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Cole Custer looking for a strong start at Auto Club Speedway

FONTANA — Cole Custer needs to get out to a fast start in 2023. Right now, the rain isn’t helping.

“They said this is a record amount of rain and snow for February, so it’s pretty crazy to happen this weekend,” Custer said Friday from Auto Club Speedway.

The Ladera Ranch native was the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series rookie of the year but he’s back in the second-tier Xfinity Series this season, racing in the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang in Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 (2 p.m. on FS1).

“As drivers, you get used to the hurry-up-and-wait,” Custer said. “We’re just waiting it out and seeing what the weather looks like and if anything they’ll delay us to another day.”

Champing at the bit to get out on the 2-mile tri-oval one more time, Custer expressed disappointment in the proposed changes to the primary race shape at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s sad. This track is one of the best that we go to,” Custer said. “Every single driver looks forward to coming here because it is so racy. We wish we could keep it going. It’s the track I went to as a 5-year-old, asking for autographs from drivers, so it’s always been a special for me.”

Owner of one Cup Series win and one serious fine, Custer, 25, knows this season is pivotal for his career.

“It’s going to be a year of growth I think (and) I’m hoping to win a lot of races this season and that gets you in a lot of good conversations in order to get back (to the Cup Series),” Custer said.

Seen as an industry prodigy, Custer’s father, Joe Custer, is the team president of Stewart-Haas Racing and the chief operating officer of Haas F1 Team.

“I’ve obviously been lucky enough to grow up around it and start racing at 5, and it’s all you know,” Custer said. “From the time I was little, I was racing go-carts and quarter midgets, and it’s always been what I’ve loved to do.”

After growing up racing locally at Irwindale Speedway, Perris Auto Speedway and Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, Custer became the youngest NASCAR Truck Series winner as a 16-year-old in 2014.

When he turned 18, Custer was driving the No. 00 truck full time for JR Motorsports, co-owned by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and living in North Carolina.

“You just try to learn as much as you can at every step,” he said.

He made the switch to the Xfinity Series and from 2017-19 scored 10 checkered flags, including wins at Fontana, Richmond, Pocono, Chicago, Kentucky and Dover in 2019.

Stewart-Haas Racing made the move to replace Daniel Suarez with Custer in the No. 41 Ford in 2020, and Custer because the first series rookie to win a Cup Series race since 2016 by passing and holding off Martin Truex Jr. at the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

Following a string of inconsistent results in 2021, Custer returned to the Xfinity Series with SS-Green Light Racing last year at Auto Club Speedway and won the race after leading for 80 laps.

In October, Custer and crew chief Mike Shiplett were fined $100,000 for allegedly slowing down to impede other drivers and assist teammate Chase Briscoe on the last lap of the Charlotte race. In November, Stewart-Haas announced that Ryan Preece was replacing Custer in the No. 41 and Custer would move back to the Xfinity Series driving a second full-time car behind the No. 00 for SHR.

“There have been times when things have been going good and times where it was a roller-coaster, so it’s just a matter of getting back to what you know how to do and getting some confidence, getting a feel for the cars and what you need,” Custer said. “The guys I’m working with are great, so I’m looking forward to hopefully starting strong here in Fontana.”

Speedway land sale reported

On Friday, Sport Business Journal reported that NASCAR had closed on a “major real-estate deal” of hundreds of acres of land on a northern parcel of Auto Club Speedway.

According to SBJ, the identity of the purchaser is unclear but a deed has been filed to San Bernardino County indicating California Speedway Corp., owned by NASCAR, stating a closed sale for 433 of the 522-acre site.

SBJ revealed in March 2020 that NASCAR was working to sell, and a nine-figure price tag is expected.

NASCAR has retained the rest of the site but has informed its fan base and industry partners that this weekend will be the last as the track currently stands.

Harvick to make 750th start

Kevin Harvick is scheduled to make his 750th consecutive Cup Series start in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (12:30 p.m. on FOX).

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Harvick considers Auto Club Speedway his home track, having won there in 2011 and recorded five top 10s in his last seven races at ACS.

The Bakersfield native was the 2014 Cup Series champion and owns 60 wins in 22 years. He has said this will be his final full-time season as a Cup driver.

Harvick is third all-time in consecutive starts behind retired drivers Jeff Gordon (797) and Ricky Rudd (788).

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