The NASCAR K&N Pro Series West makes its annual stop Saturday on the road course at Sonoma Raceway where Cup interlopers have come away with victories in five of the past seven races.
The only two non-Cup drivers to wind their way to victory lane since 2011 are Bakersfield’s Derek Thorn and David Mayhew. Both are back looking for another win on the 1.99-mile course in the rolling hills of wine country.
“That’s probably the funnest race of the year,” said Mayhew, who last raced full time on the circuit in 2015, the year he won at Sonoma.
For Mayhew, this is just the second West race of the season in his MMI-sponsored ride and he will likely run just one more — the series finale at Kern County Raceway on Oct. 27.
For Thorn, it is a different story. He is competing full time in the series for the first time since his championship season of 2013, the year he got his win at Sonoma. He is coming off a win at Colorado Speedway and leads Bruncati Racing teammate Ryan Partridge by two points.
“I grew up an hour and half north of (Sonoma) and my dad and I used to go down and watch the Cup guys there and get our NASCAR fix,” Thorn said. “At that time Jeff Gordon was pretty dominant. I never thought I’d be racing on a road course.
“It’s a kick in the pants. I love road racing. I didn’t grow up doing it, but it is a fun deal to do.”
Mayhew, who hails from Atascadero, cut his racing teeth on road courses, getting a lot of laps in at Sonoma before moving to Bakersfield and getting into oval racing in 2004.
“I grew up racing road courses, first in go karts then open wheel cars,” Mayhew said. “I did a lot of Russell Racing School right there at Sonoma. I logged a lot of laps there in open wheel cars and the transition to stock cars was easy. Road racing has always been fun for me.”
It is the premier event of the season for West drivers and also draws interest from Cup drivers looking to get some extra seat time on the road course.
Joey Logano won in 2011, David Gilliland drove to victory in 2012, Kyle Larson was the winner in 2104, Chase Elliott found his way to victory lane in 2016 and last year former Bakersfield resident Kevin Harvick came away with the win.
This year, Cup drivers Aric Almirola, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, William Byron and Alex Bowman will be mixing it up in the West race.
Mayhew, who finished third last year, said the MMI car just got back from being updated and prepared for the Sonoma race.
“Everything is fresh and we’re looking forward to it,” he said. “If we don’t have problems (electrical in 2016 and engine in 2014) we’re usually right there.”
And while it’s all business when it comes to the racetrack, Mayhew and company are also going for the fun.
“We camp in the infield and make a trip out of it,” he said.
Thorn said he prepped for the race by testing at Buttonwillow Raceway last week.
“Gotta get the bugs worked out of the driver,” he said. “It’s a different strategy and style of racing. You have to erase part of the circle track mentality and concentrate on road racing.”
The track, where temperatures are expected to reach into the mid- to upper-90s, will be tough on both man and machine, Thorn said.
“I think you shift 12-15 times a lap (the race is 64 laps) and it’s hard on every component of the car,” he said. “It’s one of the most gruelling races you run and 100 degrees in the middle of the daytime … that’s tough.”
The West drivers have one practice on Friday before qualifying on Saturday morning. The race, which is not televised live, starts at 1:30 p.m.