We all know that NASCAR was originally a southern-based sport, and to this day fights that stigma to some extent. Its growth from modest roots into a national phenomenon took about half a century, and in fact some major markets (the northeast and the Pacific Northwest come to mind) remain under-served.
But when NASCAR became the uncontested hottest racing property in America in the 1990s, many of the top development drivers in the country began gravitating towards a career in stock cars. Now, many of the sport's top drivers have northern roots; in fact, half of the top 10 in Sprint Cup points call a state north of the Mason-Dixon line home.
So, who are some of these drivers, and where did they come from?
The current Sprint Cup points leader honed his skills on local tracks in his home state of Wisconsin, winning track championships at Madison, Slinger, and Wisconsin International Raceway. From there, he joined the midwestern ARTGO Series, winning his first race in 1991 at La Crosse, another Wisconsin track.
Kenseth proved himself against such short-track legends as Dick Trickle and future crew chief Robbie Reiser, truly launching his NASCAR career in the latter's Busch Series car in 1997.
Biffle began his career racing on short tracks in the Pacific Northwest, running late models in his 20s. But Biffle's career actually launched at Tucson Raceway Park in Arizona; there, he won the late model portion of the 1995-96 Winter Heat Series, catching the eye of the late Benny Parsons, who then suggested Biffle to team owner Jack Roush.
Biffle and Roush Racing are now celebrating their 15th year of full-time competition in NASCAR's national series.
Stewart developed his career in his home state of Indiana, moving from go-karts to USAC to the Indy Racing League. He won the Hut Hundred, midget racing's premier event, at the Terre Haute Action Track in both 1993 and 1995, helping him secure a ride in the fledging Indy Racing League for 1996.
In fact, he developed the nickname "Smoke" because of his propensity for blowing engines in the 1996-97 IRL season, during which he won the sport's championship. While Stewart never won his dream race, the Indianapolis 500, he did take the 2007 Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a win that he considers one of his finest.
The Michigan-based Keselowski family has been involved in NASCAR since 1969, running Dodges almost exclusively. Brad began racing quarter midgets in 1998, moving up to factory stock in 2000 and winning rookie of the year honors at two Michigan tracks.
He took three victories from 2001-03 before moving on to the Truck Series in 2004, and, after struggling to find sponsorship for a few years, finally landed a competitive ride in the Busch Series for JR Motorsports in mid-2007.
Newman debuted in midget racing in 1993 at the age of 16, earning 100 victories and two championships in his time in quarter midgets. He won USAC Rookie of the Year in midgets in 1995 and Silver Crown in 1996, and took the Silver Bullet championship in 1999. The next year, Roger Penske gave him his first stock car opportunity, and he won three of five races in the ARCA Series.
Gordon didn't move from California to Pittsboro, Indiana until the age of 16, as a way to advance his career in USAC. In 1989, Gordon scored the USAC midget rookie of the year, and took his first of two consecutive wins in the Night Before the 500 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
From 1989-92, Gordon scored 22 podium finishes in 40 starts, earning Busch Series opportunities and eventually landing a ride in a new, third Winston Cup car for Hendrick Motorsports for the 1993 season.
Truex is a second-generation racer, following in the footsteps of father Martin Sr. in NASCAR's regional series after developing his skills in go-karts and modifieds. In 62 starts in the Busch North Series from 2000-03, he scored five wins and 32 top-10s, with his best finish of eighth in points coming in 2001.
Open-wheel sprint cars were Kahne's entry into motorsports, as he ran at Deming and Skagit Speedways in Washington before making his debut in USAC. His season-opening win at Williams Grove (Pennsylvania) Speedway in 2001 helped launch his career; by the next season, he had a half-season schedule with Robert Yates Racing in the Busch Series.
Menard's family sponsored IndyCar teams through their hardware store chain for decades, but the discipline didn't have a decent feeder series in his home state of Wisconsin. Menard started with go-karts, moved on to ice racing, and eventually began racing late models after borrowing the car of Menard-sponsored Truck Series driver Bryan Reffner.
The Pocono winner from two weeks ago began racing quarter midgets at age six in 1996. Through the late 1990s, he began to establish himself as a force, winning six championships in regional events from 1997-99. In 2000, his family moved to Georgia, but he returned to his northeastern roots in 2007 by winning the Camping World East Series championship.