Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway Preview

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

For the first time in two years, NASCAR is back at Auto Club Speedway.

After missing out on racing in 2021 due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunday’s Wise Power 400 marks the Cup Series return to the two-mile D-shaped oval and the kick-off to NASCAR’s West Coast swing.

Built on the site of an old steel mill featured in the movie “Terminator”, the two-mile oval has been a part of the NASCAR schedule since opening in 1997. During its 20+ years on the circuit, the track has gone through ownership changes, as well as expanding to two race dates in 2004 and then moving back to one race in 2011 due to attendance problems.

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.

Whether that continues this weekend when the Next Gen car makes its debut at the track remains to be seen, but the car will certainly be put to the test throughout the 400-mile duration of Sunday’s race.

By the Numbers

What: Wise Power 400, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 2 of 36

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

When: Sunday, February 27

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

2020 Race Winner: Alex Bowman – No. 88 Chevrolet (Started third, 110 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. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 111.4
  2. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 96.2
  3. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 95.6
  4. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 95.3
  5. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 93.4
  6. Erik Jones – No. 43 Petty GMS Chevrolet – 91.4
  7. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 90.1
  8. Kurt Busch – No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota – 89.5
  9. Brad Keselowski – No. 6 Roush Fenway Keselowski Ford – 87.7
  10. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 86.5

From Atop the Pit Box

“This race is one that I’ve been concerned about for a while,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott and the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team.

“Not that I don’t love racing there. My first win was there. It’s a great track and fun to race on. The surface is really worn out. The back straightaway, they ground it down and are trying to rectify it as much as possible. We haven’t been there in two years, and we have a new car. So just a lot of unknowns, and with just 15 minutes of practice, it’s going to be really hard to get it right.

“Our expectation is to be perfect off the truck, but if not, we definitely have the mindset to be able to work through the weekend. For California and these next races coming up, guys are going to work on their cars more through the race and kind of evolve.

“It’s going to be a very tough race. Nobody’s car is going to drive perfect. Drivers will be able to move around and find some time in different lanes. They’re going to have to manage what they’ve got and get the most out of it. It’s going to be fun, but it’s going to be a challenge.”

Last Time at Auto Club Speedway

Sometimes it’s just your day.

In the March 2020 race at Auto Club Speedway, it was definitely Alex Bowman’s day.

Taking over the lead from third-place just 11 laps into the race, Bowman was a constant fixture at the front of the field throughout the day and it became clear the path to Victory Lane would have to go through him.

Leading five times for 110 laps, Bowman passed Brad Keselowski for the lead on lap 167 to take over the lead for the final time

Ryan Blaney ran second to Bowman during the closing laps, but a corded right-rear tire forced him to pit road with three laps left, handing the runner-up spot over to Kyle Busch. However, Bowman had already built a commanding lead of 8.904 seconds en route to his second career win.

“Man, how about that, California?  I grew up quarter-midget racing maybe 20 minutes from here, Pomona Valley.  Went there every week, made a lot of great friends.  I know you guys are here.  Man, so cool for Cincinnati.  Seems like every time they’re on the car we’re so good. 

“Promised my buddy Aaron we would all get matching 88 tattoos if we won, and I think I have to go get a tattoo now, but that’ll be a good time.  It’s been a lot of fun.  Thanks to Greg, all the guys.  He made good calls all day and we were up front when it counted.

“We’ve unloaded the last two weeks, I don’t think we’ve had got change in the race car from how it came off the truck.  That makes my job a heck of a lot easier.  I’m just so proud of this team, Hendrick Motorsports, Hendrick horsepower under the hood, the whole shop back home.  They work their butts off.  We put a lot of effort into this new car, and it’s obviously working well.”

Two-Mile Track’s Last Hurrah?

Back in September 2020, plans were announced to transform Auto Club from its current two-mile configuration to a half-mile, high-banked short track, but as the pandemic played out, those plans have since been put on hold, with a cloud of uncertainty surrounding when the project will go forward.

“There are a lot of uphill battles we have from a timing perspective,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said back in November. “We are hopeful, right? Part of it has to do with there’s going to be a conversion of the two-mile, right? What we know as the two-mile racetrack where we’re going to race next year, we’re selling some land around that. There are entitlements to it that no one really cares about, but we’ve got to make sure those things get done so we then can take the next steps to build that short track.”

When the Cup Series visited the LA coliseum two weeks ago, officials were still unsure of when or if the reconfiguration would get the go ahead, so for now it’s business as usual with Auto Club as a two-mile oval.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Saturday, February 26

  • NASCAR Cup Series Practice (2:00 pm to 2:35 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying (2:35 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, February 27

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

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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.