● Back on Jan. 12, Kevin Harvick announced that 2023 would be his final year in the NASCAR Cup Series. The driver of the No. 4 GEARWRENCH Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing will retire after the checkered flag waves at the season finale Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway. When that day comes, Harvick will have had a 23-year run in the Cup Series – one of the longest tenures in recent memory. That kind of history makes for some interesting anecdotes, especially when you consider that Harvick has been racing in at least one of NASCAR’s top-three national series for 28 years. As the Bakersfield, California, native returns to his home track this weekend – Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California – here are three nuggets that highlight his NASCAR tenure:
● Harvick raced against former NFL head coach Jerry Glanville. Their first race together was April 21, 1996 at Phoenix Raceway in the NASCAR Truck Series.
● Harvick has raced against three generations of Gillilands, beginning with patriarch Butch Gilliland (they first raced together on April 21, 1996 in the Truck Series at Phoenix), and then Butch’s son David Gilliland (in both Xfinity and Cup Series races from 2004-2018) and finally David’s son Todd Gilliland, who was a Cup Series rookie last year and remains in the series.
● Another noteworthy driver Harvick has competed against is Hershel McGriff, who was recently inducted into the 2023 NASCAR Hall of Fame. McGriff is known for his unsurpassed longevity in the sport. His first race was the 1950 Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway when he was a 22-year-old competing in NASCAR’s sophomore season. His final race was the 2018 Port of Tucson Twin 100s where, as a 90-year-old, McGriff drove in the first of two 100-lap NASCAR West Series races at Tucson (Ariz.) Speedway. Harvick and McGriff competed against each other in the NASCAR Winston West Series from 1996 through 1998.
● Harvick will make some history of his own Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. When he takes the green flag for the Pala Casino 400, Harvick will make his 750th consecutive NASCAR Cup Series start, becoming just the third driver in series history to reach the milestone, joining Jeff Gordon (797 consecutive starts) and Ricky Rudd (788 consecutive starts). The last time Harvick was not in a Cup Series race was April 2, 2002 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, a span of 7,623 days between race dates.
● Auto Club Speedway serves as a homecoming for Harvick. The 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion is from Bakersfield, roughly three hours northwest of Fontana. Harvick joins three other Californians competing at Auto Club Speedway – A.J. Allmendinger from Los Gatos, Kyle Larson from Elk Grove, and Tyler Reddick from Corning. In the 26-year history of the track, only four Californians have won a NASCAR Cup Series race at Fontana – Vallejo’s Jeff Gordon, El Cajon’s Jimmie Johnson, Larson and Harvick – but they’ve won 12 of the 32 races held.
● Harvick’s lone NASCAR Cup Series victory at Fontana came on March 27, 2011 when he beat Johnson by .144 of a second. Harvick led only one lap, but it was the only one that mattered. He took the lead from Johnson on the final lap to score his 15th career Cup Series win. Harvick has won 45 races since. His 60 career Cup Series victories puts him in a tie with Kyle Busch for ninth on the series’ all-time win list.
● Harvick and Kurt Busch lead the NASCAR Cup Series in starts at Auto Club Speedway with 28 starts apiece – a streak that spans four decades (1997-2022). Next best in this category is Kurt’s younger brother, Kyle Busch, who has 23 career starts at Fontana.
● Harvick’s NASCAR Cup Series stat line at Fontana includes a win, seven top-five finishes, 14 top-10 finishes and 238 laps led. His average finish across his 28 career starts is 14.9, thanks in large part to completing 98.7 percent of the laps available (6,274 of 6,356 laps).
● Harvick has been competing at Auto Club Speedway ever since 1997 – the track’s debut season. His first start at the 2-mile oval came on Oct. 18, 2017 in The No Fear Challenge NASCAR Truck Series race driving the No. 75 entry for Wayne and Connie Spears of Agua Dulce, California. Harvick started 28th and finished 20th, completing 99 of 100 laps. Harvick has made a total of four Truck Series starts at Fontana, with his best result coming in his most recent Truck Series start there – eighth on Feb. 23, 2007.
● Harvick also competed at Auto Club Speedway with Wayne and Connie Spears in the NASCAR Winston West Series. He made two Winston West starts for the family-owned team at Fontana in 1998, and it was in his first start on May 2 that Harvick piqued the interest of NASCAR team owner Richard Childress. Harvick started second and finished second, leading 32 laps in between. Ken Schrader took the win by 1.314 seconds, but Childress took note of the then 22-year-old Harvick. In Harvick’s Winston West return to Fontana on July 18, he one-upped his performance from two months prior. He started from the pole and ended with the win, taking the checkered flag by 1.15 seconds over Austin Cameron. He led 52 of the race’s 100 laps. Those victories were part of a five-win campaign that led Harvick to the 1998 Winston West championship and, ultimately, a 14-year career with Richard Childress Racing, with the team signing Harvick to race in the Xfinity Series in 2000.
● The NASCAR Xfinity Series represents another successful element of Harvick’s career at Auto Club Speedway. In 20 starts at the track, Harvick has finished among the top-10 17 times. He has 12 top-fives, highlighted by a win in his second-to-last Xfinity Series start at Fontana. Harvick took the checkered flag on March 21, 2015 with an impressive 3.317-second margin over second-place Brendan Gaughan.
● Kevin Harvick competed in the IROC Series for three seasons (2002-2004). The International Race of Champions (IROC) pitted drivers from a variety of racing disciplines against each other in identically-prepared stock cars in an annual four-race series where driver talent ruled. Harvick’s first and only IROC win came in just his second start – April 27, 2002 at Fontana. With a season-long average finish of 4.8 buoyed by that win, Harvick took the IROC title.
You’ve been racing at Fontana since its inaugural season, first competing there in a 1997 Truck Series race and then the next year in the NASCAR Winston West Series. The track was already special because it was relatively close to your hometown of Bakersfield, but it also helped launch your career. Talk about that.
“When I think about Fontana, I go back to just the second race I ran there in 1998 for Wayne and Connie Spears, and being able to race that day with Ken Schrader. That was the first day that Richard Childress kind of noticed what I was doing and the things that were happening on the racetrack, and it really kicked off the first part of our ’98 Winston West championship season. At that particular point, we weren’t supposed to run the whole season, and Wayne had told us, ‘Well, if you guys keep doing good, we’ll talk about it and see if you can continue racing.’ We wound up racing for the win that day, and that was always good for us because Wayne and Connie’s shop was right down the street at their house in Agua Dulce, in the garage right behind their house. At that particular time, I was a mechanic. I started as a mechanic in 1997 and began the year racing in Trucks, but we also raced the Winston West car – first at Mesa Marin and then the last two races of the season – because of the success that we had. And the next year when we ran the full Winston West season, that first race at Fontana was one of the first days that you got recognized. If it weren’t for Wayne and Connie giving me that opportunity, I wouldn’t have ever had that chance.”
When you race at Fontana, is there a heightened desire to win because it is your home track?
“It’s in my home state, and every year you go there, you want to win the race because you’ve got a lot of family and a lot of friends there, along with a lot of race fans who have come there to watch you race. On the Cup side, I’ve only gotten to do that one time. It was against another California native in Jimmie Johnson, and it was a really cool finish. I got to push him all the way down the back straightaway and then pass him coming to the checkered flag. Cup has not been as successful as I’d like it to be in the win column.”
Why is it so difficult to win at your home track?
“When you go to your home track, you want to win all the time. I think I’m a little bit spoiled by the fact that I put that same amount of pressure on myself at California as I do at Phoenix, but we obviously haven’t had the same kind of results. That being said, we do have a Cup win, we do have an Xfinity Series win, I won my one and only IROC race there, and I’ve got a Winston West win there. It’s definitely been a good racetrack for us. So, we’ve dabbled in victory lane, but not as much as I’d like.”
This is supposed to be the final race at Fontana on its 2-mile layout, as it’s scheduled to undergo a massive renovation where it’ll be changed into a short track. If Sunday does end up being the last race on this current configuration, would a win carry even greater significance?
“For me it would. I really believe that the 1998 Winston West Series race and Richard (Childress) seeing me race for the first time there played a huge part in me having the opportunity to drive at Richard Childress Racing. Look, I worked at the Spears shop that is 30 minutes from the racetrack. I grew up two hours from the racetrack. I have a lot of family and friends and people that go to that race, and have gone to that race for a number of years. The unfortunate part about the racetrack going away is in its current state, it’s just so challenging, and from the driver’s standpoint, it’s so unique. It used to just be a snoozer when the asphalt was no good, and all of a sudden just one year the light switch flipped and cars were all over the racetrack – top of the racetrack, bottom of the racetrack – and the racing just became so different. I’m interested to see what comes next. Do we get a new racetrack, or do we just disappear?”
For someone who grew up in Bakersfield and loved racing, how big of a deal was it when Fontana was built?
“When you look at the racetrack’s shape and size, it’s very similar to Michigan – very Penske-ish in how it was built. But for California, I think a lot of people don’t realize how much racing there is in that state. Obviously, it’s been a big hit throughout the years, and when they brought the Cup Series out there, they were probably the biggest moments that the racetrack will ever have from start to finish. But racing in general, in California, is always well-supported. It’s in its sweet spot right now with one date and getting everybody there.”