NASCAR goes Hollywood with young drivers leading the way
FONTANA, Calif. (AP) Ryan Blaney already had his Hollywood moment earlier in the week when he got a photo with actress Daisy Ridley at a Lakers game.
''She had no idea who I was,'' Blaney said with a grin. ''I wasn't going to be like, `Hey, I drive race cars.' You can't do that. That's not cool. ... We didn't really talk that much. I was just trying not to sweat profusely and make a fool out of myself.''
Hopefully the up-and-coming NASCAR driver is a bit smoother on the track at Fontana when he attempts to make another West Coast memory Sunday.
He's in the middle of a crowded field led by pole-sitter Kyle Larson, while defending champion Jimmie Johnson will be charging up from 37th in his backup car.
Between those two Californians, Blaney will attempt to continue his strong start. He is one of several youngsters making an impact early in the season for NASCAR, which can always use some new blood.
''It's cool to see some younger drivers running very well,'' said Blaney, who finished second at Daytona and seventh at Las Vegas in his Wood Brothers Racing Ford. ''I think we've hit on a lot of those goals that we had, while we're still getting better and better. But it's nice to have a good start right away. Hopefully we can keep getting better and keep the momentum rolling.''
While NASCAR's aging fan base and regional appeal have been scrutinized this season, the sport's transition toward a younger demographic is exemplified by the show going on outside Auto Club Speedway this weekend: Monster Energy drink, the Cup series' new title sponsor, is putting on a showcase featuring motocross, stunt truck drivers and other action sports-related fun.
Cars going over 180 mph also should be appealing to that demographic, and NASCAR usually delivers a solid race when it closes out its West Coast swing on the well-aged asphalt of the 2-mile track built by Roger Penske. The former California Speedway opened 20 years ago, and its anniversary race should feature the same four-wide racing that made it famous.
''It's always a lot of fun to go to a worn-out surface,'' said Larson, the overall points leader despite not winning a race or even a stage. ''Fontana is one of my favorites, because there are so many different lanes to choose from and the seams are tricky. It's a super-wide race track, and you can run anywhere from the bottom to the top. Got to be conservative on your tires and be patient against the wall, but also aggressive. It's an intense race track.''
Here are some other things to watch when the stars who like cars gather one hour east of Hollywood:
CALIFORNIA LOVE: Larson is on the pole for just the second time in his career after three consecutive second-place finishes in NASCAR's last three races. While the Northern California native might be the hottest driver on the circuit, nobody wins at Fontana like Johnson, the Southern Californian with a record six victories here - including last season, when he charged past Kevin Harvick in overtime.
LATE START: Johnson wrecked in practice Friday, and crew chief Chad Knaus decided not to attempt to qualify in the backup car. The seven-time series champion driver doesn't appear worried about the distance he'll have to cover just to have a chance, but he isn't the only contender starting from the back. Joey Logano will be in 35th after failing to put together a qualifying lap.
SILVER MEDALS: No driver has finished second in four straight races since Mark Martin in 1998. Larson would prefer the win, but he's also pleased by his consistency at the start of his fourth full Cup season.
BUSCH LEAGUE: Kyle Busch is a strong contender for another title at Fontana, where he won back-to-back races in 2013 and 2014 to cap four consecutive top-three finishes at the track. Busch also was leading late at Phoenix last week, but Logano, his old buddy, forced a yellow flag and likely cost him the race.
JUNIOR'S MILESTONE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will become just the 25th driver in NASCAR history to start 600 races. He has run well at Fontana, particularly in recent years, but has never won here.
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