FONTANA, Calif. - The COVID-altered NASCAR schedule since 2020 had the sport bypassing the Auto Club Speedway until this weekend, when the rumbling sound of stock car racing has returned.
Thousands of fans are coming to the 2-mile oval, some from the Central Coast.
Saturday's practice, qualifying and Xfinity race set the stage for the Sunday Wise 400 Cup Series race.
Mike Bethel from Lompoc and friend Owen Dillon from Santa Barbara arrived early and had bought a special pit pass to get access to areas where drivers and their cars are moving back and forth from the garage to the track. They hung out to get pictures and found themselves with many loyal fans seeking the same, along with autographs.
"You're so behind the scenes, you can't do that in any other major sport," said Bechtol who met his favorite driver Kevin Harvick of Bakersfield. "Some guys will hang out and talk to you, some guys got to go."
Dillon is a newer fan and is wide open on the driver or drivers he will cheer for. "Oh yea it is nice to be back at a place that is open again, and very good to be around other people (like race fans)," he said. When it comes to seeing the drivers so close, "it is the best sport in the world for that."
They were at the track two years ago and have been going off and on for more than 20 years. "We were here in 2020 before the pandemic hit," said Bethel. "We were waiting two years to come back."
CUSTER WINS Xfinity race
Cole Custer from Ladera Ranch in nearby Orange County, held on through four late-race restarts due to crashes, and three overtimes to win the Production Alliance Group 300 Xfinity race. The added time for the race sent it into the sunset and the track lights were turned on, something that rarely happens for a race that started in the early afternoon.
It was the second win for Custer at the track. His prior victory was in 2019.
The runner-up Noah Gragson crossed the finish line .565 seconds behind Custer..
The final laps of the race had a turn four crash that sent the car of Brandon Jones sideways into the protective sand barrels at the entrance to pit road, and they erupted.
Between the mangled car and the sand all over, it was more of a clean up than the crews are used to.
He said racing Xfinity will help him with the Cup car, even though that car is completely different with the new design features this year. Understanding the track though, was vital. “What lines worked and didn't and what lines are worked in,” Custer said. “They are really different race cars. Those cup cars are on the edge."
Custer said he loved the racing surface. "I've always liked wore out, faster tracks which unfortunately we don't go to anymore."
The Stewart-Haas sponsored driver is not only close to the home where he grew up, but also near the Haas Automation facility in Oxnard. Many employees will be at the track this weekend.
Custer also recalled coming to the track for the first time when he was five years old. He is now 24.
AUSTIN CINDRIC WINS THE POLE
After winning the Daytona 500 last week, Austin Cindric continued his surprise start to the season by taking the pole position for the Wise Power 400 race Sunday.
As a rookie, and with a newer designed car, "there's so much learning, there's so much going on, and it is all happening really fast," said Cindric.
Some of the drivers in practice damaged their cars and Cindric said that put them in a "pretty tough place."
With his success in qualifying he said, "it is an awesome way to start things out."
There was only a short practice period and "there's a lot we don't know right now," said Cindric.
He also reveled after the Daytona victory he received a phone message from racing legend, A.J. Foyt who congratulated him on the win, 50 years after Foyt saw the checkered flags at that track.
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