FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Most of NASCAR's Cup Series drivers feel like they're saying their final goodbye to a dear old friend this weekend.
Auto Club Speedway's racetrack seems to be adored by every professional driver on the continent. Those two miles of gloriously weathered asphalt allow racers to be their best selves, providing the ideal combination of grip and space for nimble maneuvers in the perfectly banked corners, thrilling passes from the apron to the wall, and even five-wide racing at times during a quarter-century of mostly memorable Sundays.
“I’m going to miss everything about this track,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “Hopefully we can go out on a high note on the last time around here.”
Indeed, the second race of the current Cup season will be the last before this beloved pavement is torn up, ostensibly to clear the way for a short-track course. Fontana won't host a NASCAR weekend in 2024, and the new setup might not be ready until 2026, if it happens at all.
So this farewell is happening under a cloud — a whole bunch of them, actually.
Steady rain and a few tentative snow flurries forced the cancellation of practice and qualifying Saturday. The Xfinity Series race nearly started during a break in the precipitation, but was eventually postponed to Sunday night after the rain kicked up again in 41-degree (5-degree Celsius) temperatures.
In the meantime, the drivers reminisced about the freedom and speed they've enjoyed on sunnier days in this industrial suburb east of Los Angeles.
“To me, it’s a driver’s dream,” Ryan Blaney said. “It’s a big racetrack. It’s incredibly wide. The progressiveness of each lane, the banking, is the right kind of degree change. Tires fall off. You ask drivers, ‘What’s your dream racetrack?’ And it’s a wide track where drivers can search around for grip.”
Southern California native Jimmie Johnson won here six times. Las Vegas' own Kyle Busch has won four times. Most of the great drivers in the past 25 years from the Cup series, IndyCar and the CART series have reached Fontana's Victory Lane.
But soon the bumpy backstretch, the coarse asphalt and the competitive corners will be gone. NASCAR, which owns and operates the facility, has been planning a short-track redesign since 2020 to service the latest trend in stock car racing.
Any faint hope of a reprieve seemingly vanished earlier this week when Sports Business Journal reported NASCAR has reached an agreement to sell about 80% of the large property for a nine-figure sum. It's unclear whether the short-track plans would even happen under new ownership.
The drivers realize whatever happens after Sunday — or Monday, depending on the weather — is out of their control.
“Sad is probably the first reaction," Joey Logano said. “But business is business, and how do you go against that? When you hear what some of the numbers (for the sale) were, how do you not take that?
"And here’s the part that makes me feel a little better about it: Yes, the racing here is spectacular. It’s probably one of the best tracks we have, period. But the facts are, it’s getting old. The asphalt is coming apart, and if we were to repave it and just leave it the same (configuration), the racing would be awful. It’s just the end of an era.”
“I’m sad to see it go, but on the flip side, I’m actually really excited about what’s ahead,” defending champion Kyle Larson said. “For the betterment of our sport, I do think we need more short tracks. I applaud everybody at this racetrack if they’re going to reconfigure it, and taking a financial risk to better their facility and crowd and the sport.”
Drivers are divided on what they would like to see next in Fontana. Some like the half-mile tracks to create the bumpy, hot-tempered races that get TV ratings, while others favor a little variety.
“I don’t know that we really need another half-mile,” Truex said. “I think something between there and a mile would be good.”
NASCAR is hoping for a Sunday respite from a spectacular storm, but that's not the only problem. Even if the rain abates, old asphalt is notoriously difficult to dry because of weepers — the moisture that collects under the surface and then seeps through the cracks after a rainfall.
“The track is definitely going to be sad, because it’s getting torn down, so it’s obviously going to weep,” Alex Bowman said with a grin.
Kevin Harvick is back at the track closest to his native Bakersfield, and his record 29th start at Fontana doubles as his 750th consecutive Cup start. That's the third-longest streak in Cup history.
Harvick said he doesn't think much about the milestone — and if he does, it only makes him mad that the number isn't higher because of his suspension in 2002 for rough driving. The 47-year-old Harvick is still happy to be back at one of his favorite tracks.
“It’s always tough to see a racetrack that is in the fun-to-drive phase go away, because you’ll never put the asphalt down that way again,” he said.
NO PRACTICE? NO PROBLEM
Given their familiarity with this circuit, the drivers aren't concerned after the weather kept them off the track Saturday.
“Everyone kind of got used to that,” Larson said of the pandemic years. “It would be a different question if this was last year and we had a brand-new racing car.”
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