SONOMA, Calif. – After 110 laps around Sonoma Raceway from Northern California, the 12-turn road course produced a new winner this season, and a new winner in Wine Country.
Kevin Harvick won the Toyota/Save Mart 350 after leading the final 22 laps in his No. 4 Mobil 1 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. The win marks SHR’s second of the season (first since the Daytona 500), Harvick’s first of the season, his first career Monster Energy Cup Series win at Sonoma, this season and his first win as a member of the Ford Performance team.
The win means Harvick has now won at every track on the MENCS circuit but three: Texas, Kentucky and Pocono. He led 24 laps on Sunday afternoon and passed Brad Keselowski, who stayed out on older tires, with 22 laps to go in turn five and never looked back.
“I’m so excited,” Harvick said in victory lane after winning in his home state of California. “I think, as you look at it, getting our first win with Ford, this has been a great journey for us as an organization and team. Kurt (Busch) winning the Daytona 500, and we have run well […] it’s a great day. It finally all came together, and we were able to not have any cautions there at the end. Rodney had great strategy, and I was able to take care of the car and get out front.”
The final 60-lap stage ran without incident, as the caution flag didn’t fly. There were a few instances where cars went off track in the dirt and spun out, but NASCAR opted not to throw the yellow flag and let the race play out. After the sanctioning body caught a lot of flak for phantom debris cautions last week at Michigan, they let the race play out this weekend.
“It means a ton to finally check this one off the list,” Harvick said. “I feel like we’ve been close a couple times but never put it all together […] being so close to home and having raced here so much, this was one that was on the top of the list and today we were able to check that box.”
Harvick also competed in—and won—the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West event, the Carneros 200, on Saturday afternoon. It was his first NKNPSW start since 2007 and his first series start at Sonoma since 1998, when he won the same race. Harvick won the series title back in 1997.
“It always feels good to win, no matter what it is,” Harvick said following his K&N win. “But the main objective was to come have fun. Shine a little light on the series and shine a little light on the talent in this series. This series did a lot for me and to come back and be a part of it and see the health of it and see the young guys racing was really the main objective.”
Will Rodgers, a talented road course racer, finished second to Harvick racing for Jefferson Pitts Racing, the same team for which Harvick piloted his No. 4 Fields Ford. Rodgers and Harvick struck up a friendship, and the 22-year-old sat atop Harvick’s pit box for his win on Sunday afternoon.
“I think this K&N car has been a little bit of a help to stay in a rhythm,” said Harvick, who plans to run the XFINITY event at Watkins Glen International later this summer in an effort to improve his road course racing on Sunday’s. “I just tried to manage my tires and take care of them so I’d have something in the last 30 laps […] it was fun. Brings back a lot of memories.”
1-2 FOR STEWART-HAAS
Following Harvick across the start/finish line was Clint Bowyer. Both of their cars were beaten and battered all over, but they brought them home in the two best positions possible.
“Well, let’s face it: short runs have never been my strong suit here,” Bowyer told the media following his best finish of the season. “The long runs are, and thank God we got a long run there (at the end). I was out of tires. By the time I got done tearing the hell out of my car, I was out of tires. There was some technical strategy that you’ve got to try to play and get track position, and then, all of a sudden, you’re on the bad side of tires trying to hold guys off and you’re blocking […] so yeah. One of them days.”
Brad Keselowski, who stayed out longer than anybody during the final stage amid pit stops, came home third after passing a few cars with 20-lap fresher tires in the closing laps. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch came home in fourth and fifth place, respectively. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 10 when the checkered flag flew on the 110-lap event from Sonoma.
Some other notable finishers included Joey Logano in 12th, Jimmie Johnson in 13th and Daniel Suarez in 16th.
Five drivers made their MENCS debuts Sunday. Billy Johnson came home 22nd, Israeli driver Alon Day was 32nd, Kevin O’Connell 33rd, Tommy Regan 34th and Josh Bilicki in 36th place.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t been known throughout his career to specialize in road course racing. But recently, he’s been as good as they come. His sixth-place run on Sunday marked his third top 10 at Sonoma in the past four seasons. Coming into the TSM 350, he had the best average finish of the last three events at the 1.99-mile road course dating back to 2014.
“Once we got settled in we just kind of ran our laps,” Earnhardt said upon exiting his car on pit road. “I just tried to take care of the car. I couldn’t run as hard as I wanted to right off the bat on stickers because it seemed to really hurt the car on the long run with the drive off. So I took care of it the first 10 laps and then, the car had a lot more to offer on the end of the run […] just like the wine out here, I just get better with age running around this place. I can’t do it without a good car and I’ve had some great cars out here the last several trips.”
TRUEX JR. UP IN SMOKE
After leading a race-high 25 laps and having the best car for most the afternoon, Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota came home in a very disappointing 37th place in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
In the final stage after what would be the final green flag pit stop for the No. 78, Truex Jr. reported that he may have lost a cylinder. That accusation ultimately came to fruition, as the car began smoking and was forced to retire from the event. However, Truex Jr. did win stage one (Jimmie Johnson won stage two), meaning his stage wins are now at 11 for this season.
NO CAUTIONS, NO PROBLEM
Besides the two stage cautions, there was only one yellow flag for an on-track incident involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick on turn 11 in stage one. The rest of the race ran green. And even when NASCAR had the option to throw one as the race was winding down, they didn’t.
“Good for NASCAR, man, I’ll tell ya,” Earnhardt Jr. said when asked about NASCAR throwing no cautions in the final stage. “I think they heard the voices last week (at Michigan). There were some opportunities for them to throw some yellows without any gripe from anyone, and they let it play out. So that was a race.”
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads back east to Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, July 1. The NASCAR XFINITY Series also will race on Friday evening. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has a weekend off before heading to Kentucky Speedway. The NASCAR K&N Pro Series West has one month off from competition.