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 10-2. 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. "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 racetrack has been amazing. We've had great success here over the years. We have tremendous fan support out here.
"How things have changed over the years. ... 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.