Kevin Harvick arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a bullseye on his back. Last year he won both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race and the Xfinity race the day before.
It is the venue where he so dramatically won his very first NASCAR Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race – driving Dale Earnhardt’s car only three weeks after being summoned into the Cup ranks after the seven-time champion’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Atlanta Motor Speedway has held a positive mark in Harvick’s career. Last year his victory sparked a three-race winning streak that started the best statistically year of his career – a record eight wins in all. He led a dominating 181 of the 325 laps at Atlanta and added another 214 out front at Las Vegas the next week – two huge competitive statements. He’s led 915 laps in the last five Atlanta races alone – finishing top-five in four of them.
And yet for all that background and all that success, Harvick insisted Friday after a brief practice session, he truly doesn’t know what to expect this weekend when the series debuts new technical regulations.
The cars will be fitted with tapered spacers in the engines designed to restrict airflow and lower the horsepower by about 200 HP. The package is similar to what received glowing reviews after its use in the 2018 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and will be used at all tracks moving forward.
Harvick could only smile and surmise when asked – repeatedly – about his prospects and expectations for this weekend.
“We really don't know either,’’ he said of the drivers expectations. “That is the question. We don't have that answer. I can tell you that it will be drastically different than what we have done before. We have not raced this package. That is the bottom line. You don't have any idea of what you need because we haven’t had all the cars on the track and last week was a great example for a lot of you who wrote stories about the racing and the way that the Clash and qualifying races were and the drastic difference when we dropped the difference at the Daytona 500 with all the cars on the race track.
“Other than being drastically different, I would hate to speculate on what the direction of it is going to be and what we are going to do because we don't know.
“That is good for everyone watching. Once the engineers all wrap their arms around what they need it becomes more of a system and you start to build the notebook and things that go with that to start to evolve the program and what you do and what you work on.”
Harvick shows up at Atlanta eager to give the season a sort of re-boot. His No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford finished 26th in the season-opening Daytona 500 – a victim of a multi-car accident six laps shy of the scheduled checkered flag – 13 laps shy of the ultimate checkered flag, the extra laps necessary for late race incidents.
All that is in the rearview mirror now as NASCAR introduces one of the most significant competitive changes in years. The good news is teams and drivers seemed encouraged during offseason testing of the new package.
“Based on the lap times and everything that we saw today, handling is still going to be a pretty big part of the weekend and things that you need to put in your car,’’ Harvick explained. “I think it is more along the lines of that truck mentality. You can fall into the hole from the speed trap or you can work on your car and make it handle well and have decent speed.
“It is definitely a balance to see where all of that falls at all the different styles of race tracks.”
It’s going to not only require a different way to drive, perhaps, but new race strategies from the pit box. And of course, ultimately this new element of competition will become about which team, which manufacturer, which driver figures it all out the best. And quickest.
This week will be the first test. And the drivers are ready.
“Right now we don't have anything to evolve because we don't have any answers,’’ Harvick said. “We have more questions with zero answers actually.”