Natives California Dreamin

FONTANA, Calif. – California Speedway is a long way from Charlotte, N.C., the unofficial base of NASCAR Winston Cup stock car racing.

It’s more than 2,400 miles away, in fact. But though most of the teams and drivers live and work in the Charlotte area, this weekend’s NAPA Auto Parts 500 is like a homecoming.

There are five drivers in Sunday’s race who were born in California: Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Mike Skinner and Jimmie Johnson. Perhaps as a sign that NASCAR is no longer a regional sport, there are more drivers from California than North Carolina (Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Petty).

Plus, there are two more California natives in Saturday’s Auto Club 300 Busch Series race – Casey Mears and Ron Hornaday.

“The people back home have been great through my whole career,” said Harvick, who is from Bakersfield, a couple hours north of Los Angeles. “They’ve really shown support for me, Hornaday, Jimmie and other guys from the area. They’ve been there through thick and thin.

“Bakersfield is a probably the biggest, center of racing out West. You’ve got a bunch of Featherlite Southwest Tour and Winston West Series guys headquartered right there. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else if I were still racing in California. Because of that, it was just an awesome place to grow up and a great place to learn from other people. There were so many different (racing) series running out there. It really gave me a good base to move from.”

Harvick isn’t that far removed from racing in California, but it’s been awhile for Skinner, who is from Susanville and has lived in Ontario – near California Speedway.

“Back in 1974 is when I began racing. I saved up my money and bought a 1971 Plymouth Road Runner,” Skinner said. “Me and my buddy worked on the car always. Every bit of time was spent in a garage turning wrenches and trying to make the car the best it could be. I won in every class they had that I could race in. I just wanted to race, I didn’t care where or which division. We would travel over to Cedarville, Calif., Chico, county fairs and Nevada to compete.”

Racing wasn’t making Skinner rich in those days, but he was simply trying to make a name for himself.

“The big events would pay $1,000,” Skinner said. “I raced a lot at Bakersfield, Calif., which was a quarter-mile asphalt, high-banked track. Most of the other tracks were dirt. I raced primarily at Susanville Speedway in Calif., where I won three track championships. Then, in 1983, I moved to North Carolina to try to make it in the big leagues. It was time to either move or take up another profession.”

Skinner bounced around in North Carolina before landing a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series ride with Richard Childress. That was his big break, and in 1997, Skinner landed in Winston Cup.

Robby Gordon’s route to Winston Cup was full of twists and turns, literally. He was an off-road racer of considerable talent before moving to Trans-Am and IMSA road racing and then to Indy-cars.

Gordon’s hometown is Orange, less than an hour from California Speedway.

“I’m really looking forward to Fontana because it’s in my backyard,” Gordon said. “My family still lives in Orange, Calif., which is only about 45 minutes from the track. I’ve still got a house out there that is next door to my father’s house and his race shop.

“My father’s race shop was actually my first race shop where he and I built a lot of my cars. He still races his off-road cars out of there. So, Fontana is a pretty good trip for me. I’ll go out there a little early and stay for a few days after the race is over with. I don’t get to see my parents and sisters very often, and I take every chance I can get.”

Harvick looks forward to visiting some of his relatives, too.

“I’ll see some of my family,” Harvick said. “My sister and her husband will be there. I don’t get to see her too much, so that’ll be cool.”

But the best part, Harvick said, perhaps only half-jokingly, was the “wide variety of Mexican food.”

“I love it,” Harvick said. “You’ve got Mexican fast food, Mexican sit-down places and really nice Mexican places. I can’t get enough of it when we go out there. It’s home cooking for me.”

Though California is home to Jeff Gordon, his “home cooking” is in Indiana. Gordon spent much of his formative years in Indiana after his stepfather moved him there to race more often.

Still, Gordon seems to have an attachment to California Speedway, where he’s the only two-time Winston Cup winner. Besides the 1997 and ’99 victories, Gordon has finished second, fourth and 11th and led four of the five races here.

“I can’t pinpoint exactly why we’ve been so dominant there,” Gordon said. “This track is like a carbon copy of Michigan where we’ve also had a lot of success. It’s really wide and very fast but it can be tough to pass on.

“You keep hearing about clean air. With the springs and the shocks that we run these days, we get the car stuck down to the ground so well. Aerodynamics is so important, and when you get behind one or two cars, your car just starts buffeting around and it just doesn’t handle the same. You get out in clean air, and it’s just, ‘See ya later.’ ”

Johnson said “See ya later” to California a few years ago when he started racing stock cars in the ASA series. Born in El Cajon, near San Diego, Johnson has reached the big-time as Gordon’s teammate.

“It’s great that we’re heading back to California, and I’ll be on my home turf,” Johnson said. “The Lowe’s team will have tremendous fan support all weekend long. I hope that we can put on a good show for them and finish in the Top 15.”

Of course, Johnson will have four other guys fighting for home-crowd cheers.

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