

He displayed what officials call a gauge that determines if the duct fits the proper parameters. He showed it fitting a proper duct and not properly fitting in the counterfeit part.

“It was a part that was made, and it was made for whatever reason,” Moran said. “It was, I guess, put on by error, but it was on the vehicle. It is a piece that should not have been made in the first place, and it was spotted at our teardown at the R&D Center.”

Moran said the issue was found in a visual inspection of the part. NASCAR inspected it further and Moran said “there are certain little characteristics that are in (a proper piece)” that officials did not see in the one on Briscoe’s car. “The more we examined it, the more we realized that’s not a part they bought.”

Moran noted that while the penalties were severe, they could have been worse based on the rulebook.

“It was the low end of the L3,” Moran said. “It’s a real big hit for any team. If it continues, and we feel we are not where we need to be, unfortunately, it’s going to ramp up. We’re not going to stop.

“The deal with this car is it needs to be run without modifying. It costs teams a lot of money in development. All the owners agreed. We all agreed where we need to be to make this a successful program, and we’re not going to give up.”