Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway Preview

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

Farewell, old friend.

Auto Club Speedway, which was once maligned by the NASCAR fan base and has since become one of the favorites on the schedule, will hold its final race on the two-mile layout this weekend with Sunday’s running of the Pala Casino 400.

Built on the site of an old steel mill featured in the movie “Terminator”, the oval has been a part of the NASCAR schedule since opening in 1997, still holding onto the same asphalt that was present when the first cars hit the track way back when

As the track has never been repaved since opening, the aged surface has come to provide some of the best intermediate track racing on the circuit. With the lack of grip that the drivers are faced with, they will race from the apron of the track all the way up to the wall looking for speed and the best line to suit their needs.

On restarts especially, drivers will fan out three and four-wide as they battle for position, leading to some great racing, as evidenced by the finishes at the track in the last handful of years.

It was announced that the track would be reconfigured into a short track nearly three years ago, but the after effects of the pandemic put those plans into a holding pattern until this year when the time has finally come to say goodbye to the track’s two-mile layout.

There still remains much uncertainty about the track’s future path, but one thing is certain, the drivers will give Auto Club Speedway the send-off it deserves on Sunday.

By the Numbers

What: Pala Casino 400, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 2 of 36

Where: Auto Club Speedway – Fontana, California (Opened: 1997)

When: Sunday, February 26

TV/Radio: FOX, 3:30 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: Two-mile D-shaped oval

Banking: 14 degrees in turns, 11 degrees on frontstretch

Race Length: 200 laps, 400 miles

Stage Lengths: First two stages – 65 laps each, Final stage – 70 laps

Pit Road Speed: 55 mph

Pace Car Speed: 60 mph

2022 Race Winner: Kyle Larson – No. 5 Chevrolet (Started 13th, 28 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 188.511 mph, 38.194 seconds – March 18, 2016

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Auto Club Speedway:

  1. Kyle Busch – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – 109.0
  2. Tyler Reddick – No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota – 100.3
  3. Erik Jones – No. 43 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet – 97.6
  4. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 95.7
  5. Austin Cindric – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 94.3
  6. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 94.3
  7. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 93.2
  8. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 91.5
  9. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 91.5
  10. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 90.3

From the Cockpit

“It’s a driver’s track,” Kyle Busch said. “You can really move around. There’s five lanes and you can run all of ‘em but one of my favorite lines to run is obviously up against the wall, that fifth lane. It’s a really cool track to be able to do that and you’re always trying to set yourself as fast as you can right up against the wall as close as you can and that’s where you get to make your most time. It’s really a fun track for the drivers.”

“A worn-out surface is fun for drivers because you get a chance to work the track and find different grooves and find different lines that your car will work in. You can change the balance of your car tighter or looser by moving in different grooves and going higher in the turns or coming off lower in the turns or whatever it might be.

“It’s a guessing game really sometimes where your car will work best and trying to find that and it even changes throughout the run whether it’s the beginning of the run you run low and at the end of the run you run high. That’s typical. Sometimes I’ve been fast or been able to be fast right up along the wall or in lane four right off the get go on new tires.”

Memorable Auto Club Moments

Over the course of its existence as a two-mile oval, there have been a number of standout moments in the track’s history, with these being some of the more memorable:

1997 – In the first race on the two-mile oval, Jeff Gordon sets the stage for racing in the Inland Empire by capturing the inaugural win at the track.

2002 – Gordon’s protégé, Jimmie Johnson, wins his first Cup Series race, kicking off his legendary career that included many more wins and championships to follow.

2005 – Like his two fellow Hendrick Motorsports drivers had done in the years prior, Kyle Busch wins his first Cup Series race at the track at only 20 years of age. In the years since, Busch hasn’t let off the gas yet as he is still battling for wins and titles today.

2011 – One of the races that helped Auto Club Speedway get back on the right path. California born drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick stage a duel for the ages in the closing laps with Harvick beating out Johnson for a win in his home state.

2013 – The race we all know and love. Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano tangle on the last lap, Hamlin winds up on the wrecker and Kyle Busch sneaks by for the win. Oh, and don’t forget the post-race throwdown between Logano and Tony Stewart’s crew.

Then there’s Stewart’s classic post-race interview with the late Steve Byrnes:

“What the hell do you think I was mad about? Dumb little son-of-a-[expletive] runs us clear down to the infield. He wants to [expletive] about everybody else and he’s the one who drives like a little [expletive]. I’m going to bust his ass!”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Saturday, February 26

  • NASCAR Cup Series Practice (2:05 pm to 2:50 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying (2:50 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, February 27

  • Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway (3:30 pm – 200 laps, 400 miles – FOX)

David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.