Dale Earnhardt Jr. will roll off 15th when the green drops Sunday in the Auto Club 400.
A few years ago, that might have meant the team would need a pit strategy to get close to the front, either staying out or taking two tires because most of the passing occurred on pit road at Auto Club Speedway.
But thanks to a weathered surface that hasn’t been repaved since the first Cup race in 1997 on the 2-mile oval, drivers can pass by working various lanes while also trying to keep their tires from excessive wear. The track has several tar strips in the seams, which can either be used for extra grip or can cause a car to slide depending on how the car goes over it.
“It will be a good challenge,” Earnhardt said. “I like running here. It’s a fun place. Even when you’re car is off a little bit you can sort of get a line and find a line and work on it. It should be a good race.”
Advancements in the way to pave tracks over the last 20 years have pretty much eliminated seams. But the California track still has them, and it adds another dimension to the 200-lap race for a track that also has gotten more racy with developments in the Cup aerodynamic package.
“This is probably one of the best tracks we go to as far as passing with all the different lanes unless you’re stuck on the top,” said polesitter Matt Kenseth. “There’s a lot of options here. This place is really wide, it’s very challenging as a driver, but very fun as well.
“If your car is handling a certain way, you can find a groove that can help your car and move around a lot.”
Kenseth said the track is a fun one when a driver has a fast car. He obviously has one, but he believes drivers will be able to challenge from deep in the field.
“Track position is important, but I feel it is a track you can come from anywhere if you have the best car and get up through there and get some passing,” Kenseth said.
Still, the winners tend to come from near the front. Kyle Busch started fourth and won in 2013. Stewart started ninth in winning the race in 2012 but started 22nd when he won the October 2010 race.
Harvick started 24th when he won in 2011. In the four races Johnson won from 2007-2010, he started second, first, third and seventh in those events.
“The character in the track continues to change and the bumps — last year especially the bumps were as big as I’ve ever seen them,” Johnson said. “The paving seams are very sensitive to run your right-side tires on.”
The track typically is a good one for Hendrick Motorsports, but only Johnson (fourth) and Gordon (sixth) will start in the top-10.
“I love this track,” Gordon said. “This is so much fun to drive with all the different grooves and lanes you can run on.
“And I think you’ll hear that across the board — I’m just having a lot of fun.”
Typically the drivers up front are the ones having the fun. But the ones in the back actually see potential for fun compared to some other tracks.
“There’s plenty of opportunity to pass here at this race track, so I’m not too worried about it,” said Vickers, who will start 19th.
Ryan Newman, who will start 16th, also sees potential for a fun race.
“It’s got a lot of character,” Newman said about the track. “So many race tracks now are repaved and have no character so to speak with bumps and things like that.
“We can move around the race track a good bit and have some fun.” #NFB