Kevin Harvick finally had a breakthrough. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver finally won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series race of 2017 cruising to a win in the Toyota Save Mart 350 Sunday.
It was his first win in 16 races dating back to Kansas last October, the 36th of his career and his first in a Ford, his Stewart-Haas team having transitioned from Chevy’s at the end of last season. It also came a day after Harvick won the K&N race on the 1.99-mile road course.
“It is a great day,” Harvick said. “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. I felt like the 78 was the car we had to race and then he had problems and from there we were in control.”
The win was the first Cup win at Sonoma for the 2014 champion and California native.
“It means a ton,” Harvick said. “To finally check this one off the list. I feel like we have 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.”
The key to the win came with a fuel strategy combined with a fast car that saw Harvick take the lead for the final time on lap 88 of 110.
Others who led laps including polesitter Kyle Larson, made the wrong strategy calls and fell out of contention and finished 26th. Others had not only good strategy but girt. They included Clint Bowyer who was spun on lap 22 and fought back with a battered Ford to finish second.
“You get there back in traffic and you’re so much faster than them you have to check up to save a mistake,” Bowyer said. “You run over them and you don’t mean to; you get frustrated and get a little bit farther behind and a little bit farther behind. I saw the 42 check up and I get into him and I was thinking, ‘Well, we’ll both survive this’. And then all of a sudden the 47 was coming through him and I smoked him and hurt the left front. We were fast all weekend. With clean air and a long run, that’s always my strong suit. We got the long run, we just hard to start dead last to get it.”
Brad Keselowski, who finished third, nearly had a winning strategy; he was the final leader before Harvick and stayed out until the last possible laps, pitting on lap 88. With fresher tires than the rest of the field he was able to fight his way forward, but ran out of time.
Denny Hamlin led 11 laps and managed to hold on and finish fourth, Kyle Busch overcame a pit road speeding penalty to finish fifth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his final Sonoma race had two spins one on lap 13 and the second on lap 31, and came home sixth. Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 10.
Perhaps no one was more disappointed than Martin Truex Jr. Truex led the most laps on the day,25, and one the first stage only to see the engine in his Toyota expire on lap 86. He finished 37th.
“It’s very disappointing,” Truex said. “I mean, sitting there running second on seven cylinders and stayed right with the leader. I mean this Toyota was so good today. You know sometimes these things happen, so appreciate all their effort out there at TRD. Make good power, it’s just this one wasn’t ready to go the whole distance today.”
Jimmie Johnson won the second stage and led a total of 12 laps, but his fuel strategy left him with a 13th place finish.
“I don’t even know what strategy won,” Johnson said. “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.”
The race officially ended under caution as Kasey Kahne, deep in the field, tangled with another car just past the start finish line and hit the outside wall in turn 1 hard just before Harvick took the checkered flag. It would have made little difference however as Harvick had a near 8 second lead on the final lap. Kahne walked away uninjured.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Daytona for Saturday nights Coke Zero 400. Live coverage will be on NBC starting at 7:00 p.m. with the green flag coming out just after 7:30 p.m. ET.