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Cole Custer eager for jump to Xfinity Series with Stewart-Haas Racing

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Cole Custer is in a position that likely makes him the envy of many of his fellow young drivers – not to mention a lot of fans who dream about being race car drivers.

Custer, who turned 19 on Monday, is essentially having a brand new team being built around him. He’s moved up from the Camping World Truck Series (finished 10th last season) to a full-time Xfinity Series ride in 2017.

What’s more, it’s the first time Stewart-Haas Racing has built an Xfinity team since its formation. While Custer’s father, Joe, is former general manager at SHR (he’s now in a similar position with the organization’s Formula One team), this isn’t a case of nepotism.

No, the younger Custer has earned his way into an Xfinity ride with his talent, and it just so happens that it’s with the same team his father is an executive in.

Custer earned two wins, nine top-fives, 24 top-10s and five poles in 42 Truck races over the last three seasons.

He also made five scattered Xfinity starts in 2016, earning one top-five and a pair of top-10 showings.

But now in 2017, Custer moves up to NASCAR’s junior league – comparable to Minor League Baseball’s highest level, Triple-A.

While such a move may intimidate or be heady for another 19-year-old, it’s not for Custer. He’s been around racing his whole life and is ready to step up to the next level.

Even though he admits there will be some things to get used to, he’s up for the challenge. And with a new team that has a lot of experience among its members, Custer is cool, collected and, most importantly, confident.

“Coming from the Truck Series, it’s a new competition level,” he said Tuesday during the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte. “I’m going to have to step up a little bit and it’s going to be a different challenge, but I think we can do it and we have a great team.

Custer is so confident in his own skill and his team’s ability that he’s already upgraded his expectations for the season, not fearful to boldly predict that if everything goes right, the new first-year team could wind up winning the Xfinity Series championship.

“I think so,” Custer said. “We have some great people that are smart and capable enough to do it. “At the start of the year, my expectations are a little bit lower, like just being in the top-10. But from what I’ve seen in the off-season, we have some awesome people that will make some fast cars and I think we’ll have a shot at it.”

Admittedly, there have been growing pains within the new team. While some members are SHR mainstays, there are also several new members to the organization. Trying to get them all to gel and mold together has been a challenge at times.

“It’s definitely been tough,” Custer said. “Our guys are working extremely hard right now, getting cars together. I can’t stress enough how hard they’re working.

“You’re creating a fab shop that never hung Xfinity bodies before. You learn how to do that and everything else that goes with it. It’s not easy but we have some awesome people that are really smart and that are going to get it together, so I think we’re going to have a strong team.”

While Custer has a literal luxury of having the minds of several drivers to draw from – including team co-owner Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick – it’s Kevin Harvick that Custer is leaning upon and trying to learn the most from.

“I’ve related to him more since he runs a lot of Truck and Xfinity races, so he can help with that,” Custer said. “He’s kind of my go-to guy right now, but there’s a lot of great drivers at Stewart-Haas, so if I get a little information from any of them, I think that would be a great thing.”

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Matt Kenseth wrecks out of Auto Club 400 on late restart

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Matt Kenseth crashed out of the Auto Club 400 on a restart with 16 laps remaining in the race at Auto Club Speedway.

Kenseth had restarted fourth following a caution for an incident involving Gray Gaulding.

Kenseth was in the middle groove exiting Turn 2 when he was tapped from behind by Martin Truex Jr. and slid toward the inside wall, which his No. 20 Toyota hit hard. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was cleared and released from the infield care center.

It is Kenseth’s third DNF in the first five races of the season and his second in as many races. He had four in all of 2016.

Kenseth entered the race 20th in the point standings.

Martin Truex Jr. has commanding performance in Stage 2 win at Fontana

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Martin Truex Jr. has taken over as the most dominating driver in today’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

After pole-sitter Kyle Larson won the first 60-lap stage, Truex won Stage 2. During the session, Truex’s car showed supremacy with nearly a seven-second lead in the closing laps of the stage.

Truex has now won three of the last six stages, having captured both stages two weeks ago en route to his overall race win at Las Vegas.

Larson is in second place, followed by Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

There has been just two cautions in the race – both coming in Stage 1.

We now move to the final stage, an 80-lap shootout to determine the race winner.

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Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 of Auto Club 400 at Fontana

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Pole-sitter Kyle Larson is almost one-third of the way to winning Sunday’s Auto Club 400. The California native won Stage 1 of the race at his home-state Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

Larson (43 laps) and Martin Truex Jr. (12 laps) have led the majority of the laps during the opening 60-lap segment. That segment will be followed by another 60-lap segment, and then an 80-lap final section for 200 laps (400 miles) around the 2-mile low-banked track.

It was Larson’s first stage win of the 2017 season under the new enhanced scoring format in the NASCAR Cup Series. Larson has finished runner-up in each of the last three races and four of the last five (dating back to the 2016 season finale). He has just one career Cup win, last year at Michigan.

Truex is running second, followed by Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch.

Sixth through 10th are Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin.

Each of the top 10 finishers in Stage 1 will earn stage points in the NASCAR Cup standings.

Two incidents of note occurred early in the race, both involving Brad Keselowski:

* On the first lap, Keselowski’s car suffered left rear damage when several cars were involved in an accordion-like wreck. Others involved included Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, but there was no caution called.

* Keselowski continued on without repairing the damage and was spun out on Lap 3 when he was hit from behind by Jimmie Johnson, causing further damage to Keselowski’s Ford Fusion. The caution came out for Laps 5 through 7. Johnson claimed there was little or no damage over his team radio, but Johnson has continued to have struggles this weekend. He’s running 32nd, one lap down.

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Bad race start results in damaged cars for Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick

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A bad start by the inside lane at the beginning of the Auto Club 400 resulted in damage to the cars of Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman.

Denny Hamlin struggled to get to speed at the drop of the green flag, causing the first few rows of cars to bunch up. It resulted in Newman making contact with Keselowski’s left rear and causing damage. Harvick then ran into Newman as the inside bottlenecked.

On Lap 4, after falling back to 17th, Keselowski was hit from behind by Jimmie Johnson on the front stretch, which sent the No. 2 car spinning through the infield grass. Keselowski, the Atlanta winner, was 19th and the first car a lap down when the first stage ended.

During pit stops in the resulting caution, large amounts of tape were put on the front bumper and grille of Harvick’s car and the right-front fender of Newman’s.

With 35 laps left in the first 60-lap stage, Harvick was forced to pit for a flat right-rear tire. He now runs in 28th, a lap down. Newman, who won last week at Phoenix, a lap down in 22nd.

Johnson, a six-time Auto Club winner and the defending winner, was told his No. 48 had damage that could easily be fixed in the pits.  He runs in 20th a lap down. Johnson is winless this season.