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Thinkin’ Out Loud: NASCAR, Is It Too Late to Reconsider About Auto Club?

What Happened?

Kyle Busch won in only his second career NASCAR Cup Series points race with Richard Childress Racing, coming at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, Feb. 26 with Chase Elliott close behind in second. Ross Chastain finished third with teammate Daniel Suarez and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick in tow.

The victory marked Busch’s fifth career Cup win at the southern California race track and his first for Chevrolet since 2007.

See also
Kyle Busch Arrives in Earnest at RCR with Win at Auto Club

But What Really Happened?

Sunday was a reminder of why this Auto Club track shouldn’t be reconfigured.

Listen, short tracks are great. However, there is an argument that there are plenty of short tracks in the United States already. We are, after all, already going to one that was at one point literally falling apart for this year’s All-Star Race. Don’t get me wrong; heading back to North Wilkesboro Speedway is really freaking cool.

That said, we need an Auto Club, 2-mile layout going forward. If not here? We need to find it somewhere else.

Now, is Auto Club Speedway considered a “cookie-cutter” style circuit? Absolutely. Regardless, the Next Gen car works perfectly on them.

For the last two races at the California track, we have seen the field fan out wildly on restarts, continuing to play with different lanes regardless of running position after long green flag runs. It has become a driver’s circuit again, thank goodness.

Additionally, while multi-groove racing is fun to watch on its own, the 26-year-old racing surface has also become perfect for race strategy. Similar to what we see at Darlington Raceway today, the Fontana asphalt shreds tires, creating falloff over a long green flag run. That makes for some fun pit strategy.

Every pit stop mattered on Sunday and if it weren’t for that final long green-flag period that saw Busch re-inherit the lead from Michael McDowell, who was waiting for a caution on old tires himself, we likely would have seen some interesting late-race pit gambles.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Michael McDowell Gamble Almost Leads To Second Straight NASCAR Cup Series Upset

Racing venues where tires matter more than track position offer crew chiefs a far bigger say in race strategy than they would the other way around. Not to mention, a venue that allows cars to fan out five wide at any given time makes those late-race restarts even more interesting.

Alas, in two years, Auto Club Speedway will simply be another short track on the NASCAR circuit. Keep in mind, fans have been asking for more short tracks. But with how the new car performs on smaller ovals, they couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Is it really too late to reconsider?

Who stood out?

There is little doubt that the spotlight of the day belongs to winner Busch.

After almost an entire year of speculation surrounding what team Rowdy would land on by the beginning of the 2023 season, the new driver of the No. 8 began his year at Richard Childress Racing with near immediate success.

Many wondered if KFB’s return to a Chevrolet team would show improved results quickly, if ever. However, after showing signs of strength in the closing laps of last week’s Daytona 500, the new RCR driver had silenced some critics, but not all. After all, superspeedway races require a lot of luck.

There were no lucky breaks needed for Sunday. Busch climbed his way through the ranks after starting 21st with that RCR power many doubted and led 27 circuits. At the same place where he won his first career Cup race 18 years ago with Chevrolet, Rowdy returned to victory lane.

Busch may not drive for Joe Gibbs Racing anymore, but he proved on Sunday that no matter the car, KFB is still KFB.

Simultaneously, something should be said about the efforts of Chastain. The driver of the No. 1 showed he had the speed to contend for victory during the entirety of this 200-lap event.

The Floridian watermelon farmer not only became the first multi-stage winner in 2023 on Sunday, he also swept both race stages for the first time in his career.

In the end, Chastain still led a race-high 91 laps – that’s almost half the event – and ended his day in third. It wasn’t a win, but much like the aforementioned Busch, Chastain silenced all doubters by showing that last year’s Trackhouse Racing Team success was no fluke.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: Is Kyle Busch an Early-Season Title Favorite?

Who fell flat?

There are a lot of Californians in the Cup Series field, in case you haven’t noticed.

However, one of those Cali-natives seemed to be the favorite among all others entering Sunday’s main event. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the defending race winner to fall well short of expectations.

In all honesty, it’s not fair to put the blame on Kyle Larson in any kind of way. Rather, suffering through electrical problems, it’s his team that is at fault.

It’s rare to see a mechanical malfunction from the engineers of Hendrick Motorsports. Alas, Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet was the first to go behind the wall on Sunday as the 2021 Cup Series champion was already off the pace far before the end of stage one.

After spending 15 laps behind the wall, the driver that many had believed to be the one to beat going into Sunday strolled around the 2-mile track for the rest of the event – unbecoming of what many California fans were likely hoping for.

But hey, at least they still plenty of other statehood drivers to root for in the field. One of them, Harvick, even finished fifth.

See also
Kevin Harvick Returns to Native Southern California, Where Future for Racing Remains Unclear

Better than last time?

The moment the checkered flag dropped on the 2-mile speedway in 2022, everyone knew that race was going to be hard to beat going into 2023.

The 2022 version of the SoCal event displayed a new precedence for the Next Gen car. The new chassis produced some fun, multi-lane racing that we had come to know, and miss, from the gargantuan-sized Auto Club Speedway.

After the painful previous few years of the last car’s form of momentum racing that gave more power to the car rather than the driver, this Next Gen design gave new life to this track and, more importantly, new life to fans of the circuit.

It meant 2022 was going to be hard to beat this year. But let’s at least look at the stats.

There were 28 lead changes on Sunday among 13 different drivers, certainly the result of green flag pit cycle scenarios taking shape. In 2022, there were 32 lead changes among nine different drivers.

In other words? We had more of the same on Sunday. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

One thing’s for certain, however; it won’t be the same next time around after the planned ACS reconfiguration. Right after we got our much appreciated chaotic five-lane racing back, it’s being taken away from us yet again.

Paint scheme of the race

It’s bright, it’s simple and damn, does it look good.

Busch’s blue Lucas Oil No. 8 Chevrolet doesn’t have anything special about it off the track aside from the oil lubricant’s seemingly endless forms of branding across all motorsports. There’s also nothing really special about its design, either.

However, when you look at it, it just looks good.

Maybe it’s the giant white lettering of the Lucas Oil sponsor adorning all of that extra space left by the forward-placed number. Maybe it’s the subtle red border on both the No. 8 and that white fin placed on the front wheels. Either way, this car, much like Lucas Oil’s branding itself, is obnoxious.

That’s why we like it.

What’s next?

The Cup Series heads off to Sin City.

The NASCAR Cup Series continues its western portion of the schedule as it will visit Las Vegas Motor Speedway next weekend for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube. Qualifying for the first of two 2023 visits to the city of second chances will be Saturday, March 4 at 2:20 p.m. ET with the 267-lap main event going live on FOX this coming Sunday, March 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT

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Bill B

Yeah, the Cali track has had some good races the last several years but, how long will it be before they need to repave it? I think I heard them say it’s the oldest track surface on the circuit. Once it’s repaved it will take years to get back to where we are now. And to answer your question, YES, we do need more short tracks, there are only 3 and Richmond is a stretch IMO. What we really need is for NASCAR to figure out how to fix this nextgen car to perform well on short tracks.

BTW, wasn’t Larson’s issues electrical and not a “blown engine”? He ran the rest of the race and was up to speed. The blame should go to mother nature for raining out practice and qualifying. The issue most likely would have been caught during practice given how early the problem manifested itself.

I am surprised there was no mention of the mess that occurred on that one restart. That defined the race for several teams.

Tom Bowles

Bill, you’re right; Dalton openly referred to this issue as engine-related when it turned out to be an electrical gremlin. The power within the motor was affected but it absolutely should be termed as electrical; we’ve made the correction and Frontstretch apologizes for the error in classification there.

TiminPayson

The finish wasn’t close. Chase wasn’t in the same frame and gained a half second when Busch chose not to take a chance getting by a spooky Briscoe. Kyle Larson didn’t blow an engine the electronic fuel injection failed. Nobody ever compared Auto Club to the mile and a half cookie cutter track. Thank you for your service young man but please get your facts right. Where we at the same race or did you watch on tv?

MikeinAZ

Are you in Payson AZ. If so we are sort of neighbors. I live in Gilbert.

Kurt Smith

I have to say I can’t complain about the quality of the race, even if my fantasy team had a horrible week. There were good battles, it seems like the car performs best on these types of tracks, and driver skill actually seemed to matter for a change…guys were wearing their cars out trying to pass while patient drivers like Elliott and Harvick were in the thick of it at the end.

It was an entertaining race and I was glad to see Kyle get a win with RCR. That’s a better feel-good story than the constant Corey LaJoie updates on Fox every time the 7 car cracks the top 15.

That said, I am still in the camp that NASCAR needs more short track races, especially if teams can get the car to pass better and produce better racing, which, if NASCAR’s brass can stand to leave things alone for more than two weeks, will certainly happen. I’m always of the opinion that driver skill should matter more than anything else, and I think limited amount of space, the inability to pull away, and the constant necessity to negotiate traffic makes that possible. Martinsville is still my favorite venue because the races are always great.

We still have Michigan if there’s a need for 2-milers. If Fontana kept the 2-mile configuration it wouldn’t be long before there is pack racing at another track. No thanks, I’m still highly annoyed at what happened to Atlanta.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kurt Smith
Carl D.

LaJoie spun my favorite driver (Kes) and then wrecked my other fave (Dinger)… neither on purpose, but “Damn!” Then Reddick played the role of Karma and horned Corey. Brad got a top-ten, Corey got a top-15, and Dinger finished dead last.

Steve R

The track will never be rebuilt, You can not trust NASCRAP

MikeinAz

Getting permits in CA with all of the environmental nuts running that state just might make it impossible. I’m actually surprised that Newsom hasn’t already banned auto racing in CA.

Mack

Anyone know who hit the cat on the track? I think it may have been Ross but couldn’t confirm that.

MikeinAz

“Thinkin’ Out Loud: NASCAR, Is It Too Late to Reconsider About Auto Club?”

NASCAR isn’t smart enough to figure that out. All they see are 500 million $ symbols. It’s sad what they’re doing to that track and what make it worse is they’re going to replace it with another lousy short track. NASCAR is adding to many road courses, short tracks and then they take the Indianapolis race off of the oval and put them on the road course. I thought NASCAR was so concerned about history, I guess not. All I know is I’m getting closer to saying goodbye every year.

Kevin in SoCal

Yes, its too late. Even when they build a race track out in the boonies of SoCal, development still creeps in. And now the land is more valuable than the racetrack is. It’s sad that they sold out, as we’re also losing the only 1/4 mile drag strip for us amateurs left. (Pomona is pros only because the neighbors complained about the noise). There’s also a nice go-cart and autocross track on the property. I keep telling them to make it a 5/8 mile short track instead of 1/2 mile like Bristol or Martinsville, but they probably aren’t listening.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kevin in SoCal
MikeinAz

No thanks. Nascar is getting overloaded with short tracks and road courses.

Kevin in SoCal

Oh, I don’t want them to bulldoze it, but since they’re going to anyway, I’d rather they make it unique at 5/8 mile instead of another 1/2 mile.

MikeinAZ

I wish they would leave it alone too, but obviously that’s not going to happen.

Bill B

Overloaded with short tracks? There are 6 races out of 36 on short tracks. How is that overloaded?

I agree that they’ve gone a bit overboard with road courses, but don’t lump short tracks with road courses just because YOU don’t like them.

MikeinAZ

I’m lumping the two together because they’re both taking races away from other tracks. I’m not particularly crazy about either of them. This year 12 of 36 races are either road courses or short tracks.

Last edited 1 year ago by MikeinAZ
Tom B

We have probably seen the best race of the year at Fontana. This is not a cookie cutter track. Only one like it is Michigan. Why do people think short track racing is better? All the racers do is just take out the cars in front of them. That’s not racing. If you want more short tracks, build some more Iowa race tracks. Enough of these road course and street race tracks. That’s just more of taking out the cars in front of you racing.

MikeinAZ

I agree 150%. Nascar is getting too heavy on the short tracks & road courses. I couldn’t believe it when they dropped the indy oval for the road course and now they destroying a great two mile oval for another short track.

Bill B

Hmmm. Maybe I’m off here but I thought short tracks were what NASCAR was built on.

MikeinAZ

I don’t know for sure if nascar was built on short tracks. That is not what I’ve always heard. NASCAR’s first race was at charlotte. Even if you are correct, that doesn’t mean that they can’t take it to an extreme by adding more of them (including road courses), which is exactly what they are doing right now.  There is also a whole list of drivers that are not happy with them removing the California 2 mile speedway from the schedule. They’ve been dropping a lot of the longer high speed tracks from the schedule recently, too.

Last edited 1 year ago by MikeinAZ
DoninAjax

The first real NASCAR race was at Charlotte Speedway in Charlotte, NC on June 6, 1949. It was a dirt track (imagine that) and was 200 laps and 150 miles and was won by Jim Roper. It is NOT Charlotte Motor Speedway!

MikeinAZ

Ya don’t say. Although I didn’t know the type of track, I knew it wasn’t the current configuration. Just because it was a short track doesn’t mean we need more of them now, either. Imagine that.

Last edited 1 year ago by MikeinAZ
DoninAjax

Richard Petty’s first Cup race, when they were actually “races”, was at the CNE in Toronto. That’s in Ontario in Canada. Babe Ruth’s first professional home run was in Toronto. You should pay attention to history.

MikeinAZ

I know enough about nascar history. My weak brain doesn’t have the memory capacity to remember when Babe Ruth hit his first home run or when Richard Petty won his first race. I’m also more concerned about remembering some of America’s historical facts and what’s happening when it comes to politics than I am any of the sports. Heck, I wasn’t even alive 75 years ago.

Last edited 1 year ago by MikeinAZ
DoninAjax

How about this! Build a track by the ocean front and use half beach and half pavement!

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