Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – SONOMA, CA – Kevin Harvick expects to see a repeat winner in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway (3 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
That would be a departure from the norm at a track that has produced nine different winners in the last nine years.
If Harvick’s assumption is correct, the pool of potential visitors to Victory Lane is reduced to seven active drivers: Harvick himself (last year’s winner), Kasey Kahne (2009), Jimmie Johnson (2010), Kurt Busch (2011), Clint Bowyer (2012), reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. (2013) and Kyle Busch (2015).
Harvick believes stage racing will tend to keep the strongest cars near the front of the field, based on pit strategy.
“You know at those two stages that the caution will fly at that particular lap,” Harvick said. “Your strategy is kind of dictated, one way or another. You will either pit before the stage ends or run it to the end and get the points. In those two sections of the race you know you really only have one pit stop window, maybe two at the end depending on how many sets of tires you have left.
“Tires are obviously very important here as far as speed. You have to manage your tires. Depending how many tires you have left, you might stop once, and if the caution falls correctly in the first stage, once or twice at the end depending on the sets left.”
Last year, Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers played the strategy perfectly, sacrificing stage points and taking advantage of a long green-flag run that consumed the second half of the race, which ended under caution when Kahne hit the wall as Harvick approached the finish line. By then the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford had a lead of almost eight seconds.
If there is to be a repeat winner at Sonoma, Harvick, a five-time winner this season, has to be a leading candidate. Only one problem – history isn’t on his side.
There hasn’t been a back-to-back winner at the 1.99-mile road course since Jeff Gordon took three straight checkered flags from 1998 through 2000.
MARTIN TRUEX JR. DOESN’T BELIEVE TWO-STOP STRATEGY IS VIABLE
When Kurt Busch won the Toyota/Save mart 350 in 2011, he did so by conserving fuel and finishing the race with two pit stops, one less than the other drivers he was racing for the win.
But Martin Truex Jr., who won his only Sonoma race two years later, doesn’t believe a two-stop strategy – essentially dividing the race into thirds – can produce a victory at the 1.99-mile road course at this juncture.
“I feel like, each year, it’s gotten harder to pull that off,” Truex said on Thursday at a luncheon in San Francisco sponsored by Sonoma raceway. “The last two seasons, it’s been three stops, so I would say two stops is impossible, but you never know.”
Strategy aside, Truex considers Sonoma one of the most enjoyable tracks in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
“I love coming out here, I love road course racing, and certainly Sonoma is an amazing track,” said the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. “Driver skill really comes into player here, and the driver can make a huge difference at this race track.
“That’s one of the reasons I enjoy it, and a lot of the other drivers do as well. Then you have those crazy restarts and two- or three-wide for three or four laps in a row on restarts. It’s just a great road course, a lot of fun to drive, and hopefully we’ll get a shot at victory number two.”
ROAD COURSE WORK PAYS OFF FOR WILLIAM BYRON
Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, a Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, has been sharpening his road course racing skills under the tutelage of Max Papis.
Byron also worked with road course expert Ron Fellows earlier in the week at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada.
The work paid off on Saturday, when Byron qualified eighth for his first road course race in the Cup series.
“Working with Ron a little bit and then working with Max Papis has helped me a ton in my career,” Byron said. “We work every week on a karting track trying to figure things out, so it’s been fun to get better.”
“Yesterday, I really started getting my rhythm of what I needed to do better and kind of put that all together today to try to get where we need to be. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it.
It was cool.”
Byron also got additional track time in qualifying and racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West at Sonoma on Saturday.