Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway…
1. Harvick’s legend grows
It’s hard to be known as one of the greats while competing in the Jimmie Johnson Era, because many of the wins and championships end up getting hogged by the No. 48 team.
But let’s not overlook what Kevin Harvick continues to do at age 41.
After winning for the first time this season, the versatile driver now has victories at every Cup track but Pocono, Texas and Kentucky. Sunday was his 36th career win — which is fourth among active drivers — and he has the second-most wins to Johnson this decade.
At the same time, Harvick has switched teams and now manufacturers during his run — which can sometimes make for a setback in performance. In fact, it probably should have cost him much more speed than it did this season — but everyone took it for granted Harvick and Childers would be winners again soon after changing to Ford.
Internally, though, Stewart-Haas had a lot of work to reach victory lane again on a non-plate track.
“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “… One day, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point. But it’s a huge undertaking.”
The cars have been fast again, though, and for the most part Harvick hasn’t missed a beat. That could set the No. 4 up as a title threat again when the fall rolls around.
2. Clean and green
After a controversial debris caution last week at Michigan, the final stage of the Sonoma race was caution-free — this despite several spins and off-course cars.
It seems crazy to think there could be 55 laps without a caution at Sonoma — where drivers are sliding all over the place and running into one another — but that’s exactly what happened.
No one was complaining about the lack of a debris caution, though. Several competitors found it refreshing, including Brad Keselowski — who praised NASCAR’s “restraint” on Twitter with a thumbs up emoji.
“Good for NASCAR, man,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had addressed the topic on his podcast. “I think they heard the voices last week. There were some opportunities for sure for them to throw some yellows without much of a gripe from anyone, and they let it play out. That’s a race in my book.”
Tony Stewart, one of the vocal critics about the caution at Michigan, praised NASCAR for essentially swallowing the whistle.
“It’s so easy for cars to go off track here and it happened all day long,” Stewart said. “A couple cars even spun out and kept going. So there was a lot of opportunity where we could have gotten that debris caution or whatever during the race, but it was nice to see the race actually got to play out.”
Stewart chided the Joe Gibbs Racing cars for trying to get NASCAR to throw a debris caution after pitting, calling it “gamesmanship” on their part.
“They’re smart; they know how to play the game,” Stewart said of JGR calling for the caution. “I’m glad NASCAR didn’t bite on that one today.”
3. Strategy race
One of the great things about Sonoma — and there are many — is even if the race goes green for an entire half of the event, that doesn’t mean it’s boring.
In addition to the curbs and esses and hills and hairpin turn, the strategy makes the race enjoyable. Unpredictable is a positive thing in racing, and Sonoma certainly fits that description. It’s why only one active driver — Kyle Busch — has more than one win here.
The stages only added to the strategy this year. Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said he agonized over it in the nights leading up to the race.
“It’s been trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do, how many tires do we have laying in the pits, when should we pit, when should we not, do we go after the playoff points in the first stage or do we not or do we pit early,” he said.
That certainly enhances the viewing experience, because it jumbles the field and creates different leaders (there were a race record 10 on Sunday, along with a record 13 lead changs) with all the various strategies.
“I had no earthly idea what was going on,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I passed so many cars. I don’t even know what strategy won. It was very difficult to know what was going on from inside the car. I would assume that caused a lot of great viewing and entertainment that was fun to watch, but I had no clue what was going on out there.”
4. Hang up on the ringers
For all the talk about road ringers, the Cup regulars shined once again. These heavy, bulky stock cars are very difficult to drive and require some level of mastery that someone parachuting into the series can’t match.
Every driver in the top 10 — Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray — was someone you would expect to see run in that spot on any NASCAR track.
The highest-finishing driver who might be a surprise was Michael McDowell, who finished 14th — but he’s 26th in points and drives these cars every week (and won an Xfinity road race). A driver with a road racing background can definitely shine more than an oval (like AJ Allmendinger) — but not unless they are used to the cars.
The ringer results on Sunday weren’t all that impressive. Road racer Billy Johnson — fresh off Le Mans — finished 22nd in the No. 43 car. Boris Said finished 29th, Alon Day was 32nd, Kevin O’Connell 33rd, Tommy Regan 34th and Josh Bilicki 36th.
Granted, those drivers weren’t in great equipment — but it still shows a racer with Cup experience would be a better bet for road course substitute duty than a driver who hasn’t had much stock car seat time.
5. More bad luck for Kahne
With all the SAFER barriers at tracks these days, it’s a bit of a shock when a car has a hard hit with a concrete wall. But that’s what happened to Kasey Kahne on the last lap of the Sonoma race following contact with Kevin O’Connell — who was two laps down.
I caught up with Kahne after the race when he visited his team — and destroyed car — in the garage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin also arrived to check on Kahne and survey the damage.
“No. 15 (O’Connell), we were going down the frontstretch taking the white flag and he turned left and went to my (inside),” Kahne told me. “Then I was going to his right and like right before we got to the corner, he just turned right into me and just shot me into the wall.
“It was weird what he was doing. I hope something broke on his car, but I’m not sure it did.”
Kahne acknowledged he was shaken after the hit but said he started to feel better following the ambulance ride to the track’s medical center.
“My right shoulder and right side took all the impact,” he said. “I feel good now, but I’ll be sore tomorrow. That was a pretty good shot.”
It’s just more misfortune for Kahne, who seems to have something go wrong for him every week. He ended up finishing 24th after the crash, but before that he had fresh tires late in the race and enough speed to pass eventual winner Harvick and unlap himself.
Kahne is 21st in the standings — 122 behind Clint Bowyer, who is the current cutoff on points thanks to the variety of different winners this season.