NASCAR may have been born on the red clay fields and moonshine trails along Tobacco Road, but these days its driver demographics have taken a hard left turn.
The whiskey runners and tobacco farmers who raced back in the day are a long lost remnant of NASCAR’s past, and today’s driver lineup looks very different than it did 50 years ago.
Seven of the 43 drivers entered in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway are California natives: AJ Allmendinger, David Gilliland, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears and Josh Wise all hail from the Golden State.
So it’s no surprise that many of these young men are happy to go west to race this weekend.
And no one is more pleased to be at ACS than five-time series champion Johnson, who won his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup race here, has five victories overall at the 2-mile track and a superlative average finish of 5.389.
Johnson has finished on the lead lap of all 18 races he’s run at ACS, completing 4,284 out of a possible 4,284 laps. And, oh by the way, he’s led 851 of those laps in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets. Superlative numbers, to be sure.
By comparison, the only other driver with an average finish in single digits here is Carl Edwards at 8.733.
Johnson, who hails from El Cajon, Calif., near San Diego, remembers that first victory fondly. “It was like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders,” he said. “I felt like I might be able to keep my job after that.”
Fortunately for Johnson, he’s gone on to do OK for himself.
Part of the reason for Johnson’s exemplary results at the Fontana, Calif., facility is that the track surface has a variety of different lanes and grooves, which gives crew chief Chad Knaus a little bit bigger box to tinker in when it comes to race setups.
How that plays out with the Generation-6 cars is yet to be determined, but Knaus is optimistic about another strong run on Sunday.
“It is a really good racetrack,” said Knaus. “It’s easy to say that about a lot of venues, but Fontana is a track where the drivers can really go and explore different lanes. The crew chiefs and teams can explore different ways to make the racecars go fast because you can work with horsepower. You can work with aerodynamics. You can work with mechanical grip.”
Of course, those are the areas Knaus excels in.
“If you are fortunate enough to get all three of them right, you run really, really fast,” he said. “It’s honestly a really good racetrack and a lot of fun.”
Especially when you win as often as the 48 team does.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.