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California a Golden State for NASCAR drivers

March 23, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

California a Golden State for NASCAR drivers
West Coast success goes beyond Jimmie's titles

FONTANA, Calif. -- Street banners proclaiming “NASCAR is back” hung around Hollywood this week a couple blocks off legendary Mulholland Drive and neighboring Beverly Hills.

Kiosks selling “Tours of the Stars Homes” on the same Hollywood Boulevard sidewalks as Bob Hope’s and John Lennon’s golden stars were crowded with race fans in town for this weekend’s annual NASCAR visit to Auto Club Speedway, about 40 miles inland in Fontana.

A half hour from Fontana, the venerable and now-vanished Riverside International Raceway held 48 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races during a 30-year span from 1958-88, when the sport’s most iconic names from Richard Petty and Bobby Allison to Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace visited victory circle.

And since 1989, the marquee Sprint Cup circuit has run alongside Northern California’s famous redwoods and vineyards at the scenic Sonoma Raceway road course.

The state has a storied history with NASCAR venues and at long last can claim a distinct domination of championship-caliber drivers.

"I don’t know if it’s the food we eat out here or what it is, but we do seem to produce some good drivers."

-- Kyle Larson, Elk Grove, Calif., native

In the past two decades California drivers have won more Sprint Cup Series championships (nine) than racers from any other state.

“It’s eye-opening to me because you go from not having anyone to now having more drivers from the state of California than any other state,’’ said California’s most prolific NASCAR titlist, five-time champ Jimmie Johnson. “The flip in such a short period of time is crazy. …. It’s gotta be the sun. All that sunshine.’’

Twelve times in the past 16 years, a Californian has finished first, second or third in the Cup standings. Johnson, of El Cajon, and Jeff Gordon, of Vallejo, have accounted for nine Cup titles since 1995. No California driver had won previously.

“I don’t know if it’s the food we eat out here or what it is, but we do seem to produce some good drivers,’’ joked Nationwide Series driver Kyle Larson, 20, an Elk Grove, Calif., native who is widely regarded as the next great California NASCAR star.

Not only is the Golden State well-represented in the Cup Series, but Ron Hornaday Jr., of Palmdale, Calif., is a four-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion. Mike Skinner, of Ontario, Calif., won the truck championship in 1995.

And Kevin Harvick, of Bakersfield, has contributed a pair of Nationwide Series titles (2001 and 2006) in addition to his two third-place finishes in the Sprint Cup Series championships (2010-11).

"I think that the California racers over the last 10 to 15 years are getting more chances to race now than in the past,’’ Harvick theorized. “I grew up in a racing community that supported its grassroots racing. During my racing career NASCAR created several touring series, which gave me, as well as other West Coast drivers, the opportunity to race more.”

His point is well taken and the opportunity he speaks of, well seized. There are seven California drivers entered in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Fontana, for example -- more than twice as many from California than any other state. Indiana, Wisconsin and Florida each have three. 

The sport still has its long and firmly entrenched tradition in the South with fan favorite events such as the Bristol, Tenn., night race and thrilling, suspenseful shows on the Talladega, Ala., and Daytona Beach, Fla., high banks. But it now also benefits from a wider talent scope anchored by a state once better known for surfboards and celebrities than for NASCAR superstars.  

“For the longest time, NASCAR was considered a Southern sport, but I think people forgot about how much racing was going on around the country and really how big this state is, so maybe numbers were working in our favor a little bit,’’ Johnson said. “There’s a lot of racing going on here and a lot of dirt racing and dirt racing is really the foundation for a great race car driver. You just learn car control that you can carry into NASCAR.

“During my era coming up, California wasn’t looked at so I’m happy to see so many team owners now are paying attention to West Coast racing.”

Next generation drivers such as Larson are benefitting from the paths blazed by Gordon, Johnson and Harvick. While the hefty statistics supporting California’s contribution to NASCAR surprised Johnson, they were easier for Larson to believe.

“The thing that surprises me is not that there have been so many California guys that are first, second, third, but that Jimmie came from a different background, Harvick came from a different background and me and Jeff came from sprint cars,’’ Larson said. “So there’s so many different routes you can take in California to get to the Sprint Cup Series.

“I don’t know if it’s the competition level out here in the grassroots stuff or what.  But it’s produced really good drivers.”

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