For the first time in 19 years, Kevin Harvick has the chance to win a NASCAR race in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif.
But winning isn’t the most important thing.
At least not when it comes to his participation in Thursday night’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Kern County (Calif.) Raceway Park
It’s about something that has grown more important the longer and more successful his racing career has grown – helping continue the grassroots racing pipeline which has provided drivers like himself a chance to race up the NASCAR ladder.
“Myself and Bill McAnally and some of the folks at NASCAR have worked very hard to get the (K&N series) schedule where it is. I feel like it’s important for our sport to keep those regional series healthy,” Harvick said after his victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Phoenix.
“To have the season opener out there, have some buzz around it, and this will only help that buzz.”
It certainly should.
Harvick, a former series champion, will return to his hometown having won three of the first four races in the Cup series this season. In all, he’s won the last four NASCAR races he’s entered, dating back to the Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Harvick, 42, ran at the old Mesa Marin Speedway (which was also in Bakersfield) in the West Series as well as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the former NASCAR Southwest Series.
While he had a best finish of third in six West starts and runner-up in five Truck starts, he won the final two of his 12 Southeast Series races at the now-bulldozed half-mile.
Kern County opened in 2013, as a replacement for Mesa Marin. Thursday will be Harvick’s first opportunity to race at the track, which he will do piloting a Jefferson Pitts Racing entry in the K&N West season opener.
This isn’t Harvick’s first venture into the K&N series for this purpose.
Last summer, he entered the K&N West race at Sonoma, Calif., and won the event. In the process, he also shared the spotlight on a younger West series driver, Will Rodgers, who battled him for the lead and finished second.
Rodgers, who went on to win two K&N races later in the season, will be a teammate of Harvick’s in Thursday night’s race at Kern County.
Rodgers has used his experience to help advance his own racing career – exactly as Harvick had hoped.
“We need those series to be healthy because, in my opinion, all those hardcore NASCAR fans that we talk about losing, a lot of that starts at the grassroots level,” Harvick said. “The reason that we lose a lot of those fans is because a lot of those race tracks disappear.
“I’d love to go out there and have a chance to win the race, but my goal is to draw enough attention to get kids’ dads and competitors excited about racing in the K&N Series. Those are the hardcore fans that we talk about losing. In order to do that, in order to keep them enthused, we have to build it from the bottom up, from the late models, K&N, to get them to come out.
“The folks in Bakersfield, we need to get them to go to (Auto Club Speedway). We need to reenergize that short track system to get it to the point it needs to be.”