FONTANA, Calif. — Five thoughts after NASCAR’s final weekend on the big oval at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California …
1. Big Takeaway
In the past 42 years, a 50-square-mile area of Southern California has seen three racetracks that hosted a combined 90 NASCAR Cup Series races disappear.
Fontana is gone for now, though whether it returns in its proposed short track form remains to be seen. NASCAR and the track have continued to express optimism about a reconfiguration plan after selling off $544 million of the expansive property, but there is no firm timeline or promise the project will truly happen.
Riverside International Raceway was the last to vanish before that. The popular road course closed in 1989 and the land eventually became the Moreno Valley Mall. Then there was Ontario Motor Speedway, the ahead-of-its-time mammoth twin of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Its demise came in 1981, and the land today contains an arena, office buildings, apartments and a Target.
Now work will begin to turn a beloved racetrack into a soulless landscape of warehouses or whatever is deemed most valuable by today’s society.
When I worked at the local newspaper near Fontana, the parking spaces in the infield media lot were assigned. The famed motorsports writer Shav Glick of the Los Angeles Times had space No. 1, and even for years after his death, there was a sign that held his spot open.
Then, at some point, we showed up for a race weekend and the space was no longer reserved. Track employees came and went, time passed and somehow the tradition was lost.
My boss at the time, the longtime local columnist and racing writer Louis Brewster, always had the premium spot in the infield media center. Most of the ground-floor building was windowless, but Brewster had one of the few seats looking out onto pit road instead of at a wall.
When he died in 2019, the track held Brewster’s seat open for the 2020 race and did so again last year. But this weekend, it was assigned to someone else.
That wasn’t an intentional move on the part of the track staff, it’s just the sobering reality of rapidly changing times and turnover. Nothing stays the same forever, much as we might wish and hope and demand it did.
The demise of the big oval is another example, though I can’t say I would have ever seen it coming years ago. Fontana had a reliable presence on the schedule, and it was always comfortable and satisfying to return to a racetrack that felt the most like home of any other, even as other things changed. My old newspaper building, for example, got torn down and turned into apartments.
Now, of all places, it’s this track’s turn to face the bulldozers. It’s probably being deconstructed as we speak.
In my 40s, I’ve learned enough to understand change and why things change. That doesn’t mean I enjoy it. Sometimes, frankly, it sucks.
But I can sit here and scream about sentimentality or nostalgia or the loss of excellent racing all day long. I also know this: When someone offers you a half-billion dollars, you probably take it.
2. Main Character: Kyle Busch
They call it a face turn in professional wrestling, when the villain (or “heel”) suddenly becomes a good-guy fan favorite (or “face”).
Judging by the cheers when Kyle Busch won on Sunday, you have to wonder if we’re starting to see that in NASCAR.
“Rowdy Nation is growing, loud and proud,” Busch said with a smile when asked about the reaction to his victory, which sounded like two-thirds to three-quarters of the crowd were cheering. “Watch out, we’re going to take over.”
Busch is the same guy as he was with Joe Gibbs Racing (albeit in a better mood so far this season), but fans are reacting differently to him. Why? For one thing, some explained on Twitter, they couldn’t bring themselves to embrace Busch while he was with Toyota but are more open to supporting him at longtime Chevrolet team Richard Childress Racing — the home of the Intimidator.
“It’s just fun to see them and give them something to cheer for again,” said Busch, who probably has more in common with Dale Earnhardt Sr. than most of today’s drivers.
But from the sounds of it, a lot of those fans aren’t experiencing the “again” part. They never rooted for him in the first place until this recent thaw. Oddly, after losing his sponsor and tearfully ending his JGR tenure last fall, Busch is getting a second look from those who previously wouldn’t consider it.
No matter which side you’re on, NASCAR is far more entertaining when Busch is relevant. It’s a good thing if he’s in the mix on a weekly basis. Although the field certainly doesn’t want to spend a season racing against a hungry Busch, whose confidence and swagger seem to be on the rise.
After all, as former Busch teammate Denny Hamlin noted on his podcast Monday, Busch is making the case for being a top-five driver of all time (he came in at No. 9 on our panel’s recent rankings of the best 75 drivers in Cup Series history).
“It’s mind-boggling to me anyone is surprised,” said Chase Elliott, who finished second. “Kyle is one of the best race car drivers to ever do this, and that didn’t change overnight. So I’m not surprised, and anyone who is should rethink their NASCAR knowledge.”
Does that mean we shouldn’t be surprised if he contends for a championship in his first year at RCR? If he has a 2008-style season, when he won eight races in his initial JGR season?
Let’s not go that far yet. There’s only been one “real” race, after all. But with a victory already out of the way and any growing pains seemingly minor at best, Busch could find himself in position for a renaissance season.
3. Question of the Week
Are the Trackhouse cars for real — again? It took everyone quite a while to settle on that answer last year after the team had an unexpectedly hot start and never relented while getting three victories and a berth in the final four.
And on Sunday, after an offseason of speculation over who made gains and who would regress, there they were again. Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez both finished in the top five and showed the team hasn’t lost a thing.
“It’s incredible,” Chastain said with a grin. “We drove it in Turn 1, Lap 1 and passed like two or three cars. It’s like, ‘OK, this is gonna be really good.’”
Chastain probably had the second-best car and controlled much of the race until Busch just got faster at the end. But Suarez warned the other teams could catch up soon.
“It’s definitely nice to know we have speed once again,” Suarez said. “We’ll have to continue to work because everyone is gonna go back to the shop and get their stuff better for next week. So we’re gonna do the same.”
Chastain agreed, saying there was actually much more for his team to learn and improve. The speed generated on Sunday was not the final product for 2023.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Chastain said. “You’ll watch it when we do it.”
4. Trash and Treasure
Trash: The idea of getting rid of overtime. That proposal got a decent amount of traction in the wake of the Daytona 500, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among those who tweeted their support for reverting to the traditional way (throwing the checkered flag when the race reaches its scheduled distance).
But though overtime has caused plenty of extra wrecks, it has also provided some thrilling finishes when the race otherwise would have just ended under caution. And with the chance of race manipulation and how that affects the playoffs (both in getting into the field and going through the elimination rounds), NASCAR also needs to keep overtime for integrity reasons.
Think about it: A driver is leading with a few laps to go with the second-place car closing in, and a driver’s teammate just so happens to bring out a race-ending caution that runs out the laps.
Chris Buescher said he’s in the camp of those who are tired of seeing predictably torn-up cars at the end of every superspeedway race with a diminished chance of seeing the race run to completion. Buescher wouldn’t mind getting rid of overtime, except he doesn’t know what else to do.
“I haven’t thought it through enough to say what the better alternative would be — or if there even is one,” he said.
Christopher Bell noted overtimes do provide more chances to wreck but added if there wasn’t a green-white-checkered finish, “we’re just going to wreck with two to go and the race is going to be over.”
“I don’t really think that fixes the wrecking-at-the-end-of-the-race problem,” Bell said.
What would fix it? If you have an idea, let me know. Kevin Harvick said the new Next Gen cars can simply “push and shove and do things a lot more aggressively than you could do with the old car,” which naturally leads to more wrecks.
Chastain chuckled when asked about ending overtimes, adding it was the first he’d heard of the topic and it was a frivolous gripe.
“Man, we really can complain about anything,” he said. “That’s wild. No, we don’t want to see races end under caution. That would be pretty bad.”
Treasure: The things which made Fontana have great racing. The track is closing out its run with back-to-back races that received over 90 percent “Yes” votes in my weekly “Was it a good race?” Twitter poll.
But what made it so great?
“It’s a driver’s dream,” Ryan Blaney said. “You ask a driver, ‘What’s your ideal racing surface?’ and it’s a worn-out racetrack that’s wide and has a bunch of lanes where you can search around for grip. That’s what we like and that’s what the fans like — side-by-side, seeing us fanned out and searching around.”
The problem is it’s very difficult to replicate that in today’s environment. Atlanta, another track praised for its ancient, gritty surface, was not only repaved but then reconfigured into a superspeedway (removing it from the “drivers’ track” category). Michigan is a 2-mile track like Fontana, but it was repaved before the 2012 season and still has years to go until it gets seasoned like Fontana was.
There are more intermediate tracks closing down than being added to the schedule, and there certainly aren’t any new ones being built in their place. All the emphasis on new venues revolves around short tracks, street courses and stadium races — which are positive developments, but only if intermediates retain their traditional place as the core of NASCAR racing.
As for Fontana, going out at its peak “raciness” might have a positive effect. People will remember the great shows, remember the reasons behind them and hold it as sort of a mythical place in NASCAR lore.
“When you fast forward 10 years from now, people are going to be talking about the old Fontana,” Logano said. “They’re going to say, ‘Man, Auto Club Speedway was awesome when it was two miles and wore out and was against the wall. The young kids will never get to experience that. We’re gonna be talking about that someday.”
5. Five at No. 5
• Chase Briscoe was concerned and confused after his team ran toward the back of the field for much of the race before he salvaged a 20th-place finish. Briscoe said he felt like his car was down on power and didn’t want to go, even though there were no obvious engine problems and the car was handling fine overall. “That’s definitely unacceptable,” Briscoe said. “We’re a top team. We shouldn’t be getting outrun by some of these guys. We’ve just got to get better and I know we’re gonna get better.” Combined with a crash at Daytona, Briscoe’s season is off to a rough start; the 2022 playoff driver is currently 33rd in the standings.
• Corey LaJoie and his Spire Motorsports team had perhaps their best overall performance at a non-superspeedway. LaJoie ran in the top 15 seemingly all day and even got a stage point by finishing 10th in Stage 2. Considering LaJoie finished 31st in points last year, it’s eye-catching to see him running well at an intermediate track and sitting 13th in the standings after two races. It’s obviously not realistic to expect the team to do that every week, but it would fit the “stacking pennies” theme if they were able to get a top-15 every few races.
• Fontana’s high-quality racing was mentioned often this weekend, but next week’s track shouldn’t be too much of a downgrade. Las Vegas is one of the intermediate tracks that has benefitted from the Next Gen car’s ideal fit for those types of circuits. “When you think of mile-and-a-half (tracks), Vegas is probably winning in that department,” Joey Logano said. Though Homestead and Kansas might have an argument there, Logano cited the wide track, multiple options and slightly worn surface as a reason Vegas is moving up. “All those things really play into a good race out there,” he said.
• It was a challenging week for A.J. Allmendinger and his wife Tara, who lost their beloved cat Mr. Tickles suddenly after returning home from the Daytona 500. Mr. Tickles, who had more than 12,000 followers between Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, was a kitten discovered under a dumpster on a sweltering North Carolina day in 2015. The Allmendingers took him in and began taking Mr. Tickles with them to racetracks all over the country. “I’m sure all of us who have animals know they’re not pets to us,” Allmendinger said. “For me and Tara, that was our closest family member.” Allmendinger then capped his tough week by crashing out of the race and finishing last after nearby contact between Ryan Blaney and Corey LaJoie sent Allmendinger off the track.
• Christopher Bell created a meme-worthy moment when he was spun at the L.A. Coliseum earlier this month. “This is fun. We’re having fun,” he said angrily on the team radio. Xfinity Series driver Sam Mayer then put the copypasta to good use on Friday when he tweeted a picture of the miserably rainy track with his own “This is fun. We’re having fun!” Bell said he has since learned the line was first used in a 1999 “Family Guy” episode, so he’s not claiming it as his own (although he’s never watched the show). But he also doesn’t mind if the line gets associated with him and thought it was “funny” Mayer used it.
(Photo of Kyle Busch celebrating his victory in the Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)