By Andre Stefan Davancens, March 7, 2023
The 2023 NASCAR season brought an end to the historic superspeedway at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Auto Club Speedway gave motorsports fans around San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County and surrounding counties a track to call home since it opened as California Speedway in 1997. Since 2010, the speedway hosted early season races, bringing an exciting start to each season since then.
The track became known for its ageing, worn pavement that required drivers to battle for grip through each sector and provided each season with a great large track event.
“I’m going to miss the track in general,” said Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 19 Reser’s Fine Foods Toyota. “It’s just very unique. It’s very fun. It’s a big challenge to do all the things it takes here to be successful. The tire wear aspect of it is something that is really challenging and fun, so I’m gonna miss everything about this track.”
A historic blizzard cancelled practice and qualifying for both the Cup Series and the Xfinity Series, but when the clouds opened up, the track was live again.
Pickup trucks towed large blowers and ran laps around the speedway in an attempt to dry the course. A NASCAR directive lit the green light on the Production Alliance Group 300 and sent pit crews scrambling to get the cars onto the pit lane before 2 p.m.
Come 2:10 p.m., the drivers’ call to start their engines boomed out of the loudspeakers as 38 V8 engines roared to life in sync.
The Xfinity Series was underway as the cars assembled for a flying start while new clouds started to drift over the sun. Rain prevented the cars from more than a few laps before the race day came to a close.
This postponed the Production Alliance Group 300 to Sunday, packing two races into one day. Perfect conditions Sunday meant the cars took to the pits with no restrictions to mark the start of the Pala Casino 400.
Ross Chastain led the Pala Casino 400 for a total of 91 laps and drove the No. 1 Kubota Chevrolet to victory in stages one and two.
Kyle Busch took the lead from Chastain on lap 165 and regained it on lap 180. Busch finished the race with a 2.998-second lead over runner-up Chase Elliott. This marked his 61st career victory and his first win with new team Richard Petty Racing.
“The guys did a great job,” said Busch, driver of the No. 8 Lucas Oil Chevrolet. “We did a lot of sim stuff, a lot of testing in general, just trying to get up to speed. I’ve worked with a lot of great people who’ve given me a lot of great opportunities in my career. It’s awesome to be able to reward them.”
Once the pits were cleared of Cup Series crews, Xfinity cars rolled out to meet the quickly approaching race start of 5 p.m. Cole Custer steered the No. 00 Steward-Hass Racing Ford to the initial lead in the final race at the historic track.
Custer won both stage one and two, leading for 46 laps until a flat tire sent him into the wall and gave Austin Dillon in the No. 10 Chevrolet no choice but to rear end him on the 91st lap. From there, John Hunter Nemechek never looked back on his cruise to victory after he seized the lead.
Nemechek, in his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Supra, closed the curtain on Auto Club Speedway with his performance.
“Man, this whole 20 team gave me one heck of a race car,” said Nemechek. “I’ve worked with a lot of the guys on the team the last couple of years, and the pit crew — they got it done when it counted tonight.”
As of Feb. 24, NASCAR sold 433 acres of the 522-acre site. The future is uncertain as NASCAR has not released any finalized plans for the remainder of Auto Club Speedway. NASCAR previously released plans to convert the remaining land to a half-mile track. However, there are no approved plans.
The loss of Auto Club Speedway leaves a gap to be filled in the race schedule and a hole in Los Angeles car culture.
“One thing that California doesn’t get enough credit for is what a car culture it has,” said Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Gearwrench Ford and a Bakersfield native, prior to what would be his last race at Auto Club before his retirement.
“When I say that, racing falls into that car culture, even today, the racetracks that are still functioning and the racers are still involved. … We were fortunate to have a good crop of guys, and still have a good crop of guys, from the West Coast, and that comes from having places to race and the quality of racers that you race against.”
Feature image by Andre Davancens
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