CONCORD, N.C. – Crew chief Rudy Fugle loves the challenge of going to Auto Club Speedway. The venue is in his words "one-of-a-kind."
"It’s an amazing racetrack from a crew chief’s perspective," Fugle told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. "It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you see your driver going that fast getting off into the corners. Knowing that you have that little grip with so many lanes to run. I’m always so excited to get out there. You get butterflies in your stomach even watching the first round of practice. It makes it exciting."
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With how wide the track is, drivers have the option to run a variety of lanes. The older, worn surface also places an extra premium on managing your tires during short runs and throughout the event.
"You have to be able to manage all of the lanes," Fugle said. "You have to run the bottom, especially on new tires. Through the middle part of the run, you definitely have to work the top and then as you get really old tires, there are guys that can run the bottom again and the apron as well as the seams.
"It’s a driver’s track, if you can give them a balance that they can maneuver. You have to be in that box, not too loose, not too tight. If you can do that and give them a car they can feel and use the steering wheel and the throttle, the driver can do a lot of things."
In last year’s race, Fugle’s driver William Byron earned top-10 finishes in both stages and was contending for the win. However, a flat tire took him out of the lead on Lap 152 and led to a 34th-place finish after contact with Tyler Reddick.
Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway will mark the end of an era for the facility. This will be the final race on the 2-mile configuration of the track. Earlier this month, track president Dave Allen announced that the facility will not be on the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series schedule as work will be continuing to turn the venue into a half-mile track.
On the 2-mile iteration of Auto Club, Hendrick Motorsports has achieved great success. The organization’s 12 wins are the most in the series. Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson have won the last two Cup Series races there in 2020 and 2022, respectively. The track did not host a race in 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
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"We seem to be really good on those style racetracks," Larson said. "It’s a place that I really love. The line changes. The tires wear out. I remember last year you could draft pretty well down the straightaways. That was a fun race last year. Hopefully, we can be fast again and win in my home state again."
In the 2022 race, Larson started at the back for unapproved adjustments as the team had to fix an electrical issue. By Lap 74, he found himself at the front of the field but it was in the closing 34 laps where he really surged. The 2021 champion led 27 of the final 34 laps – including the final seven – to hold off Austin Dillon and Daniel Suarez for the victory. The win was the second at the California track for the Elk Grove native.
The 2020 event saw Bowman dominate the field, leading 110 laps to score his second victory in the Cup Series. He qualified third in the race and never seemed to be outside of the top-three positions all race long. The Tucson, Arizona, native led 62 of the final 68 laps on the afternoon to secure the win.
In addition to those wins, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch each earned their first Cup Series wins at this track for Hendrick Motorsports. Those wins were also the first for crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Alan Gustafson, respectively. Johnson’s six wins at Auto Club are the most in track history. Jeff Gordon, who now works as the team’s vice chairman, won the first race here in 1997 and has three wins at the facility.
Tune in to watch the second Cup Series race of the season – from Auto Club – at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).