WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- The Toyota/Save Mart 350 returns to Infineon Raceway this weekend, the largest single-day sporting event in Northern California that also serves as an annual homecoming for crowd favorite Jeff Gordon.
But as Gordon, 39, advances in age--with the wins becoming less frequent and younger drivers taking more of the spotlight -- Sonoma is no longer one of the few places on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit where he hears more cheers than boos.
Even, ahem, in the South.
"A lot of fans around here think he's pretty cool," said Ed Clark, president and general manager of Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Gordon made his Cup debut in 1992. "They just won't tell anyone about it."
Few were paying much attention to Gordon at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1994, when he took the checkered flag in the Coca-Cola 600 for his first career Cup win.
But as the victories began to pile up for Gordon in the late 1990s, animosity toward the Vallejo, Calif.-born driver started to grow.
The reasons vary. He wasn't from the South, his success came too easily, and he raced open wheel cars in California and in the Midwest as a kid, dreaming of Indianapolis instead of Daytona.
Perhaps most important, he was perceived as being the exact opposite of Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt was thought of as a working class hero who built his career and business empire from scratch. Gordon was too polished, too corporate. He represented a new breed of driver that longtime NASCAR fans found hard to embrace.
And he was going fender-to-fender with Earnhardt.
"Dale Earnhardt's last championship came in 1994, and that's about the time that Jeff took off," said Jerry Caldwell, general manager at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. "You have this young driver from outside the South really coming on strong as other heroes are starting to fade, so there was some animosity.
"He was an easy target, a very emotional winner, especially early in his career. He was also an aggressive driver who used to tear up a lot of race cars."
Talladega Superspeedway is solid Earnhardt country, where "The Intimidator" won 10 times and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has five victories.
In 2007, when Gordon won the Aaron's 499 under a caution flag for career victory No. 77 to pass Earnhardt--who had 76 -- his car was showered with debris, or "beer bombed" as it came to be known.
"It's tough," Gordon said at the time. "I knew three-quarters of these fans were against me. I didn't want to start a riot today, but I wanted to break that record."
Interestingly enough, Talladega president Grant Lynch said Gordon has always had fans at the Alabama track, and that the boos have died down considerably in recent years.
"Dale had tremendous respect for Jeff and mentored him when he first started," Lynch said. "I think Jeff has become an elder statesman for the sport and has taken on a leadership role, like Dale and Terry Labonte did."
Also other drivers these days have assumed the role of villain, such as Kyle Busch. And, Gordon's torrid victory pace has slowed considerably in recent years.
He won at Pocono on June 12 for his 84th career Cup victory, tying him for third all-time on the wins list with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. His other victory this year came in Phoenix in February, snapping a winless streak of 66 races.
"Looking back throughout my career and the fact that I haven't won as much, I think definitely allows me to appreciate the wins more," Gordon said last week. "I work harder at trying to get those wins these days than I ever have before, and I certainly don't take them for granted."