The Callahan Report: Jeff Gordon Wins Inaugural Race at California Speedway
22 June 1997FONTANA, CALIFORNIA: The amount of gas remaining in Jeff Gordon's tank after crossing the finish line was less than the amount it takes to run a motorcycle around a golf ball. Gordon's car coasted into victory lane at the inaugural running of the California 500.
Mark Martin was not as efficient. Martin drove the Valvoline car past Gordon with 16 laps remaining in the 250 lap event, only to pull in for a splash of fuel 3 laps later. Gordon stayed out, drafting anything in sight to conserve fuel. Teammate and defending Winston Cup Champion, Terry Labonte was closing but could not catch the wonder kid. The win was Gordon's seventh in fifteen starts this season.
"I could tell Terry was concerned, too," Gordon said. "When he let up, I'd let up, too. But our crew did a great job calculating the fuel mileage. It ran out as I was heading into (turn) three on the lap after the race was over. I learned how to conserve fuel today, I never had to do that before. It was pretty interesting.'' The victory was Gordon's 26th of his young career.
Gordon also scored points for the most laps led. He was up front for 113 laps in the new event. The young star increased his points lead to 92 over Mark Martin. "To win the inaugural race here means so much," he said. "This is an incredible facility and it was a great race for us." Gordon's payday was $144,600.
Hut Stricklin was the first Winston Cup driver to test the new concrete in competition. He put the Circuit City car into the wall in turn four on lap 29. "I tell you, that was one of the toughest licks I believe I've ever had," he said. "It seemed like it hit, basically, as hard as it could on the left side, about as hard as it could take it." Stricklin was treated for abrasions and released.
Greg Sacks hit the turn two wall in a separate incident. Sacks was substituting for Robbie Gordon who crashed earlier in the weekend and was not cleared to drive. Sacks was the fastest qualifier for the race but was forced to start in 26th because he was not a first day qualifier. Sabates teammate, Joe Nemechek, was on the pole for the 2 million dollar event.
Rusty Wallace was the only representative from the family running in the race. Brothers Mike and Kenny were sent home after failing to qualify.
Ricky Rudd, winner at Dover earlier this year, finished third. He was followed by Ted Musgrave, Jimmy Spencer and Bobby Labonte.
"We thought Gordon and Labonte were going to have to pit," Rudd said. "We weren't sure that we could make it, but we figured if we did we were going to win."
There were 85,000 people on hand to watch the first Southern California race since Riverside Speedway closed in 1988. The new facility, built on the site of a steel mill that closed in 1983, brought big name racing back to the race starved area. Roger Penske and other investors built the facility using the blueprints from another Penske track, Michigan International Speedway. The turns at Fontana are banked 4 degrees less than Michigan, providing a whole new challenge to the stars of NASCAR. When asked if the track was like Michigan, Gordon replied "It's like California Speedway... It's a one of a kind, great facility."