Auto Club Speedway is a real last-of-its-kind on the NASCAR circuit. The old asphalt and low banking makes it one of the most challenging places to visit all season, both for the drivers and the teams setting up the cars.
But, like the old Atlanta, Texas, or Chicagoland, which were either reconfigured or dropped altogether, Auto Club Speedway is on its way out. NASCAR may not have any plans to leave the track altogether, but it certainly won’t look the same after this race.
“Bittersweet” is how Cole Custer described the feeling heading into Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
He said that’s because the track is “just so fun from a driver’s standpoint. It’s so slick and worn out. It’s rough and you just bounce around. You can run wherever on the racetrack, especially with the Next Gen car. I thought that it was just a really good racetrack for these cars, so I’m bummed we didn’t get more time to race it as is.”
“It’s one of my favorite tracks to go to just because I feel like that’s one of the tracks where a driver can make quite a bit of a difference, so I’ll be sad to see it go. But,” he acknowledged, “if it becomes a short track, that may not be so bad. We don’t have a short track out West, so that would give us some variety during the West Coast swing.”
On the other hand, last year’s winner Kyle Larson is ready for the bulldozers. Not only do two-mile tracks hamper visibility for fans, he argues, but “short tracks produce exciting racing, exciting finishes, tempers, stuff like that. I’m a proponent of making it a short track, and I think we need more of them.”
Regardless of the fate of the track, the season rolls on. Larson will be looking to find victory lane again on Sunday, but so will a familiar face: Kyle Busch, who’s now in an unfamiliar Richard Childress ride. Busch has won three of the last nine races at the track, the best record of any driver in the field.
This race comes off the back of the Daytona 500, too, and as ever, drivers will be hoping to regroup and reestablish a good position in the points after superspeedway chaos. Some drivers just need the momentum of a solid finish.
That’s not Martin Truex. He’s had plenty of solid finishes, but now he really wants a win. He says that scoring the win in the non-points-paying Clash at the beginning of the season helped his confidence after not winning last year despite a strong season.
“Points or whatever, it’s a big deal,” he admitted. “Winning in the Cup Series is a big deal. It’s a big win. Going winless last year and then to be able to go out and do that, it’s huge for us, it’s huge for me. I feel so good about our team and what we’re doing and what we can do. We showed that last year at times but not consistently enough.”
For two drivers, though, there’s the added motivation of a home track race. Kevin Harvick is a Southern California native who developed his driving talents in the local racing scene there.
“It’s in my home state, and every year you go there, you want to win the race,” he said, “because you’ve got a lot of family and a lot of friends there, along with a lot of race fans who have come there to watch you race.” But, he acknowledges, “On the Cup side, I’ve only gotten to do that one time,” which of course is “not as much as I’d like.”
It’s also a home race, or at least an adopted one, for Daniel Suarez. The driver from Monterey, Mexico, said that” racing in Los Angeles is similar to racing at home. There are a lot of Hispanics here, so it’s extra exciting for me to race here, where I can call it almost home.”
Cole Custer grew up just about 70 miles from the speedway, making him a local boy himself. He has a great record at his home track, winning two of the last three Xfinity Series races, giving him an impressive average finish of 3.3 in four starts.
He’s got to be the favorite Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 (5 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) in his return to full-time Xfinity Series racing after a three-year stint in the Cup Series.
He’s still driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, but now in the new 00 Xfinity program, which is a new team. He was happy with their performance at Daytona as a marker for success this season.
“We didn’t have any problems,” he said. “We had good speed. As a new team with new guys all working together, it’s really nice to have a smooth weekend and have things work out good.”
Of this race: “I always look forward to Fontana,” said Custer. “It’s always been a good track to me, and we’ve obviously won two races there in the Xfinity car. It’s always been one of my favorite tracks, because it’s fast, it’s worn out, you’re slipping and sliding around.”
“You have a lot of options as a driver,” he added, “so you’re able to figure out something better than the next guy, and how to get around them. It’s always been a fun track to me and coming back home means a ton, too.”
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