There’s one overarching question as NASCAR returns to Southern California this weekend: Can anyone stop the Kevin Harvick express?
Harvick, the 42-year-old Bakersfield native, has won the last three races in NASCAR’s premier Monster Energy Cup Series, and he’ll be gunning for his fourth at the Auto Club 400 on Sunday.
The veteran is an odds-on bet to accomplish the feat because Harvick — a former series champion who drives the No. 4 Ford for the Stewart-Haas Racing team — has a stout record at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
Harvick won the Cup race there in 2011, was runner-up in 2015 and 2016 and has 11 top-10 finishes at the track.
This will be the fifth race of the Cup series’ 36-race calendar. After Austin Dillon won the season-opening Daytona 500, Harvick took the checkered flag at Atlanta, Las Vegas and last weekend at Phoenix.
Harvick, who can quickly shift from charming and engaging to prickly and contentious, went to Phoenix downright angry after NASCAR effectively accused his team of cheating at Las Vegas.
After stripping down Harvick’s car following the Las Vegas win, NASCAR ruled that the vehicle had a rear window that wasn’t properly braced and a side rocker panel made of the wrong material, both in violation of the rules.
The sanctioning body allowed Harvick to keep the victory but stripped him of championship points and penalized his crew chief and car chief.
The penalties left Harvick furious. When he arrived in Phoenix, he told reporters the vehicle had passed all NASCAR inspections at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and “the car was built to tolerance.”
NASCAR “could find something wrong with every car if they took it apart for a whole day at the R&D center,” he said.
So, moments after the Phoenix win, Harvick said the victory was extra sweet because “I’ve been mad as all get-out” since Las Vegas. The penalties, he said, “put a fire in our belly.”
Among the drivers who might interfere with Harvick’s streak are Kyle Larson, the 25-year-old Californian who won the Fontana race last year, and Kyle Busch, 32, the 2015 Cup champion who is a three-time winner at Auto Club Speedway.
Larson, who drives the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing, and Dillon are part of the widely publicized youth movement in the Cup series, where several young drivers have supplanted famed NASCAR veterans who have retired in recent years, such as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, now the co-owner of Harvick’s team.
The young drivers also include Ryan Blaney, 24; Chase Elliott, 22, and Cup rookie Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., 24, who’s driving the No. 43 Chevrolet for the legendary Richard Petty.
Wallace finished second to Dillon in the Daytona 500, becoming the highest-finishing African American driver in the race’s history. He wept at his post-race news conference while scores of fans announced on social media they were now Bubba Wallace fans.
But as Wallace knows, Daytona is an oddity because speeds are restricted on the high-banked track, which keeps the field bunched together and puts an emphasis on drafting. Since then, Wallace has very much come back to earth racing on NASCAR’s normal, unrestricted tracks with finishes of 21st or worse in the last three races.
“Growing pains, baby,” Wallace tweeted after the Phoenix race.
Wallace and his rivals also know that finding extra speed is everything at the sweeping Fontana oval, where the cars reach 200 mph or more as they race down the front straightaway into Turn 1. The track also is wide, with cars often three or four abreast on restarts.
The master at Auto Club Speedway is seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who has a record six wins there, the most recent in 2016. But the El Cajon native is struggling with a 27-race winless streak going back to last year, the worst of his stellar career.
Qualifying for the Auto Club 400 is at 4 p.m. Friday.
NASCAR’s second-level Xfinity Series will hold a 150-lap race at 2 p.m. Saturday, and Sunday’s 200-lap Cup race starts at 12:30 p.m.