FONTANA, Calif., Feb. 24 -- For many Nextel Cup drivers, the real season begins Sunday at California Speedway.
All three of NASCAR's top professional series started last week at Daytona International Speedway, the culmination of offseason preparations.
At Daytona, NASCAR mandates horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates to slow the Cup and Busch cars. Another device keeps the trucks in check on the high banks.
That's a whole different kind of racing from what goes on at Fontana, where engines are unrestricted.
"I would agree that this is kind of the start to the real season," said Kevin Harvick, who won both the season-opening Busch race and the Daytona 500. "We always approach Daytona as kind of a different thing from what we do the rest of the year.
"We spend so much time preparing for what we do at Daytona all winter. Now we're at a downforce track and you [only] have a downforce test here and there during the winter. Everybody has been to Vegas with the Busch cars and the Cup cars to test, and now everybody is looking forward to just kind of getting into that week-to-week run."
The race on California's two-mile oval is the first of three in a row on NASCAR's intermediate and relatively flat tracks. The Cup drivers have next week off, then race on the 1.5-mile ovals at Las Vegas and Atlanta.
Dale Jarrett, who has had to rely on the past champion's provisional to make the lineup at Daytona and for Sunday's Auto Club 500, is also looking forward to seeing what his new No. 44 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota can get done over the next few weeks.
"It is more like what we do on a regular basis," Jarrett, the 1999 Cup champion, said. "The Daytonas and Talladegas are four weekends a year and you have to do that, but this is about what we do all the time, where drivers, crews, everybody makes a big difference.
"Your handling comes into play, you need to have good engines and you need to make good pit stops. So this is kind of where it all starts, even though last week was about points and money and a big victory for Kevin Harvick."
For now, Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner in Fontana, will start from the pole in the 43-car field. He will be alongside Kasey Kahne, who won last September's California race, and just ahead of Harvick and Mark Martin, the driver he beat by a few feet in the Daytona 500.
Matt Kenseth, who won this race a year ago, will start 25th. After the tension of last week -- crashing and finishing 27th after starting the final lap in the top 10 -- the 2003 series champion is looking forward to Sunday.
"I expect you'll see the same racing here you see all the time," Kenseth said. "I expect two, three grooves of racing out there. The track lends itself really well for side-by-side racing because it's plenty wide. It's going to be fun."