Jeff Gordon leads large California contingent at Fontana

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 20:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, talks with a crew member during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2015 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

FONTANA, CA – MARCH 20: Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, talks with a crew member during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2015 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

FONTANA, Calif.—Over the course of Jeff Gordon’s 23-year career in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the composition of the driver pool has changed markedly.

When Gordon debuted in the final race of 1992, NASCAR racing was predominantly a regional sport in the Southeast, and a driver from California was a novelty. Now, drivers from the Golden State are the rule, rather than the exception.

In Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX), for example, California natives will outnumber drivers from North Carolina 10 to two. And Gordon, born in Vallejo, will be foremost in the thoughts of Golden State fans at sold-out Auto Club Speedway, as he makes his final full-time start 18 years after winning the inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the two-mile track.

“I always love coming here,” Gordon said on Friday during a question-and-answer session with reporters. “Being in California, even though I feel like we are a long way away from Vallejo, but just the state of California has been amazing for me. This race track has been amazing. We’ve had great success here over the years. We have tremendous fan support out here.  I saw a stat the other day about how many Californians that we have out here… that’s pretty amazing.

“How things have changed over the years — 1997 was certainly a great year out here for us. I honestly don’t remember; it was too long ago for me to remember all the details of that race. We were on a pretty good streak there for a while where we were getting wins at inaugural events. This was one that we added to the list that was really cool to be a part of, just to see the race happen here, let alone be the ones to win it.”

For the record, the 10 California drivers who will start Sunday’s race are: Gordon, reigning series champion Kevin Harvick, Casey Mears, Cole Whitt, David Gilliland, Kyle Larson, AJ Allmendinger, six-time NSCS champion Jimmie Johnson, Matt DiBenedetto and Josh Wise.

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