Jonathan Allard knows it will be tough defending his King of the West 410-cubic-inch sprint car title, but the Chico resident has the team and the experience to fend off challengers such as Grass Valley's Jason Statler and Sacramento's Kyle Hirst and Willie Croft.
And there's always the venerable multi-series champion Brent Kaeding lurking somewhere on the track.
"Kyle (Hirst) is probably our biggest opponent, and with Roth Motorsports, you know his team is always well-funded," Allard said Wednesday between welding sessions in preparation for the season opener Saturday night at Antioch Speedway. "Brent is the best there is around here, and Willie Croft, Statler and Rico Abreu are all tough."
Hirst won two races and finished in the top five eight times last season, third most in the series. He finished 13th in the standings, racing in 11 of 17 possible starts.
Croft will drive for owner Clyde Lamar after finishing seventh in points last season while driving his own sprinter. He led all drivers with six heat-race wins.
Saturday's race in Antioch is the first of 28 scheduled in the King of the West Series and the most races in a season in more than a decade. The series added race dates in Fallon and Fernley, Nev., and returns to familiar tracks such as Petaluma Speedway.
Placerville Speedway hosts the second race on April 27. King of the West driver Evan Suggs, who finished second in the standings behind Allard last season, shares the Placerville quarter-mile oval-track record with Tim Kaeding, clocking a lap time of 9.913 seconds.
Allard became just the second driver to earn three Golden State/King of the West 410 titles since the Golden State Series was founded in 1986. He posted four victories in 2012, including his all-time-leading fifth in the Dave Bradway Jr. Memorial at his hometown track, the Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico. This is Allard's ninth season driving the Williams Motorsports No. 0 sprinter.
"It's really nice driving for Morrie and Katie (Williams)," Allard said. "They're all about racing and are family-oriented."
Allard said he's learned a lot about the business side of racing from the Williamses, who are based in Oakhurst. Allard has gleaned that knowledge and applied it to his own Jonathan Allard Motorsports business that he runs four months every year in Australia and New Zealand.
Allard recently completed his seventh season Down Under, where he lives and races annually from October through January. He met his girlfriend in New Zealand, he said, and fell in love with the Kiwis as well.
"When I first went down there, it was for a couple of weeks, then it turned into six weeks, and now it's four months," Allard said. "Running my own team down there has allowed me to experience everything there is about this sport, and I'm loving it. There's the marketing side and the sponsorship side and getting my car ready each week. The race fans down there are crazy for sprint car racing. The races are replayed every Wednesday night in prime time."
Allard said he is dedicating this season to his older brother, Stephen, who died in December. Stephen Allard was an accomplished sprint car driver and won track championships at Chico's Silver Dollar Speedway in 1996 and 2007. He was 40 years old.
"Stephen was always a guy I looked up to, and he was more bold and brash behind the wheel than I was," Allard said. "This season will be the first time for me going it alone."
NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip has been named grand marshal of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekend at Sonoma Raceway, June 21-23. This race will mark the 25th anniversary of the NASCAR Sprint Cup event at the track in Sonoma.
Waltrip is a three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion with 84 victories, tying him for third with Bobby Allison on the all-time list. He won the 1989 Daytona 500 and is the only five-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 (1978, '79, '85, '88 and '89) at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Mark Billingsley covers local motor sports for The Bee. Reach him at email@example.com.