Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – FONTANA, CA – For the first time in his NASCAR Cup Series career, 26-year old Ryan Blaney is leading the championship driver standings – a runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500 coupled with an 11th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday have him in the best shape of his young career.
The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford shows up for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) having scored top-10 finishes in the last three races there, but he faces a large and talented group of California drivers eager to please their home state fans.
Jimmie Johnson, of El Cajon; Kevin Harvick, of Bakersfield; Kyle Larson, of Elk Grove; Matt DiBenedetto, of Grass Valley; Tyler Reddick of Corning and Cole Custer, of Ladera Ranch all count this week’s stop – about an hour east of Los Angeles – as their venue to shine in front of family, friends and neighbors.
Each of these California-raised drivers brings a distinctive storyline to the home track this week – an unmistakable homecoming presence throughout Sunday’s starting grid.
For the retiring Johnson, obviously, this will be the final Auto Club Speedway race of his seven-time championship career. And the track is ready to commemorate the certain NASCAR Hall of Famer. One of Johnson’s best friends and earliest mentors, motocross champion Rick Johnson will drive the pace car and Johnson’s wife Chandra and two daughters, Genevieve and Lydia, will serve as the race’s Honorary Starters.
For most of the track’s existence they’ve had plenty to cheer for. Johnson is Auto Club Speedway’s all-time winningest driver with six victories. He’s led more laps (980) than any driver and since 2005, leads the grid in driver rating (114.0), average running position (7.271) and laps in the top 15 (88.3 percent).
Auto Club Speedway is the closest NASCAR Cup Series venue to his hometown El Cajon, located just outside San Diego and fittingly, it is where Johnson claimed his first series trophy in 2002. Should he win this weekend in the famed No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Johnson would have 84 career NASCAR Cup Series wins – tying him with legends such as Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Only three other drivers (Jeff Gordon, David Pearson and Richard Petty) have won more races.
And Auto Club Speedway is where Johnson’s tall win column secured its foundation.
“People always ask me what was my most special win or memory,” said Johnson, who is in a three way tie in the series driver standings following a fifth-place finish at Las Vegas last weekend.
“I guess you have to go with the first one and your last one. You never know how these things go.
“That first win in 2002 [at Auto Club Speedway] gave me confidence. It made me realize that I belonged in the NASCAR Cup Series and I would be able to win at this level. I couldn’t have dreamed bigger or imagine things could have gone any better. It will be bittersweet taking the checkered flag this weekend. There will be so many good memories to relive. I can’t wait.”
Joining Johnson in this high-speed homecoming is Kevin Harvick, also a past winner at Auto Club Speedway. He won in 2011 and has 10 top-five finishes in 22 starts. He and Larson the 2014 winner – are the only other California natives, among the active drivers, with a NASCAR Cup Series win at the track.
And Harvick and Larson are the only two drivers with top-10 finishes in the opening two races of the 2020 season. Harvick, who finished fifth in the season-opening Daytona 500 and eighth last week at Las Vegas is third in the standings, only four points behind the leader Blaney. Larson is ranked fourth, 15 points behind Blaney.
That there are so many fellow Californians to contend with for the NASCAR Cup Series championship these days is hardly a surprise – more of an inevitability the way the 2014 champion Harvick sees it.
“I think, when you look at California, there are a lot of racetracks up and down the coast,” Harvick says of his state’s racing roots. “Whether it’s asphalt, dirt tracks, go-kart tracks, there is a well-supported community of racing up and down the state of California, even into Washington and Oregon. As I was coming up, there was the Southwest Tour, Winston West Series, and the (NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors) Trucks that raced on the West Coast a lot. There was also a fairly good following for Late Models.
“It’s always been a well-supported racing area and I was fortunate to grow up in Bakersfield, California, which is a very well-supported racing town no matter what you race. There is a lot of racing. It just took a while for everybody to figure that out.”
MOTIVATED XFINITY SERIES HEADS TO CALIFORNIA
It may be only be the third race of the season, but the competition in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series is already proving to be top-line as drivers head to Auto Club Speedway for Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 (4 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The 21-year old Noah Gragson started the season with a dramatic win at Daytona International Speedway and 25-year old Chase Briscoe answered with a late race rally at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend. With the win, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver Briscoe takes the championship lead by a mere seven-points over the JR Motorsport’s driver Gragson.
Essentially the whole field arrives at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway feeling revitalized and motivated. With no former race winner entered this week, someone is sure to have a huge first celebration in this Californian Victory Lane. And with the thrilling, tight competition in just the season’s opening two races, there’s no overwhelming favorite – just the kind of unpredictable, close-quarter racing that has made this series so popular.
Three drivers have earned top-five finishes in the two season-openers – Briscoe, Gragson and Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Harrison Burton, who scored a career best runner-up finish at Daytona.
And several drivers reaffirmed their championship intentions with impressive runs at Vegas. Runner-up Austin Cindric was a 2019 Xfinity Series Playoff driver and certainly rallied from a disappointing 16th place showing at Daytona. His second-place work at Vegas in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford moved him up 10 positions in the championship standings and he’s now sixth place; 17 points behind the leader Briscoe – his only fellow Ford driver in the field.
Burton, who drives the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is certainly establishing a blistering pace for the rookies this season, but his highly-touted JGR teammate Riley Herbst reminded Burton last week that he’s up for the challenge. The first-year Xfinity Series driver’s ninth place in his hometown Las Vegas race moved Herbst from 30th place to 16th in the standings. This will be his Auto Club Speedway debut.
One of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, Ross Chastain, also turned in a Las Vegas points rally. His 10th place finish moved him from 20th place in the standings to 11th. He will be competing in both races this weekend, filling in for the injured Ryan Newman in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race and continuing his work toward a NASCAR title in the Xfinity Series race on Saturday. In five previous Auto Club Speedway starts, his best Xfinity race finish is 10th in 2018.