Splitter to Spoiler: Harvick captures first win under Ford banner at Sonoma

Harvick proves he still has championship pedigree with Ford, SHR flourishing with Stewart retired and first Israeli driver discusses historic start

Kyle Terada—USA Today Sports
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick (4) celebrates in victory lane during the Toyota - Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Kevin Harvick is currently in year four of his contract with Stewart-Haas Racing and has been a perpetual championship contender every single season, even winning the 2014 title. But after a shocking move to Ford at the end of the 2016 season, there were questions as to whether Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing would remain a dominant force in the sport.While one of his teammates, Kurt Busch, answered those questions immediately at the Daytona 500, Harvick waited until just after the midway point in the season to prove he’s still in championship form with a win at Sonoma Raceway.”Getting our first win with Ford, this has been a great journey for us as an organization and team,” Harvick said. “Kurt winning the Daytona 500 and we have run well. It is a great day. It finally all came together and we were able to not have any cautions there at the end.”This season has been more about young drivers emerging as opposed to the traditional winners like Harvick. With Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney all earning their first wins and Kyle Larson winning his second and third, the normal headliners are being passed over for the youth in the sport.That’s just fine with Harvick. He’s never been a flashy driver, but has never taken flak either. It’s fitting that his first win comes with tire rub marks all along the side of his car after taking a beating and banging in Sonoma.”Right off the bat I think you knew you were going to have some fenders caved in,” Harvick said. “That is just how it is going to go with the short stages trying to get points. I felt like our car was good enough to not chase stage points and go after the win today and it all worked out.”Harvick may have earned his first win in Sonoma, but he’s hardly been an afterthought this season. Currently sitting third in the points standings, Harvick leads Ford in nearly every category except wins — Brad Keselowski has two — but no spot in the playoffs is guaranteed without a win.With a slew of winnable races coming up for Harvick including Daytona (two wins), New Hampshire (two wins) and Indianapolis (one win) in May, he could join Keselowski very soon in the multiple winners category for Ford.SHR hasn’t missed a beat without Smoke behind the wheelWhen Tony Stewart left NASCAR last season, there was a hole left in his fans’ hearts. Thanks to his presence at the track and on social media as an owner, however, it’s clear he never strayed far from the sport.”I’m still here,” Stewart slyly said when asked if he missed racing in NASCAR. “What am I missing? I’m not missing anything.”Stewart-Haas Racing, which Stewart joined as a driver-owner in 2009, was long considered a one-horse town with Smoke serving as the only serious title contender. Then came Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 and Kurt Busch in the No. 41 during the 2014 season.Harvick quickly proved he could win a title in his first year with the team. Busch already proved that championship pedigree 10 years earlier with a title in 2004. But with Stewart stepping away last year, many pundits thought the team would lose a title contender in the No. 14 car.But with the addition of Clint Bowyer, it’s pretty clear that isn’t the case. Bowyer has stuck around the top 10 all season in points and earned his third top five and sixth top 10 of the season on Sunday in Sonoma. Prior to joining the team, he had a total of two top fives in the previous two years.Bowyer was six spots ahead of Busch, who finished seventh at Sonoma, to put three of the four cars from SHR in the top seven. That makes for a very happy Stewart with so much riding on his team’s first year with Ford.”I get the best of both worlds,” Stewart said. “I get to go to my track more. I get to race my dirt cars more. And I still get to be a part of this. I don’t know how it could be any better for me. I think I’m in the perfect scenario for myself right now.”Alon Day makes history despite forgettable finishWhile a fresh face didn’t win Sunday’s race, it was still a huge afternoon for one young driver.Alon Day, a 25-year-old driver born in Ashdod, Israel, made history when he started in Sonoma as a “road-course ringer” for BK Racing in the No. 23 car. Unfortunately, Day was involved in a wreck as he was hit from behind into another vehicle after A.J. Allmendinger spun out in Turn 11.”We did the best in the circumstances,” Day said. “I don’t know what happened in Turn 11, I just got hit and lost half of the car. I tried my best and I know that the speed was there, especially at the end of the race. I told my guys they did an amazing job and we hope to come back stronger.”BK Racing is far from a juggernaut in the sport. Matt DiBenedetto — who has since moved on to Go Fas Racing — finished seventh at Bristol last year and the celebration was similar to a win for most teams. So to say that Day’s finish of 32nd was poor is preposterous. Neither Corey LaJoie nor Gray Gaulding would have competed for a top 20 had they been behind the wheel of the No. 23 on Sunday.”NASCAR changed my life,” Day said prior to the race. “Somehow, I got the opportunity to test in European NASCAR and it went the best way (it could), and two and a half years later, I’m doing my first race ever in the Cup. So it’s something pretty remarkable for me, and every time I think about it, it’s just crazy.”What Day’s start does do, though, is continue to move NASCAR in the right direction in terms of driver diversity. With Bubba Wallace making a start in the previous two races — becoming the first black driver in 11 years to do so — and Day earning a ride for Sonoma, the doors are finally opening.There’s still plenty of work to do, however, as BK Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports only awarded part-time rides to both drivers. But with the talent of diverse drivers at lower levels finally starting to show, all they need is backing from sponsors and teams to make the push in the Monster Energy Cup Series.