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Auto Club Speedway transforms from detested to admired

The Southern California track has evolved into one of NASCAR’s best speedways where good racing is now the norm not the exception.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

When conceptualized Auto Club Speedway, located in Fontana, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, and built during the track building boom of the 1990s, was supposed to represent NASCAR's beachhead in its return to Southern California after nearly a decades' absence. A gateway into Hollywood and a further avenue into the American conscious.

Before a packed grandstand, the 2-mile venue hosted its first Cup Series race in 1997 and sellouts would follow in the seven subsequent years. The success during ACS's early years made it the personification of the kind of track proliferating across the schedule of NASCAR's premier division -- modern, intermediately sized and within a major media market outside the sport's southeast base.

That stock car racing had a foothold in the country's second largest media market helped propel NASCAR to astronomical television ratings and a place alongside the NBA, NFL and MLB in the sports hierarchy.

But similar to many fads that consume Los Angeles, the track that was once viewed as a trendsetter regularly failed to produce the kind of excitement fans expected and swaths of empty seats became the norm. As its size and a slick surface generated high speeds, ACS races too often saw cars strung out and drivers challenged to run in close proximity.

Instead of ACS becoming a Hollywood blockbuster, it became the prototypical bomb. Its reputation further sullied when NASCAR in 2004 took away Darlington (S.C.) Raceway's revered Labor Day weekend date and awarded it to the Southern California track.

That Darlington, NASCAR's oldest speedway, where exceptional racing was the rule, could be pushed aside for an inferior imitation irked many longtime fans who felt the sanctioning body was turning its back on its roots. And as NASCAR's national popularity begin to wane, ACS became the symbol of what ailed the sport -- tracks that may have had an abundance of bells and whistles but no character.

ACS's popularity diminished to such an extent, NASCAR deemed it not deserving of possessing a coveted holiday date in 2009. Two years later its second race was gone altogether, transferred to Kansas Speedway,

Yet on the dawn of hosting its now lone NASCAR weekend, the track formerly derided for its dullness enjoys a vastly different standing among fans and competitors alike. Although it took longer than expected, ACS has evolved into one of the more anticipated events on the calendar.

"The narrative on who we are, what we are and the product that we have in front of fans has changed drastically over the last 10 years," ACS president Dave Allen told SB Nation. "And it's very much in a positive light by fans and drivers. That public perception means a lot."

The catalyst for that transformation is the same factor that made ACS so scorned -- its quality of racing. A changing perception best exemplified by four of its past five races being decided by a last lap pass for the lead. The only exception was the rain-shortened 2012 event.

Prompting the significantly improved racing is that unlike the majority of the 23 tracks on the Cup, ACS has not undergone a repave. A surface previously slick and not conducive to anything but single-file parades has aged like a fine wine, now affording drivers multiple grooves to run side-by-side. Whereas tire wear was once virtually nonexistent, the coarse asphalt emphasizes one's ability to manage their tires.

Accordingly, fans have responded. Each of the past two years have featured a capacity crowd of 70,000 and Sunday's race is flirting with another sellout. Considering the surplus of options in Southern California, a date that falls on spring break, a still rehabilitating reputation, and NASCAR struggling to sell tickets across the board, solidifies ACS's rebound.

"We've always thought we got something to offer here, but there is no doubt the racing we've had the last few years has produced a demand," Allen said. "I just think years ago when he did have longer races -- we shortened it by 100 miles -- and the cars have changed, the tires have changed and the track has changed with seams and bumps and has character and it's just equated into a fantastic race. That makes people go home and talk about us."

Fans are not alone in praising the track stationed on the site of a former steel mill, with drivers openly expressing their fondness for competing at ACS.

"You can race on the top. You can race on the bottom," Kevin Harvick said. "I think it's going to be pretty exciting. I know all the drivers seem to be really excited about it."

Expectations of what awaits Sunday is heightened by the early success of the low downforce aerodynamic package introduced prior to the season, which accompanied with a softer tire compound featuring falloff over long green-flag runs, has made passing less arduous.

"As you look at that particular race, that's been one of our best races over the years," Kevin Harvick said. "I think every driver in the garage is looking forward to racing this particular package at (ACS) -- there's been a lot of chatter about it."

Good racing. Aura of positivity. Energized fan base. Although it may have taken some time, ACS has matured into the exact kind of facility NASCAR intended.