Notes of Interest
● The Save Mart 350k at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway is the third of a ground-breaking seven NASCAR Cup Series races to be held on road courses in 2021. From 1988 to 2017, there were only two road courses on the schedule – Sonoma and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. The Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway Roval was added in 2018, giving the series just three road-course venues. The initial 2021 schedule doubled that tally with Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course all being added. And when COVID-19 restrictions forced the cancellation of the series’ planned stop earlier this year at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, the road course at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway was put in its place, serving as the series’ second race of 2021.
● NASCAR is back in wine country for the first time in nearly two years. COVID-19 kept NASCAR out of Northern California in 2020, as the pandemic forced NASCAR officials to transfer Sonoma’s original June 12-14, 2020 date to the 1.5-mile oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the NASCAR Cup Series ran on May 27. It marked the first time the NASCAR weekend at Sonoma had been canceled or rescheduled. When the green flag drops on the Save Mart 350k, it will have been 714 days since the Cup Series last competed at Sonoma. In fact, NASCAR hasn’t been in the Golden State in more than 15 months, as the sanctioning body’s last race in California took place on March 1, 2020 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
● Yes, NASCAR is back in wine country, but as the Official Beer of NASCAR, Busch is taking the opportunity to remind everyone that beer is better. In fact, Busch is giving away a year’s worth of its product to one lucky winner who tweets with the hashtags #BeerOverWine and #Sweepstakes every time Harvick makes a pass during the Save Mart 350k. Harvick will start eighth.
● Harvick is one of five NASCAR Cup Series drivers who hail from California. The driver of the No. 4 Busch Light #BeerOverWine Ford Mustang is from Bakersfield, and the native Californians joining him on the grid include his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer (Ladera Ranch), fellow Ford driver Matt DiBenedetto (Grass Valley), last Sunday’s winner Kyle Larson (Elk Grove) and two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick (Corning).
● Retro racing returns to Sonoma in the form of the track’s “Carousel”. From 1989 to 1997, the NASCAR Cup Series used Sonoma’s full, 12-turn road course, which featured a sweeping sequence of turns called The Carousel. The Carousel has been a part of Sonoma’s original layout since it opened in 1968. It plunges from turn four down through turns five and six and navigates a more than 200-degree radius corner before dropping onto Sonoma’s longest straightaway from the turn-seven hairpin. NASCAR first utilized this configuration in 1969 during its first Pacific Coast Late Model Division race at what was then called Sears Point Raceway and in numerous Cup Series, West Series, Southwest Tour and Truck Series events through 1997. Beginning in 1998, NASCAR competed on a shorter, 1.99-mile layout that bypassed The Carousel by connecting turns four and seven via “The Chute”. The full track returned for the Cup Series’ 2019 race and prior to that outing, only three active drivers had experienced The Carousel. Kyle Busch once drove a Legends car there and Jimmie Johnson traversed it while participating in a driving school, but it was Harvick who had the most “experience” on The Carousel. Back on May 6, 1995, Harvick started 31st in the Budweiser 200 NASCAR Southwest Tour race. He finished 35th, completing only 18 of the 50 laps after engine problems sent him to the garage. That was 26 years ago, and to put that time into perspective, Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas was continuing to build Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in North America, but hadn’t yet formed a NASCAR team. Tony Stewart, the “Stewart” in Stewart-Haas Racing, had just begun his successful quest to the win the USAC Triple Crown – championships in the sanctioning body’s Silver Crown, Midget and Sprint Car divisions. Crew chief Rodney Childers was enjoying a highly successful karting career, driving for a factory team with which he would win two national championships and three state championships.
● Harvick has made a total of 44 NASCAR Cup Series starts on road courses. He has 19 starts apiece at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, three at the Charlotte Roval, two on the Daytona road course and one at COTA. He has scored two wins – Watkins Glen in 2006 and Sonoma in 2017 – along with 10 top-fives and 23 top-10s with 195 laps led.
● When Harvick scored his first road-course victory at Watkins Glen in 2006, he had to beat his current team owner to do it. Stewart had won the past two NASCAR Cup Series races at the seven-turn, 2.45-mile road course and was poised to capture a third straight win as he was leading Harvick with four laps to go in the 90-lap race. But Harvick, who had already led once for 24 laps, passed Stewart on lap 87 as the two drag-raced down the frontstretch and into turn one. Harvick held onto the lead despite Stewart in his rearview mirror, earning a margin of victory of .892 of a second.
● Harvick’s second career road-course win also had a connection to Stewart. When Harvick won at Sonoma in 2017, he gave Stewart-Haas Racing its second straight victory at the 10-turn, 1.99-mile version of the track. The winner in 2016? None other than Stewart. It ended up being his 49th and final NASCAR Cup Series victory as Stewart retired from NASCAR racing at the conclusion of the season.
● Harvick’s last road-course win was his first in a Ford. When Harvick won at Sonoma in 2017, he became the 83rd different driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race behind the wheel of a Ford. Harvick has now won 23 Cup Series races with Ford, which makes him one of only 13 drivers to win 20 or more races with the manufacturer. He is currently tied with Rusty Wallace and Carl Edwards for 11th on the all-time Ford win list.
● Harvick has four road-course wins outside of the NASCAR Cup Series. Two came in the NASCAR Xfinity Series – Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal in 2007 and Watkins Glen in 2007 – and two were in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West – Sonoma in 1998 and Sonoma in 2017. Harvick’s K&N Series win at Sonoma in 1998 was three years before his Cup Series debut on Feb. 26, 2001 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.
Kevin Harvick, Driver of the No. 4 Busch Light #BeerOverWine Ford Mustang
The preponderance of road-course racing in NASCAR is still relatively new, but road-course racing at Sonoma isn’t. Despite NASCAR’s recent uptick in road-course racing, does Sonoma feel like a comfortable pair of slippers because you’ve been there so often?
“For sure, and it will be nice to know every nook and cranny because we haven’t been there in a little bit. We didn’t go there last year, and going back this year definitely makes it a little bit different because of the fact that you’re not going to have any practice or qualifying. Plus, you took a year off from the racetrack, so it’s not as relevant as somewhere that we raced last year with the notes and the things we have. It’s definitely a racetrack I have a lot of laps at.”
You’re from Bakersfield, California, and you cut your teeth on the NASCAR Southwest Tour and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. How big of a deal was it to race at Sonoma when the NASCAR Cup Series was in town?
“Sonoma and Phoenix were always the two biggest races of the year for the West Series and for the Southwest Tour. I ran my first race in the Southwest Tour there in 1995 and ran it a few more times after that. I ran the West Series race there a few times and a few years back, as well. It’s always been a staple of regional, West Coast racing because of the fact that that’s where the Cup guys raced, and Phoenix was the same way. Just getting to do something at the highest level, at the same time and at the same venue as the Cup guys, was really cool for the grassroots racers. At one point, I was that grassroots racer that wanted to be in that environment for that particular weekend because it was just cool.”
How helpful will your experience running the Daytona road course back in February and COTA two weeks ago be this Sunday at Sonoma?
“I think COTA and Sonoma are going to be more similar than a lot of people think. I know that Sonoma doesn’t have a big, long straightaway with a bunch of elevation changes into a fast corner, but Sonoma does have a lot of elevation change, it’s just a much slower pace of racetrack just because of the fact that you have so many corners. I think with all the sharp corners and all the little timing sections you have through the esses at COTA, it’s more similar to Sonoma than anywhere else.”
When it comes to road-course racing, do you feel that more of the race is in your hands?
“You do have more in your hands, for sure, especially when it comes to shifting and all the different things that could happen. But strategy and track position are a big part of that element too. It’s just like anything else, you’ve got to have the whole piece of the puzzle to put it all together.”
Do you like road-course racing?
“I enjoy road racing. For us, it’s kind of up and down as far as what we’ve been able to do on the racetrack from a performance side, but a lot of that was track specific, too. Sonoma has been a really good racetrack for us. Then you look at Daytona – we kind of all got thrown on there last year. I think we all said we would’ve done probably a hundred things differently. We definitely have some racetracks that we needed to work on to try and make our stuff better, but we also know that we’re going to some new places. We have to be a little more prepared, and that goes for me too. I’m trying to learn these new racetracks – which curbs to hit and all those types of things. We’re going to be aggressive with it and spend more time in the simulator and more time in the go kart trying to do some other things outside of what we do in the Busch Light Ford Mustang.”