Harvick will have plenty of competition in 2008 opener at Daytona

Kevin Harvick celebrates his 2007 Nationwide Series win at Daytona International Speedway. AP Photo/John Raoux

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- On the surface, it would be easy to hand Kevin Harvick the trophy for Saturday's Camping World 300 without even bothering to drop the green flag on the Nationwide Series opener.

After all, he won this race in 2007, when he did the honors in a Richard Childress Racing entry. The previous two years, Tony Stewart was the winner -- driving for Kevin Harvick Inc.

Now Harvick will be driving his own No. 33 Chevrolet, but that hardly makes him a lock despite a stunning Nationwide Series record to go along with his Daytona 500 win a year ago.

That might be all well and good, if Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't entered in his own JR Motorsports Chevrolet. JR Motorsports has struggled to establish itself in the series, but now that Hendrick Motorsports merged its Nationwide effort with Junior's company, everything has changed.

Earnhardt is driving the same car Kyle Busch won with here last July, and while Earnhardt is the co-owner, the equipment is the best Hendrick Motorsports had at its disposal.

And Junior won this race in 2002-04, along with adding July wins to his credit in '03 and '06. Four of those wins came while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and one with Richard Childress Racing. Junior, though, hasn't slowed down at Daytona now that he's with Hendrick Motorsports as he's won both the Budweiser Shootout and his Gatorade Duel.

The bad news for Earnhardt came Thursday night, when the No. 5 Chevy that Junior will be driving in Saturday's race was impounded after NASCAR officials discovered the spoiler had been altered. The problem was fixed, however, and the car will be allowed to race.

So while there are plenty of other contenders -- especially with the anything-goes-nature of restrictor-plate racing -- it's easy to see why no one will be surprised if the race comes down to two men battling for bragging rights not only as drivers, but as car owners.

And both may consider winning as an owner the greatest accomplishment.

"I've been fortunate to run in the [No.] 21 and the [No.] 2 car at RCR and win races. I know I could stay at RCR and continue to win races, but it was time for something different," Harvick said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge of running my own cars and creating a different challenge from all aspects. I know what it's been like the last few years to be winning races and being competitive week in and week out, and that's what we are shooting for this year at KHI."

KHI will field the No. 33 on a full-time basis, with Cale Gale running the majority of the races that Harvick doesn't run. It will run its No. 77 entry on a limited basis while running two teams full time in the Craftsman Truck Series.

JR Motorsports, meanwhile, will field a two-car team for the first time, and that excites Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, who runs JR Motorsports for her brother.

"We've been waiting for this week a long time. I think back to when we first started tossing around the idea to put the JR Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports teams under one roof," Earnhardt Elledge said. "So much work went into the merger, and it's a tribute to Dale, Rick Hendrick and all the employees at JRM and Hendrick Motorsports that we've got two solid teams to compete in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2008.

"We look forward to watching Brad [Keselowski] and Dale race this weekend at Daytona. I know how special Daytona is to all of us, and Dale enjoys racing there more than anywhere else. It will be a big day for JR Motorsports to watch the No. 5 and No. 88 cars on the track together."

Harvick knows his dramatic, last-lap pass of Mark Martin in the Daytona 500 obscured his win in what was then the Busch Series last season. So he'd like to remind people of just what he's done in that series at Daytona.

And the numbers speak volumes.

In 11 starts, he has 10 top-5s, including last year's win. He's completed every lap in all 11 of those races and has led for 171 laps.

Harvick doesn't see why that should change this year.

"I look forward to being competitive in Daytona, so it's a much different mind-set going in to those races this year and just looking to build the program and get it to where it needs to be," he said. "I feel very comfortable with where we are with the speedway programs."

In his 13 Nationwide starts at Daytona, he has five wins, six top-5s and seven top-10s, but that doesn't guarantee it'll end as a Harvick-Earnhardt battle Saturday afternoon.

RCR's Clint Bowyer and Bobby Labonte; Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s Martin Truex Jr.; the Roush Fenway Racing contingent that includes Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle; and the Toyotas of Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Brian Vickers, Mike Wallace, David Reutimann and Jason Leffler are just some of the others who stand strong chances of being in the mix at the end.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.