The last driver who started on the pole at California Speedway is Scott Pruett. He will be back at Fontana this weekend, but under entirely different circumstances.
Last October, he was in a Toyota-powered Reynard with Firestone tires and ran a lap at 235.398 mph in the Marlboro 500, a CART race.
Today, he will be in a Ford Taurus stock car with Goodyear tires, hoping to get around the two-mile track at 180-185 mph, fast enough to qualify for Sunday's California 500 Winston Cup race.
The only similarity is his car owner. When Cal Wells III, owner of Precision Preparation Inc., decided to move into the highly competitive Winston Cup series, he brought Pruett along with him.
They knew it would be difficult for a new team with zero experience to compete with the veteran organizations headed by Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Richard Petty and others who have spent a lifetime coaxing speed out of built-for-racing stock cars.
But they didn't think it would be this tough.
"Our goal is to qualify for every race," Pruett said before the season opener at Daytona.
Three times in nine races he has missed the 43-driver cut, failing to make the starting grid at Rockingham, N.C.; Darlington, S.C., and Bristol, Tenn.
"This year and next are learning years, but I would expect us to finish in the top 20 in points this season," Wells said.
After nine races, Pruett is 41st. His best finish is 19th, in the Daytona 500.
Pruett and Wells are neophytes in Winston Cup, but their racing credentials are impressive.
Pruett, 40, has won two Trans-Am series championships, a Professional Karting Assn. world title, two Indy car races, two IMSA sports car championships, two International Race of Champions, and the 24 Hours of Daytona three times. He was co-rookie of the year in the 1989 Indianapolis 500.
Wells, 45, has built cars and trucks that have won 81 races and 23 championships in off-road racing with such drivers as Ivan Stewart, Robby Gordon, Rod and Steve Millen and Frank Arciero Jr. He also fields teams in CART, Toyota Atlantic and Busch Grand National series.
Still . . .
"All tracks you go back to are a help because it helps to know where you're going, but outside of that, there is no correlation between what I did last year at Fontana in a champ car and what I have to do in my Winston Cup car," Pruett said.
"The dynamics are quite different. In CART you have tremendous downforce from the wings. In NASCAR one of the first things you learn is how to set up a car without downforce.
"The Cup car is so much heavier, it puts tremendous wear on tires and it's more critical to get the proper setup to get the maximum speed out of the car. It's important to learn the technique, how hard to run the car, how to compensate for the lack of downforce."
California Speedway will be the first track Pruett has been on with NASCAR that he had raced on in a champ car.
Neither Pruett nor Wells expected to be in NASCAR at this time last year, although each has had the idea in the back of his mind for years.
"When Cal first suggested it around last June, I said no," Pruett said. "Then as I thought more about it, I thought, 'Why not?' This whole thing came together quickly. The first time I sat in a Cup car was two days after Fontana [last November] when I tested at Darlington. Talk about a culture shock.
"At that time, Cal had nothing but an old superspeedway car he got from Jack Roush. He had no cars, no crew, no equipment, no shop other than Rancho Santa Margarita, no nothing."
What he did have, though, were two big-bucks sponsors, Tide and McDonald's, longtime NASCAR supporters who left Ricky Rudd and Bill Elliott, respectively, to back whatever team Wells put together.
Pruett drives the No. 10 Tide Ford, and McDonald's sponsors a Busch series car driven by Tony Lazzaro while Elliott runs the last year of his Cup contract. Next year, Wells will have a two-car team in Winston Cup.
"My first priority after getting sponsorship was to find a driver," said Wells. "We looked at a long list of people, everyone in NASCAR from Jeff Gordon on down. We started at the top and eliminated people for one reason or another. Gordon we couldn't afford, even if we could have pried him loose from Hendrick.
"Tide appeals to mothers and wives, so we wanted a certain type personality to go with that appeal. Bobby Labonte was the ideal choice. He has everything we wanted, but Joe Gibbs had him locked up with a long-term contract.
"We looked at 45 or so Cup drivers. The top third were either in their twilight or so heavily vested in their teams they didn't want to move. The mid-tier guys didn't want to take a risk with a new team. The bottom third were either guys who had been working for a long time for their first win and didn't have the assets we were looking for.