Growing up in Vallejo, Calif., Jeff Gordon raced BMX long before moving up to NASCAR. It wasn't anything too organized. When he was 5 years old, Gordon and a group of neighborhood kids would make BMX tracks and race through the streets.
Some of the races were a little rough, though, and some of the kids had pretty nasty accidents.
Gordon's mom started to worry about whether racing BMX was a little too dangerous for her son and wondered whether Jeff should be doing something different.
Gordon said his stepfather was happy to hear his mom say something like that. Gordon's stepdad really wanted him to race stock cars. That's when Gordon and his family started taking auto racing seriously.
He was the Cup rookie of the year in 1993 and became the first NASCAR driver to win rookie of the year in both the old Busch Series and the Cup series. He won his first Cup race in 1994, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and started one of the most successful careers in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history.
"When I won that first race, it was just confirmation for me that I belong here, I earned it," Gordon said. "Now I can actually compete with these guys, and that just builds confidence. When you have a great team and you have confidence, you can accomplish great things. I have been very fortunate to have some great teams."
Gordon has won four NASCAR Cup championships and is one of eight drivers from California who have made the Golden State a mother lode for stock car racers.
Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Casey Mears, Robby Gordon, David Gilliland, A.J. Allmendinger and Josh Wise all hail from California, making it the state with the most active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers.
Between them, Gordon and Johnson have won nine Cup championships. Johnson won five in a row in the Chase for the Sprint Cup era. Gordon won his four before the Chase format started.
The eight drivers from California have combined to win 162 Cup races. Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, has won 85 Cup races, the third most in NASCAR history and the most in the NASCAR modern era, which began in 1972. Johnson has won 55 Cup races in his career and is tied for eighth in NASCAR history with Rusty Wallace.
Of the drivers from California, Gordon and Johnson are at the top of the class.
Both drivers have a distinguished record at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, one of two NASCAR tracks in California. They have won a combined eight races at Fontana. Johnson, who grew up in El Cajon near San Diego, has the most with five wins, including one in his rookie season in 2002. He said the race at Fontana in his rookie season was his most memorable win.
"That was everything to me and my career," said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. "I knew, driving Jeff [Gordon]'s equipment, that if I didn't win after he came off a championship season and basically handed me his cars that I was going to be in trouble. So to win in my 13th start, 10th race of that season, that is my most memorable win, period."
Gordon has won three Cup races at Auto Club Speedway, site of Sunday's Auto Club 400. He won the first Cup race at Fontana in 1997 but hasn't won since 2004. He won the pole and finished second to Matt Kenseth in the February race at Fontana in 2007, however.
Harvick, a driver from Bakersfield, won the Cup race at Fontana last year. He also was the runner-up to Johnson in the February Cup race in Fontana in 2010. Johnson and Harvick have been involved in two of the most closely contested races at Fontana the past two years.
"The last two years, the race has pretty much come down to us and the 48 [Johnson]," said Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, who has 18 career Cup wins. "The year before I ran into the wall, and last year we won. That was good to come back and rebound from the mistake from 2010, and being able to race with Jimmie was a lot of fun. Especially at the California racetrack. That's been a great racetrack for us over the last several years looking forward to going back. Glad I'm not the truck driver, he has a long ways to go."
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams raced at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee on Sunday. The teams made a near cross-country trip for this weekend's NASCAR races at Auto Club Speedway.
Losing to Harvick in Fontana last year stands out for Johnson, as well. With all the races he has won at Auto Club Speedway, finishing second to Harvick makes Johnson shake his head and laugh.
"The loss to Kevin is really at the forefront of my mind last time we were there," Johnson said.
Robby Gordon, a driver from Orange, is a rebel in the Sprint Cup Series. He drives for his own team, Robby Gordon Motorsports, but won races with Richard Childress Racing earlier in his career. He is considered a road course ringer, but perhaps his most memorable win came at New Hampshire International Speedway in 2001.
The race was postponed from Sept. 16 to Nov. 23 after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. Gordon won the first race of his Cup career in his 10th start for RCR.
He won the road course races at Watkins Glen and at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma in 2003, perhaps his best year in Cup. He had 10 top-10 finishes and was 16th in the Cup standings.
Mears, also from Bakersfield and the nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears, is driving for Germain Racing.
He has one career Cup win in one of the biggest races in NASCAR. He won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2007 while driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
Gilliland is still looking for his first win in Cup, but he won a Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway in 2006. He has three career top-5s in the Cup series, including a runner-up at Infineon Raceway in 2008. He also won the pole for the 2007 Daytona 500.
Allmendinger finished in the top 10 in 10 races in 2011 and has been racing since 2007. Wise is a relative newcomer to NASCAR's top division, starting five times in 2011 and three times this season.