Young­sters lead way as NASCAR goes Hol­ly­wood

The Washington Post Sunday - - NCAA TOURNAMENT - BY GREG BEACHAM

fontana, calif. — Ryan Blaney al­ready had his Hol­ly­wood mo­ment ear­lier in the week when he got a photo with ac­tress Daisy Ri­d­ley at a Los An­ge­les Lak­ers game.

“She had no idea who I was,” Blaney said with a grin. “I wasn’t go­ing to be like, ‘Hey, I drive race­cars.’ 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 at Auto Club Speed­way in Fontana — one hour east of Hol­ly­wood — 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 37 th in his backup car.

Be­tween those two Cal­i­for­ni­ans, Blaney will try 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.”

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 NASCAR 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 two-mile track built by Roger Penske. The ex-Cal­i­for­nia Speed­way opened 20 years ago, and its an­niver­sary race should fea­ture the same four­wide 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 an in­tense race­track.”

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.

XFIN­ITY SE­RIES: Lar­son held off Joey Logano on the fi­nal lap to win Satur­day’s race at Auto Club Speed­way, plac­ing first in the Xfin­ity event at Fontana for the sec­ond time in his Chip Ganassi Rac­ing Chevro­let.

Kyle Busch was third, with Erik Jones in fourth and rookie Wil­liam By­ron in fifth.

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