By Cole Cusumano
Auto Club Speedway return has received warm welcomes across NASCAR, but a few drivers, a pit stop in Fontana, California hits closer to home.
A lot has changed in the 727 days since California natives Kevin Harvick and Tyler Reddick turned laps at Auto Club. Jimmie Johnson moved to IndyCar, Hendrick Motorsports won back-to-back titles and the NASCAR Cup Series held an exhibition race in Los Angeles at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.
As far as this weekend goes, it’s one big enigma. In addition to running a brand new car, resin is being applied to the surface and some of the trademark Fontana bumps have been grinded down. All of this is on top of not competing at the two-mile track since 2020.
“It’s interesting, because I think as you go to a race track that you haven’t been to in a little while, you obviously have a lot of questions,” Harvick told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “It could be pretty exciting.”
Although Harvick’s town of Bakersfield sits over 150 miles away from Fontana, any race held in your home state is important nonetheless. The 2014 Champion won at the two-mile track in 2011 and added five more top-10s to his resume since then.
Something that has Harvick and most of the garage on edge this weekend are the new practice and qualifying formats in place for 2022. Practice will be split into two groups (A and B) and both will have one-15-minute session to get their machines dialed in before jumping directly into single-car qualifying.
“You’re going to get 14 or 15 laps if you run the whole practice session this week at California,” Harvick said. “It’s a very, very limited amount of practice. It’s better than none; I can tell you that. You have a really, really short window to make some adjustments before you go right back out on the race track and qualify.”
Teams have little margin for error with the new, condensed weekend schedules. While unloading a quick car will be important, it’s also beneficial to have a good handle on that track you’re competing at – especially when the sport hasn’t been there since 2020.
Corning-born Reddick is always a threat at Fontana. Although only one Cup start at the two-mile track, the 26-year-old’s aggressive driving style is able to flourish by riding the high-line inches from the wall.
Much like Kyle Larson, who won at Fontana in 2017, drivers with dirt racing backgrounds typically excel at high speed, multi-lane tracks like Auto Club. This could set Reddick up for a big day in his home state.
“I’m really excited, because (Fontana’s) been a track where my aggressive nature has been good for me,” Reddick told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “You can move around on the race track a lot, it’s an old surface with a lot of character, but it is a brand new car and you really can’t bring in a lot of previous knowledge. You don’t want to set up too many predeterminations before you even get there with this car.
“We just need to go in there with an open mind and be ready for anything.”
Entering his third full-time Cup season, Reddick has seen his fair share of success and he understands the standard of excellence required to ensure good results. With three-career runner-ups, he also knows all too well how races can slip away.
He’s anticipating the WISE Power 400 will be a gridiron come February 27.
“Races seem to be won based on execution there,” Reddick said. “You’ve gotta have everything to win at Fontana. You’ve gotta be comfortable moving around when the tires go away, you have to be aggressive and know where to put your car throughout any stage of a run (there).”
Reddick has been vocal in his praise for Auto Club, which is why he was ecstatic the Cup Series was returning to the two-mile facility and not the proposed short track for 2022.
NASCAR has intentions of breaking away from the current, abrasive Auto Club and reshaping it into a short track like Martinsville Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. Like many things planning and development were affected by COVID-19, bringing a halt to the proposal.
Although only 26 years old with three national series starts at Auto Club, Reddick has strong opinions on whether or not NASCAR should carry out their plans.
“If it was me, I would never let that track get torn down, even if we stopped racing on it.,” Reddick said. “I hate seeing these tracks whenever their time has come getting bulldozed and nothing’s left to even really mark that it was ever there. But, these big race tracks take up a lot of space, a lot of land and that land is valuable, especially in a place like Los Angeles.
“I understand you want to make use of the space that’s there, but (Fontana’s) been home to a lot of great racing and that track’s got a lot of character in it – it’s got a lot of life left in it.”
At 46 years old, Harvick has more history with Auto Club Speedway. He’s been racing at the current Fontana-based track since 2000 and has a combined 30 top-10s across NASCAR’s national series.
As an ambassador for the sport, Harvick doesn’t have much emotional attachment to Auto Club Speedway, even if it is in his home state. While he enjoys the glory that comes with winning at a driver’s track like Fontana, he wants what’s best for NASCAR’s future.
“I think that evolution has started to cycle through our sport with the short tracks and road courses compared to the 1.5-mile, bigger race tracks,” Harvick said. “When you look at the possibilities of California going to a short track, there’s just a number of boxes that it checks.”
Auto Club Speedway’s future may be up in the air, but for now spectators and teams are just enjoying the sport’s return to the revered venue. Both Harvick and Reddick failed to place above 30th in the season opener and will look to get back on track in their home state this weekend.