FONTANA, Calif. — Kevin Harvick arrived in his home state late this past week on a three-race winning streak. He promptly dominated during practice, then set the track speed record during qualifying at Auto Club Speedway.
As if anyone in NASCAR's Cup Series needed a reminder they're likely to end up chasing Harvick on this wide, weathered asphalt oval today in California.
"I think everybody is extremely confident," Harvick said of his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford team. "I think that confidence just builds. With every moment, you just become more confident in the things that you can and can't do."
That can't-do list is awfully short these days for Harvick, who is attempting to become the 13th driver in Cup Series history to win four consecutive races, and only the sixth since 1991. Jimmie Johnson was the most recent to accomplish the feat back in 2007, and he is the only driver to do it in the 21st century.
Harvick's streak started at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and he has since added victories at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and ISM Raceway in the Phoenix area.
Although Johnson has six career victories at Auto Club Speedway, the Cup Series track closest to his hometown, the Californian might not have the car to prevent Harvick from becoming the first driver to sweep all three races in NASCAR's West Coast swing. But many of the top candidates to challenge Harvick, who will start 10th today, have their own local ties.
Kyle Larson, a Sacramento-area native, won this race last year and finished third behind Harvick two weeks ago. He'll start third. Las Vegas native Kyle Busch is a three-time winner here, and he has spent much of this season right behind Harvick, including second-place finishes the past two weeks. He'll start on the front row, next to 2017 season champion Martin Truex Jr., who is in pole position for the second straight race.
"It's cool to see what their race team is doing right now," Larson said of Harvick. "He is making it look really easy, because it's not at all easy to win a Cup race."
The oldest surface on the schedule also could play a role in the result. Tire degradation is a big factor on the weathered asphalt, and after 13 cars couldn't pass inspection to qualify on Friday, a few drivers up front complained the mistakes would turn out to be an advantage because the cars in the back could start on fresh tires. Late Friday night, NASCAR decided to eliminate that advantage by allowing the cars that made it through qualifying to purchase another set of tires.
But wild, 200-mph racing is not uncommon on the grooved, five-wide track, and Harvick is eager to mix it up on the mile layout.
"I crashed going into the green flag last year," Harvick said, referring to damage on the nose of his car in the opening moments of the race. "So there's got to be a little bit of redemption somewhere along the line to pick yourself back up and recover from that. Hopefully we can keep doing what we've been doing."
Harvick would like to keep streaking, but Johnson is trying to stop skidding.
The seven-time Cup Series champion is an enormous fan favorite at this track, and he is racing for the first time since Lowe's announced the end of its long-standing sponsorship deal with the No. 48 Chevrolet after this season. Hendrick Motorsports is still attempting to optimize its performance in the new Camaro body, and the results haven't shown up this year.
On top of that, he has gone 27 straight races without visiting victory lane, the worst run of his career.
"I'm fighting very similar issues that I did have last year," Johnson said. "Yes, we are still sorting out a new car and some new rules, so I think we will continue to evolve that side of it from an aero standpoint, but I feel there is a little more to it than just that."