Kevin Harvick will be one of six NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers racing on home soil in California this weekend, and probably has less to prove after Daytona than any of the other five, but is still keen to capitalise on his strong start to the year.
The Richard Childress Racing ace won the season-opening Budweiser Shootout in the build-up to the blue riband Daytona 500, and then finished second to Matt Kenseth last Sunday after giving his Ford rival the shove he needed to move to the front. Having made his way through the field in the closing stages, however, Harvick could easily have taken his second 500 success had it not been the a rain interruption that eventually drew a red flag with the #29 still in second spot.
He has a solid record in southern California, having posted four top ten finishes in 13 Cup Series starts at the Auto Club Speedway, having completed 99.1 per cent of all laps attempted. However, while he believes that this weekend's race may provide a better idea of how the field is shaping up than the usual Daytona lottery, the 33-year old also acknowledges that the California oval is still not the best form guide.
“From a competition standpoint, I think [not having to run a restrictor plate at Fontana] gives you a rough idea of where you're at," he explained, "California's become kind of worn out and has developed its own character in terms of the way you drive the track and things that you do. It does give you a rough idea, but I think Vegas is the first race track you go to for your mile-and-a-half stuff where you really know where you're at.
“California's been a good race track for us the last couple of years. I know, statistically, it wasn't that good the first few years I went there, but we've had good performance and solid finishes and it's been a fun place to go. It'd be fun to win here, just because it's close to home and we've got a lot of family and friends there. Hopefully, we can go back and do what we've done the past couple of years.”
Harvick, who has not posted a retirement in his last 81 Cup Series starts, will pilot chassis #254 at Fontana, a proven workhorse that raced in a dozen Sprint Cup events last season, including the August race at Auto Club Speedway, where it finished fourth. Despite the success he has had on mile-and-a-half ovals, however, Harvick does not believe that he is the man the field will be gunning for this weekend.
“I think that target kind of moved between three guys – Jimmie [Johnson], Carl [Edwards] and Kyle [Busch]," he said of the 2008 campaign, "Kyle kind of fell off there at the end of the year when it all counted, but they started the season very well. Carl was pretty consistent through the mile-and-a-half stuff and, if that continues, they'll be the car to beat. It's so unpredictable, though. I'm sure there will be something that changes everything and somebody else will be the guy to beat."
Harvick could point to RCR's record in SoCal to back up his point, as the Auto Club Speedway has yet to produce a trip to victory lane for the veteran team. In 44 starts, it has earned one pole - with Mike Skinner in April 2000, and a best finish of third, courtesy of Clint Bowyer's run in September 2006. Only Homestead-Miami Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway also remain unconquered by RCR, and Harvick is keen to reduce the number to three before heading to Vegas next weekend.
Last year's Fontana race got rained out until Monday and, with Nationwide duties also on his card this week, Harvick admits that a simialr delay could undo all the hard work through practice and qualifying.
“Anytime you start a race and stop it, and start it and stop it, and you have to go into Monday, it just kind of changes the type of race that it is," he confirmed, "If you have a storm like that and you start the race on Sunday and the car's pretty good, it's probably going to be crappy on Monday, just for the fact that the race track is green. It adds a lot of twists and turns, just because you don't have that steady progress of rubbering up the race track and having that consistent progress of knowing where your car is, set-up-wise. You kind of lose track of that and have to guess a little bit.”
For the record, Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Scott Speed and Harvick's new RCR team-mate Casey Mears are the others racing 'at home' this weekend.