Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Closing a Chapter on Auto Club Speedway

We are about to say goodbye to a trusted old friend.

Before everyone gets up in arms, Auto Club Speedway isn’t going away. But the configuration that has brought us so many memories is. Following its races this weekend, the track will be transformed into a half-mile short track after spending the first 26 years of life as a two-mile speedway.

With wide, sweeping, low-banked turns that encourage speeds over 200 mph, Auto Club has played host to epic battles, wild wrecks and thrilling finishes.

Let’s take a brief walk down memory lane of the track that has often been considered to be NASCAR’s best large oval.

No bigger moment defined the California Speedway (as it was originally called) layout than the 2013 NASCAR Cup Series race when Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano tussled in the waning laps.

The thousands in the stands and millions watching on TV gasped as both drivers crashed in the final corner, sending the onrushing Kyle Busch to victory lane.

The result was a severe back injury for Hamlin, an epic post-race brawl for Logano with Tony Stewart and his crew (where only minutes later Stewart would end up shouting obscenities directed at Logano into a live television microphone) and a return to Auto Club’s victory lane for Busch, who scored his first ever Cup win there back in 2004.

The moment was the pinnacle of the speedway’s history since its 1997 grand opening when all three national touring series descended on Southern California. Future Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Cup race, but it was the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series that found its special place in the early years of the track.

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Between 1999 and 2001, Auto Club played host to the season finale of the Truck championship. The 1999 championship came down to the final race, where Jack Sprague scored the walk-off victory to beat Greg Biffle for the title by just eight points, the closest margin ever in pre-playoff history.

Speaking of championships, Auto Club also played host to Jimmie Johnson‘s first career Cup victory in 2002. Johnson went on to 83 victories (so far) and a record-tying seven championships.

Yet Johnson was denied Auto CLub glory again in 2011 when fellow California native Kevin Harvick nipped him by a car length after making the winning pass in the final corner. Johnson’s six wins will still stand up as the most ever by one driver in the configuration’s history.

On the topic of records, Busch pops up again. Busch’s 2019 victory marked his record-tying 200th win across the three national series.

Just three seasons earlier, Busch was on the losing end of one of the craziest finishes in NASCAR Xfinity Series history. Leading on the final lap, Busch shredded a tire entering the first turn. While desperately trying to make it around on three good tires, Busch was rapidly passed by Daniel Suarez, who ran out of gas almost as quickly, giving the lead back to Busch’s ailing Toyota. Busch’s incredible drive came up just short as the hard-charging Austin Dillon caught and passed him in the final seconds.

Moments like these are why fans and drivers alike came to love the uniquely wide layout. Yet Auto Club’s massive dimensions and speeds produced some of NASCAR’s most violent wrecks of the decade, including stunning flips by Casey Mears (2008) and Rogelio Lopez (2006), along with numerous violent head-on crashes like those suffered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2002), Brad Keselowski (2007), David Reutimann (2007) and Kyle Larson (2017).

While NASCAR loses one of its speedway gems in favor of a tight short track, often lost in the shuffle are the many other series that have called the sweeping banks of Auto Club home, most notably IndyCar.

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These open-wheel cars competed at Auto Club between 1997-2005 and again from 2012-15. Tragically, this tenure was shadowed by a horrific 1999 catastrophe. Greg Moore lost control of his Forsythe entry and slammed against the backstretch wall, killing the young and talented driver instantly. Unsurprisingly, the tragic accident sparked a wave of safety modifications at the track as the Canadian remains the only race-related fatality in the track’s nearly three-decade history.

Despite that, plenty of highlights can be found, including the final IndyCar race on the circuit. It was a race for the history books as the lead would be swapped a whopping 80 times before culminating in a trip to victory lane for Graham Rahal while Ryan Briscoe was cartwheeling down the frontstretch.

California is truly the land of big dreams and big opportunities. While its premier speedway will soon no longer be big in dimension, the moments it has produced will certainly not be forgotten.

Here’s to one final trip around this magnificent configuration.

About the author

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Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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9 Comments
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kb

I like that track…

Michael Latino

Don’t be fooled. The track is not being shortened for better racing. It’s being done for $$$$$$

Christopher

It will be warehouses. Not likely to be returning.

TiminPayson

I agree. NASCAR is liquidating real estate. Watch the clash become a points race soon.

Joe Lagussa

NASCAR recently sold the Chicagoland Speedway here in Illinois and it’s being redeveloped as warehouses and distribution centers. Selling this track also harmed the Route 66 drag strip financially and they only hosted one race last year instead of a full calendar of events.

Tom B

What I see in that video of Joey and Denny is Hamlin trying to hook Lagano’s right rear quarter panel and spun himself out. Watch it closely. Much like Danica tried in a race. But somehow Joey gets blamed for injuring Denny Hamlin.

Klondike

That’s a bunch of BS,there’s plenty of short tracks as it is,Bakersfield has a real nice venue and now I’ll never go back to to the Fontana speedway,this is totally stupid

Klondike

And the only ones going to make out in this deal are the one who bought those 600,000 share sold by Penske and Simpson for one dollar each and Nascar

Tommy

I’m officially done with NASCAR. Auto Club Speedway was where I first saw a live NASCAR Cup race and has always been one of my favorite tracks to watch on TV each season. So axing the last big track on the West Coast was the last straw for me. If I wanted to watch short track racing I’d go back East to Bristol or Martinsville. Since I couldn’t care less about watching short track racing out West and NASCAR couldn’t give a care less about their fans out West I’d say now is a good time to tell the company to take a long walk off a short pier with a cinder block around their ankles! Later NASCAR… thanks for finally finishing ruining the sport for the rest of us out West. At least I won’t be wasting a ton of money to go to another NASCAR race ever again.

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