Californian Kevin Harvick breaks through for first win of season at Toyota/Save Mart 350

The first road course race of the NASCAR season took place on Sunday at the 11-turn Sonoma Raceway, host of the Toyota/Save Mart 350. A home track for many California-based Cup drivers, two Californians established themselves as championship contenders over the weekend, as Elk Grove’s Kyle Larson won the pole and Bakersfield’s Kevin Harvick pulled away to win his first Cup race at the track.

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On Saturday, Cup drivers Harvick, Ryan Blaney and Daniel Suárez participated in the K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma, the Carneros 200. Blaney struggled with rear end problems and finished 26th, while Suárez and Harvick ran in the top-5 for much of the event. Harvick took the lead late in the race and held off charging teammate Will Rodgers to win in his first K&N West start since 2007 and first victory at Sonoma since he won the Winston (now K&N) West race in 1997. Suárez finished 11th.

An hour prior to the Carneros 200, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup qualifying was held, with Larson winning the pole over Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray. On lap one, Suárez was quickly hit by trouble when he was forced to pit for a flat spotted tire, while his teammate Kyle Busch’s tires locked up four laps later, prompting him to pit as well. Larson led the first ten laps before Martin Truex Jr. passed him in turn 11. On lap 14, Dale Earnhardt Jr. tried to pass Danica Patrick entering the turn, but spun and clipped Larson before being hit by Patrick to bring out the first caution of the day.

Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski stayed out for the restart on lap 17. A lap later, Buescher’s JTG Daugherty Racing teammate A.J. Allmendinger passed Keselowski to establish a JTG 1–2; the Los Gatos, California native Allmendinger took the lead on lap 19. Truex claimed 1st on lap 22. Late in the first stage, the leaders began to pit, which ended on a frustrating note for Michael McDowell and Kurt Busch, who pitted as pit road was closed. Clint Bowyer was turned by Keselowski as they drove through the esses, though no caution was called. Truex would go on to win his series-leading 11th stage, followed by Allmendinger, Larson, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne and Bowyer.

Truex and Blaney led the field to the green for the start of the second stage on lap 30. One lap into the stage, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun as he entered turn six and was hit by Patrick, severely damaging his car and forcing him to retire from the race. The green flag waved two laps later with Truex leading. Over a minute later, when he reached the turn 11 hairpin, Allmendinger was spin, though there was no caution. Larson attempted to brake to avoid Allmendinger, but was hit by Bowyer from behind, forcing him to pit road.

On lap 49, a debris caution was called in turn 11. Jimmie Johnson and McMurray were the leaders for the ensuing restart with ten laps remaining in the stage, while Truex pitted and dropped to 25th. Seven laps later, cars began green flag stops; when Truex pitted, his right front tire could not come off, resulting in a slower stop. Johnson went on to win Stage #2, with Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Hamlin, Logano, Earnhardt, Blaney, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott and Ryan Newman trailing.

Hamlin and Earnhardt were the leaders at the start of Stage #3 on lap 60, while Johnson elected to pit and fell to 22nd on the restart. Kyle Busch passed Hamlin for the lead as they reached the hairpin and took the lead on lap 61. Harvick became the leader on lap 64, followed by Truex two laps later. Green flag stops commenced with 43 laps to go, Truex surrendering the lead to McMurray for his stop three laps later. However, Truex’s day ended on lap 86 when he reported to the garage for an engine failure. When McMurray pitted, the Team Penske duo of Keselowski and Logano inherited the top positions, though Harvick passed the former for 1st in turn 7A on lap 88.

With six laps left, Austin Dillon collided with Johnson in the hairpin and spun, though there was no caution. Bowyer eventually took 2nd, but Harvick held a safe distance over the rest of the field as he did not pit for fuel, maintaining a gap of over eight seconds to his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate. On the final lap, Kahne attempted to pass McDowell into turn one, but slammed into the concrete wall to bring out the yellow flag and end the race under caution with Harvick as the winner. Bowyer finished 2nd, followed by Keselowski, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Blaney and McMurray.

The win is Harvick’s first of 2017 and SHR’s first since February’s Daytona 500. It also snapped a 21-race winless streak for the 2014 champion, dating back to October’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas.

“It’s been a lot of work, a lot of the guys put in a lot of hours and it’s paying off,” Harvick stated. “I feel like we have a lot of room to grow and for us, it’s been okay. We’ve been competitive, we just hadn’t gotten to Victory Lane. It felt like we’ve had a couple opportunities to get there, but just came up a little bit short, so this is worth the wait.”

“To come to Sonoma for so many years and win yesterday, coming back to the K&N Series and come back here today, I guess we’ll have to do that again because it worked out pretty good!”

Next week, the Cup Series returns to Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, June 1. With the start of the second half of the season also comes a change in broadcaster, as Fox transfers the TV rights to NBC starting with the 400.

Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)

2017 toyota save mart 350 results

Featured image courtesy of @StewartHaasRcng

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