Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – There was a time in NASCAR history when heading West felt like a bit like entering foreign ground. But fast-forward to modern day in the sport, and California boasts a full lineup of natives eager to make good in front of the home town crowd at Auto Club Speedway this weekend.
Kevin Harvick, who is looking to win his fourth consecutive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race trophy in Sunday afternoon’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), is from Bakersfield, Calif. He raced in a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race Thursday night near his hometown at Kern County Raceway to the thrill of thousands of his supporters — essentially getting them revved for the big Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity weekend.
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson – the all-time wins leader at Auto Club (six victories) — hails from down south in El Cajon. Talented newcomer Kyle Larson is from Elk Grove near Sacramento. Longtime fan favorite A.J. Allmendinger grew up in Los Gatos – outside the Bay area near the Santa Cruz Mountains. And Matthew DiBenedetto grew up in Nevada City, also near Sacramento.
“I feel good about it,” Johnson said of his chances on the two-mile Auto Club Speedway.
“This is such a fun track. We’ve all seen this place evolve in the multiple lanes of racing. The character of the track has the bumps, the tire wear, and puts on a great show. So, I’m excited to be back at my home track, as well, the place of my very first win and not a better place to get my 84th (win).”
Cole Custer leads a sizable Cali contingent in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The Ladera Ranch native is one of four Californians entered in this weekend’s Roseanne 300 in Fontana. Rookie Tyler Reddick, of Corning, is second in the points standings. And Dylan Lupton, of Wilton and Ryan Reed, of Bakersfield are looking for Xfinity wins in their home state as well. It would be a first for all four drivers.
For the 20-year old Custer, in particular, the trip home has been an opportunity to give back to his state and celebrate a homecoming in ways unlike any he’s experienced in NASCAR’s big leagues.
For starters, Custer helped present a massive $7 million gift on behalf of his team owner Gene Haas’s Foundation – the money going to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education in California schools. It was only two years ago that Custer himself was in high school and he is keenly aware what a difference this generous donation can mean.
“It was an amazing experience because we were able to give back to something that directly impacts students trying to apply themselves to STEM-related jobs,” said Custer, who finished 35th in his Xfinity Series debut at California Speedway last year.
“The Gene Haas Foundation donated $7 million to STEM students and schools. Being a Haas CNC machinist seems like an incredible opportunity in the workforce and it’s great to be able to say you had a hand in helping students steer their paths in that direction.”
And for the first time, there are race tickets available specifically to celebrate Custer’s homecoming. The “Welcome Home Cole Custer” ticket package includes a $10 ticket to the California 300, a free No. 00 hat and signed hero card, and admission to a question-and-answer showcase with Custer in the Fan Zone. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.AutoClubSpeedway.com/Cole.
“It’s just cool to be a part of something like this because it shows how much support you can get from your local community,” Custer said. “It’s only $10 and you get a ton of free things and a great experience. It gives me extra motivation to get out there and bring the Haas Automation Ford to Victory Lane for my hometown fans.”
“I can’t wait to hit the track this weekend and see what we can put together. Last year, we had a great car and the Haas Automation team found a lot of speed. We just have to stay out of trouble and be there in the end this time.
“A win here would be special to me because I’ll have a lot of friends and family out at the track cheering me on. It’s also Haas Automation’s home track, so getting a win in their backyard would be incredible.”
His competitor Ryan Reed would strongly agree. His hometown of Bakersfield is actually a racing breeding ground – from Harvick to IndyCar’s legendary champion Mears family, which hails from the small community too.
“For me coming here is really important,” Reed said. “I remember watching my dad race here in the K&N West Series. … it’s kind of one of my early childhood memories I have of being at the race track and really loving the sport and knowing this is really what I want to do with my life.
“So being able to come here and race and have so many friends and family from Bakersfield come up it’s just really special to me. Knowing how passionate all the race fans in Bakersfield are. It’s just really cool for me to get to see it and reconnect with them.”