Last season’s Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway is remembered for several reasons.
There was the last-lap battle between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, that resulted in Hamlin wrecking into the infield retaining wall and suffering a serious back injury.
There was a post-race scuffle on pit road between Logano and Tony Stewart, who didn’t like the way Logano raced him on the last restart in the race.
Perhaps most surprising? The 2-mile speedway – at one time derided by drivers and fans for producing “boring racing” – provided one of the most entertaining of the season, complete with a rare but coveted last-lap pass which resulted in a permanent change of the race lead.
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Only two of the 36 points-paying races last season ended under such circumstances, the Auto Club 400 and the spring race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
The benefactor of the last-lap drama last season at Auto Club Speedway was Kyle Busch, who passed high above the Logano-Hamlin melee to pick up the victory.
“It was a crazy finish, one that I won’t forget for a while, and I’m sure the fans won’t forget anytime soon, either,” Busch said.
Dramatic last-lap lead changes resulting in surprise winners are one of the most exciting ways NASCAR can end, but they are also rare.
Only 26 times in the past 10 seasons, has a last-lap pass resulted in a permanent change of the race lead. Sixteen instances took place on the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona (11) and Talladega (five), which feature a type of racing apt to produce such results.
Such outcomes are far more rare at 2-mile speedways like in Fontana, which make finishes like last season that much more memorable.
Could Sunday’s Auto Club 400 produce similar results?
Conditions are certainly ripe, with an aging, bumpy track with many racing grooves combined with a new championship format this season that places a huge premium on winning.
Through the season’s first four races, teams have already shown they are willing to take big gambles to come away with a victory, even more so for teams already with a win in hand and are virtually locked in the Chase.
“It’s become where you can race all over the track, and with the race being as long as it is, you can take a lot of time working through traffic with a good car,” said Busch, who has two career wins at the track.
“Sometimes, though, it’s a really hard track to get a hold of, especially when it’s hot and the sun is out.”
Auto Club Speedway remains one of just a handful of tracks in the Cup series that has not undergone recent paving – and drivers hope that does not change.
“This track has a lot of tire wear, which is typically good for us and it’s a track where we can move around,” Hamlin said. “It’s one of the few race tracks where they haven’t repaved so it usually puts on some of the best races.
“Typically with this wide of a race track, you can tell where the person is going to go before they enter the corners. It’s easier to make passes than at really any other mile-and-a-half track we go to.”
Those words are music to NASCAR officials’ ears, who have worked diligently over the past two seasons in efforts to improve the on-track product, but particularly at 1.5-mile and larger speedways.
Many of those races have had a propensity to become single-file affairs, when the leader gains an aerodynamic advantage in clean air and runs out to a big lead.
Auto Club Speedway could well become the new poster child of the exciting, close-quartered racing NASCAR has long promoted but had difficulty producing in recent years.
Even Hamlin would welcome a repeat performance, minus the back injury of course.
“There’s more drive, there’s extra motivation. Everything you can think of could that would put you at a competitive edge, you’ve got this weekend when you come to a track that you really want to perform well at,” he said.
“Whatever it is, you do and go the extra mile on these types of race tracks. We’re going to do it and see where we stack up.”