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Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway marked the final chapter in 26 years of NASCAR Cup Series racing at the Southern California track.

Although NASCAR and ACS are expected to build a new short track in place of the familiar 2-mile oval, which will soon be destroyed, it just won’t be the same.

But before we bid a full farewell to ACS as we know it, let’s take one last look back over more than two-and-a-half decades of racing at the popular venue by remembering five races that’ll live on forever in the minds of those who participated in them or witnessed them.

The 1997 California 500 Presented By NAPA

The inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway took place on June 22, 1997, in front of a jam-packed grandstand full of onlookers eager for NASCAR to take center stage in Southern California.

Fittingly, the day belonged to then-one-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon — a native of Vallejo, California — who led 113 of 250 laps in his rainbow-colored No. 24 Chevrolet on the way to a 1.074-second victory over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte.

Although Gordon spent a portion of his childhood in Pittsboro, Indiana, he was born in the Golden State and will always consider California home. Gordon would go on to win the second of his four Cup Series championships that season and his victory at Auto Club only helped the cause.

The 2002 NAPA Auto Parts 500

A star was born, so to speak, on April 28, 2002, when Jimmie Johnson — a NASCAR Cup Series neophyte looking to prove himself in NASCAR’s big leagues — went to Victory Late for the first time at the Cup level.

The site of Johnson’s maiden win? Auto Club Speedway, a track in his home state of California and less than two hours down the road from his hometown of El Cajon.

No one knew it at the time, of course, but Johnson would eventually claim 83 wins and a record-tying seven championships as a full-time Cup Series driver for Hendrick Motorsports. But the first real indication of how successful Johnson might be came at ACS, where he led 62 of 250 laps is his No. 48 Lowe’s-sponsored Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and took the checkered flag just over sixth-tenths of a second ahead of runner-up Kurt Busch.

The 2005 Sony HD 500

As a NASCAR Cup Series rookie in 2005, Kyle Busch didn’t immediately find his way to Victory Lane — as he has a total of 225 times across NASCAR’s top three divisions.

No, like many newcomers to the highest level of professional stock car racing, he needed some time to learn to ropes.

But finally, on September 4, it all came together for Busch, who piloted his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to a dominant triumph at Auto Club Speedway, where he paced the field for 95 of 254 laps.

Busch, who left Hendrick Motorsports at the end of 2007 for Joe Gibbs Racing, has since added four more wins to his Auto Club resume — the most recent of them coming Sunday in his second start with Richard Childress Racing and the final race on the track’s 2-mile configuration.

The 2011 Auto Club 400

A native of Bakersfield, California, Kevin Harvick earned just one win in 29 NASCAR Cup Series starts at the only Cup Series oval track in his home state.

That single victory couldn’t have happened in any more thrilling fashion, however. 

Trailing fellow Californian Jimmie Johnson on the white-flag lap, Harvick reached the bumper of the No. 48 Chevrolet coming down the backstretch and gently pushed Johnson off into Turn 3 just enough to make Johnson lose a little momentum. Although Johnson never lost control or even wiggled, Harvick managed to maneuver his way past on the outside of turns 3 and 4 and edge Johnson at the finish line by .144 seconds.

In a race dominated by Kyle Busch, Harvick led only one lap, but it was the only one that truly counted.

The 2013 Auto Club 400

Hands down, the wildest and most contentious finish in Auto Club Speedway history came on March 24, 2013, when Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and former JGR driver turned Team Penske wheelman Joey Logano banged together in the final corner, allowing Kyle Busch to power past both cars on the outside and cruise to the checkered flag.

The contact between Hamlin and Logano, which started when Logano moved up the track into Hamlin, sent Logano into the outside wall and sent Hamlin sliding down the track straight for the inside wall, which his No. 11 Toyota struck head-on with so much force that it momentarily lifted the vehicle off the ground.

Hamlin suffered a fractured L1 vertebra in the crash, causing him to miss the next four races, but he wasn’t the only driver who left Auto Club Speedway less than pleased with Logano. 

Also upset with the youngster from Middletown, Connecticut, was three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, who parked his car next to Logano’s on pit road after the race and began throwing punches in Logano’s direction to express his displeasure over being blocked on a late restart.

“The dumb little [expletive] runs us clear down to the infield,” a steaming Stewart told FOX Sports’ Steve Byrnes in a live post-race interview that you can watch in the video below. “He wants to [expletive] about everybody else, and he’s the one that drives like a little [expletive]. I’m going to bust his ass.”

Talk about an unforgettable finish.


Commercial Tracker: 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway