Dr. Diandra: If you don’t think Kevin Harvick when you think Sonoma, you should
Road course racing evolved from exception to essential during Kevin Harvick’s 23-year career. Once just two of 36 points-paying events, as many as seven road courses have been included in recent Cup seasons. There’s even a road course in the playoffs.
Harvick has evolved alongside the NASCAR schedule. People might overlook his road course prowess because he’s so good at other types of tracks. Consider, for example, his 7.3 career average finishing position at Homestead.
The first road course on a ranked list of Harvick’s average finish position doesn’t appear until number 11. That’s an 11.5 average finish for the Daytona road course, which is followed by 11.6 for Charlotte’s Roval. Watkins Glen and Sonoma are numbers 15 and 16, with average finish positions of 12.7 and 12.8 respectively.
Harvick vs. the field
It’s almost unfair to compare Harvick to today’s drivers because of the way road course racing’s role has changed since Harvick started his Cup career in 2001. Harvick has 56 road course starts in 23 full-time seasons. Chase Elliott has 25 road course runs in just eight full-time seasons.
But let’s do it anyway.
Harvick ranks fourth in career average finish at road courses among those competing at Sonoma this weekend, as shown in the figure below. That’s a robust number given that he’s run more road course races than the top three — Elliott, Tyler Reddick and Austin Cindric — combined.
Harvick’s average finish is 5.4 positions worse than leader Elliott. But then again, Elliott beats second-place Reddick by four positions.
Harvick finishes in the top 10 at road courses 52.8% of the time. For comparison, road racing ace Marcos Ambrose had a top-10 rate of 85.7%. Jeff Gordon’s top-10 rate was 80%.
A full one-third of Harvick’s road course starts produced top-five finishes.
It seems only fair to take Harvick’s road course evolution into account, though. For example, his average road course finish was 14.3 when he ran for Richard Childress Racing and 12.9 during his years with Stewart Haas Racing.
But even that 12.9 average finish from 2014-23 is a little misleading. A small number of DNFs greatly impact average finishes at tracks the Cup Series has only run a few times. Harvick hasn’t found success at Road America (average finish 18.5), COTA (20.3) or the Indy road course (23.5).
Specializing to Sonoma
This weekend marks Harvick’s 22nd contest at Sonoma Raceway. Among all drivers with 10 or more Sonoma starts, Harvick ranks eighth in average finish at 12.8. Jeff Gordon has the all-time best finishing average at 8.3, followed by Dale Earnhardt at 8.6.
While Elliott has a better average finish at road courses overall, Harvick beats Elliott at Sonoma, where Elliott has a 13.3 average finish.
Harvick’s learning curve is especially apparent at Sonoma. Since 2015, he’s finished out of the top 10 only once, giving him a 6.4 average finishing position over that time.
His sole non-top-10 finish was in 2021, where he was involved in an accident. Harvick still finished on the lead lap in 22nd place. If we eliminate that race, Harvick’s recent average finish at Sonoma is an impressive 3.8.
Reasons to bet on Harvick at Sonoma this weekend
Harvick tends to stay out of trouble at Sonoma. He’s finished all 21 Sonoma races running and all but one race on the lead lap.
He’s led laps at six of the 21 Sonoma races, and at three of the last six Sonoma races — although not the most recent three.
Harvick comes into the race with momentum. Although he hasn’t won in 2023, his average finish in the last three races is 7.7. That’s fourth best, behind Byron, Busch and Blaney — and the highest among winless drivers.
His season average finishing position is 12.3. Harvick’s only finish out of the top 21 this year was a DNF at Atlanta.
Although track position is important at Sonoma, Harvick has proven himself capable of moving up through the field during a race. Last year’s fourth-place finish came from a 23rd-place start.
On the negative side, only one Ford has won at Sonoma in the last seven races. But that winner was Harvick in 2017.
Finally, Harvick likes Sonoma, and drivers typically run better at courses they enjoy racing. Sonoma is close enough to his Bakersfield home that friends and family can be there to watch his final race there.
“It’s definitely my favorite road course,” Harvick said. “To be able to go out and race in California one last time will, for me, be a lot of fun and an honor. It’ll bring back a lot of good memories of where it all started out there.”