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AutoMatters & More: Auto Club Speedway celebrates 20 years with NASCAR Cup & XFINITY Series Races

NASCAR returned to race at Auto Club Speedway on the March 25th weekend of 2017. The track – formerly known as California Speedway (and still called that by many, including some on the TV broadcast), was renamed Auto Club Speedway when the Auto Club came on board with their support in 2008. During the 2017 race weekend they announced their renewal of that support with a new, multi-year deal.

The track was the brainchild of Roger Penske, with execution by Les Richter, Executive Vice President of California Speedway and former NASCAR Senior Vice President of Operations. That there is a racetrack there at all, let alone one that is a showpiece, is truly a testament to the vision of Penske, as it is located on what many would view as an impossible site – on what was toxic land on the site of the abandoned Kaiser Steel Mill. In its 20 years, this multi-purpose, major facility has revitalized the area and will be hosting more than 320 days of track activity this year. You might have recognized it in several movies, including the second “Terminator,” and television shows. Driving schools are held here, as is drag racing, club road course racing, new car testing and much more.

5-wide IndyCar racing (2015 MAV TV 500)
5-wide IndyCar racing (2015 MAV TV 500) (Jan Wagner / C 2015 Jan R. Wagner, AutoMatt)

Sadly, its signature, historic water tower with its distinctive checkered flag paint scheme – a relic from the steel mill days – was deteriorating, unsafe and deemed unrepairable. It was torn down in 2013.

Jeff Gordon won the inaugural California 500 in 1997 – the first Cup race that NASCAR ran on this track. 4-time Cup Series Champion, Jeff is now retired from full-time Cup racing. This year he co-drove a winning car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and provides expert commentary during televised NASCAR Cup races.

IndyCar also ran here for many years. As Dave Allen, current President of Auto Club Speedway reminded us: “Gil de Ferran set the CART qualifying closed course world record at 241.428 mph in 2000.”

Close Auto Club 400 racing
Close Auto Club 400 racing (Jan Wagner / C 2017 Jan R. Wagner, AutoMatt)

One of the best IndyCar races that I ever witnessed was the final one that was run here – back in 2015. The cars raced down the front stretch and into the first turn as many as five wide, lap after lap. It was magical and mesmerizing.

In his 2014 rookie season behind the wheel of the #42 Chevrolet SS, Kyle Larson was the highest finishing rookie driver in 26 of 36 NASCAR Cup Series races, winning Rookie of the Year honors.

Fast forward to March 2017. Lightly overcast in what can be a very, very hot place, but without the rain that was forecast for that weekend, the temperature was perfect for racing on this, the 20th anniversary of the track.

Jimmie Johnson’s #48 after sliding sideways into his pit
Jimmie Johnson’s #48 after sliding sideways into his pit (Jan Wagner / C 2017 Jan R. Wagner, AutoMatt)

Both the Service King 300 NASCAR XFINITY Series race and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 race were action-packed, but things got downright wild towards the end of the Cup Series race. The melee began during a pit stop with about 40 laps to go. The #48 of Jimmie Johnson was coming into the pits just as Martin Truex Jr. was leaving his pit. In order to avoid colliding with Martin, Jimmie locked up his brakes and slid sideways, nosing fully into his pit at nearly a 90-degree angle to the pit wall. Amazingly, since he was technically in his pit, his crew was able to service his car, push it backward out of its pit and send Johnson back to continue his race – a race that ended with a flurry of cautions, and more pit stops. After the race that prompted winning car-owner Chip Ganassi to comment: “I thought it was never going to be over there at the end.”

Kyle Larson dominated, handily winning both the XFINITY and Cup Series races.

Kyle Larson celebrating Auto Club 400 victory
Kyle Larson celebrating Auto Club 400 victory (Jan Wagner / )

As they expressed in the post-race press conference, neither Larson nor Ganassi expected their clean sweep. While Larson was confident in his Cup car going into the race, he was not as confident with the performance of his XFINITY Series racecar. Nevertheless he said: “In both series I feel like I have a shot to win every time I go to the racetrack. That’s always something I’ve hoped for. It’s a lot of fun to have that confidence in the race team, go to the racetrack, fight hard and run for wins.”

This year he is on track to have another great season.

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Copyright © 2017 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #482r2

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