NASCAR

VAN DYCK: NASCAR is now an All-American sport

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FONTANA, Calif.

No longer do you have to be a member of the Carolina Country Club or know the password to the Alabama Gang clubhouse. No longer is it a prerequisite to have a relative who ran moonshine or to drawl "y'all." NASCAR has truly become an All-American sport in that it welcomes Americans from all over. Just look at the driver point standings as we prepare for Sunday's California 500: Five of the top eight drivers are from "non-traditional" NASCAR roots. No. 2 Matt Kenseth comes from Wisconsin, No. 4 Kurt Busch from Las Vegas, No. 6 Jimmie Johnson from Southern California, No. 7 Jeff Gordon from Indianapolis via California, and No. 8 Tony Stewart from Indianapolis. Throw in last year's rookie of the year, California's Kevin Harvick, this year's second-best rookie, Indiana's Ryan Newman, and you've got part of a hip, new generation that has caused a revamping of the good-ol'-boy image. Think not? Then look at the starting lineup for Sunday's race after Friday's cold and rain-delayed qualifying: Three of the top four speeds were posted by Newman, Busch and Johnson. Ten years ago it wouldn't have happened, maybe even couldn't have happened. But NASCAR welcomes these kids with open arms (and doors and hoods and checkbooks), needing their youth and talent to bring in new customers who buy sponsors' products. "As the sport grows, one thing that has allowed it to grow is marketing," said Jeff Gordon, who pretty much started this go-east-young-man trend a decade ago. "Dealing with big corporations, they want someone who can reach as many people as possible." Gordon made it OK to come from somewhere else, without a stock car background. He became accepted because he had skills that transcended stock car racing. And he also made it profitable. "I think they are definitely more receptive now," Gordon said. "I think NASCAR has been, but it took a while for car owners and fans to accept. Especially the fans, having not run stock cars and not being from the Southeast." Obviously, fans are accepting Dale Earnhardt Jr., North Carolina bred and son of a NASCAR star, quicker than they have taken to a Jimmie Johnson. But things are changing now, as this California race shows. NASCAR is not new to Southern California, but its popularity is. So is its national awareness. Now the local fans have Johnson and Harvick and Robbie Gordon for rooting interest, plus they can follow their favorites on TV every week. What it means is California kids can dream of — gasp! — winning at Daytona or Charlotte some day. Or at home in California. "I thought Indy (500) was a realistic goal," said Johnson, whose background is in off-road racing. "I went all the way from California to North Carolina and I didn't know if I would make it." Now he drives for first-time car owner Jeff Gordon, has been the pole-sitter at Daytona and Talladega and has earned $700,000 in prize money in nine races. It's more money in one year than he might have made in a lifetime of driving in the desert. "There's so many different kinds of races here (in California)," Johnson said. "I think a good driver can drive anything. It's just a matter of getting the opportunity." Just think of all the off-roaders in California who read about the riches in the Carolina hills. Why, it could set off a new gold rush. First, of course, they have to be accepted. "Team owners are looking for a variety of different things," Johnson said. Yeah, like you have to be young and good looking and glib for the cameras. Johnson (age 26), Harvick (26), Newman (24) and Busch (23) are all those things, plus they can go fast. No doubt that this is a new day for NASCAR. "I really think drivers can come from anywhere in the world," Gordon said. "It doesn't matter where you're from, but more about your upbringing. Look at me. Everybody assumed I was going to go to Indy with my background of midgets and sprints, but sprint cars are more like stock cars than Indy cars." So NASCAR brings its traveling road show to places like Fontana and Las Vegas, not to mention Indianapolis, where Tony Stewart grew up thinking he would be an Indy car star. Stewart and Gordon are 30 years old now, and even they are being beaten by the new-look new kids on the block. NASCAR (and its sponsors) loves what the kids bring to the sport, and the kids love what the sport brings them. Kenseth and Busch have each won $1.2 million already this year, Newman and Harvick $900,000 each. None of them, including Johnson, grew up thinking they would ever be dominating the sport made famous by Richard Petty of Randleman, N. C. None of them drawl, but they've all been given a NASCAR chance, proving that auto racing speaks a universal language — speed. Senior writer Dave van Dyck can be reached at his e-mail address, dvandyck@foxsports.com.

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