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Speed Reading: Going home to Cali
As NASCAR began its westward ho push of the mid-1990s, its ultimate goal was to gain a foothold in the land of Magic and Kobe, Spielberg and Cruise, silicone and liposuction. Ten years later, that dream is a reality thanks to the California Speedway, a sparkling 2-mile oval that sits near the intersection of I-10 and I-15, the crossroads of SoCal. But here's the thing: NASCAR and California have been partnered up since the days of Bill France Sr. and actual stock cars. The first NASCAR-sanctioned Grand National (now Nextel Cup) event to be held in the Golden State was way back on April 8, 1951, the fourth race of the league's third season. It was a 200-lapper held on a half-mile dirt oval in the L.A. suburb of Gardena and won by Daytona Beach's very own Marshall Teague. In all, the great state of California has played host to 97 Cup races from Sacramento to Eureka, only 13 of which have been held at the California Speedway. Even more impressive than the number of races held in California is the number of great drivers who were born in the El Dorado State. This weekend alone, eight California-born drivers attempted to make the field for the Auto Club 500: A.J. Allmendinger (Los Gatos), Jeff Gordon (Vallejo), Robby Gordon (Cerritos), Kevin Harvick (Bakersfield), Jimmie Johnson (El Cajon), Casey Mears (Bakersfield), David Gilliland (Riverside), and Brandon Whitt (El Cajon). Another six natives were entered in the Busch and Truck Series races. So, who are the greatest NASCAR racers ever produced by the Land of Milk and Honey? Grab a tall mocha half caf 3-shot extra hot foamy latte and read ahead. 10. Mike Skinner/Ron Hornaday Jr.
Hometowns: Ontario, Palmdale
Skinner and Hornaday don't make the list for their Cup Series efforts (0 wins in 299 starts), but instead for their groundbreaking work in the Craftsman Truck Series. Their arrivals and resulting dominance three championships and 48 wins kicked open the door for west coasters to use the Trucks as a career launching pad. 9. Eddie Pagan
Pagan made only 62 starts from 1954-63 and more than 15 races only once, but the man made the most of his time on the track. In 1957 he won three races and earned 11 top tens in only 15 races. Pagan went on to become on the greatest mechanics in NASCAR history, building cars for Holman-Moody and eventually opening Hutcherson-Pagan, which built winning racecars for the likes of A.J. Foyt and Darrell Waltrip and is still a staple in the Cup garage. 8. Parnelli Jones
The only reason that the 1963 Indy 500 winner isn't higher on this list is because he didn't run more NASCAR events. When he did, he usually won. Jones always took a break from winning Baja and Indy 500's to run Grand National races during NASCAR's visits to the west coast. He made only 34 Cups starts and won four of them, two on road courses and two on ovals. 7. Dick Rathmann
Hometown: Los Angeles
Dick's name was actually Jim, but the two racing brothers swapped names in the 1940s so little brother Jim could race while underage and it stuck for the remainder of his career. Whatever his name, Rathmann was another west coast open wheeler who took stock car rides when he could get them, and like Jones he took care of business, winning 11 poles and 13 races in only five seasons of stock car racing. 6. Kevin Harvick
The latest Daytona 500 winner came east to follow in the footsteps of local hero Ron Hornaday Junior, enlisting in the Truck Series after catching owners eyes with his skills at his home track of Mesa Marin. Harvick was thrust into Dale Earnhardt's ride in 2001 and electrified the world by winning Cup Rookie of the Year and the Busch Series title. Since then he has racked up 11 wins in Cup to go with 27 Busch and 2 Truck Series victories. 5. Ernie Irvan
Irvan was a west coast racer who came east looking for a chance and ended up catching the eye of Dale Earnhardt, who sponsored Irvan's first Cup ride in 1987. Four years later he was standing in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500. Despite a controversial driving style and a near-death experience in 1994, Irvan retired with 15 Cup wins and 124 top tens in only 313 starts. 4. Marvin Panch
Panch was born in Wisconsin, but always listed his "racing hometown" as Oakland, where he broke into racing as a car owner. When his driver didn't show up for a race in '49, he climbed into the car himself and was immediately wicked fast. Due in no small part to a great relationship with Lee Petty and Petty Enterprises, Panch came east to race NASCAR and ended up winning 17 races, including the 1961 Daytona 500. In 1998 he was named to NASCAR's list of its 50 Greatest Drivers. 3. Jimmie Johnson
Hometown: El Cajon
Never in the history of NASCAR's Modern Era has a driver achieved so much success as quickly as Johnson. Like most of his SoCal brethren, he started out in off-road racing, but got his stock car break in the late 1990s. He soon caught the eye of another California native, Jeff Gordon, and ended up with Hendrick Motorsports. In only five full seasons, J.J. has earned 23 wins, 110 top tens, a Daytona 500 victory, and a Nextel Cup championship. 2. Dan Gurney
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Gurney's entire legendary racing life will always come with a big question of "What if?" As in what if he had concentrated fully on one racing series throughout his career? The four-time Formula One race winner only started 16 NASCAR races and won five. All five wins came on the now extinct road course in Riverside, Calif. and none of the wins were even close. He won the race five out of six seasons and many believe he only lost the '67 race because a ticky-tack infraction that allowed NASCAR to stick him a lap down so as to not "stink up the show". 1. Jeff Gordon
Speaking of not even close, Gordon's track record is so strong he could occupy the top five spots on our list all by himself. He lived in California until the age of 14, when the family moved to Indiana so he could race real cars while still underage. He arrived in Cup in '92 and has since posted a resumé that is nothing less than one of the three most dominant careers in NASCAR history. 76 wins, 3 Daytona 500's, 4 Brickyard 400's, 4 Cup titles, and nearly $84 million won. Not surprisingly, he's also the all-time winner at the California Speedway, with three victories to everyone else's one.
Honorable mentions: Dick Brooks (Porterville), Jim Cook (Norwalk), Ray Elder (Carruthers), Danny Weinberg (Downey)
Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images.