D4D driver gets Sprint Cup chance

Paulie Harraka is hoping to have that “1-in-43 chance”.

Next weekend, Harraka will attempt to qualify for the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. If Harraka, 23, makes the field, he will be the first Drive for Diversity graduate to compete at the Sprint Cup level.

“I’m really excited,” Harraka told FOXSports.com. ". . . I’ve worked really hard to get this opportunity. I don’t think it has 100 percent set in yet, but it’s really exciting.”

NASCAR established the Drive for Diversity program in 2004 to provide minorities and women opportunities in what traditionally had been an exclusively white male sport. Harraka, who is of Syrian descent, was selected as a D4D driver two years later and became the first competitor in the system to win a race in a regional touring series event, at Colorado National Speedway in 2009.

“When I first started in the D4D program, I was a very accomplished go-kart and Legends car driver,” Harraka said. “From 2007 through 2010, I participated in the NASCAR Whelen All American Series and NASCAR K&N Pro Series through that program. By the conclusion of my four years in the program, I had 14 NASCAR wins, Rookie of the Year in two different series and one NASCAR championship.

“So, really, the D4D program is what gave me the opportunity to learn and grow in stock cars and to start winning in the NASCAR ranks. It represents significant progress in my career.”

Since 2010, Harraka has competed in more than a dozen races between the NASCAR Nationwide and Truck Series. His best results were a pair of 17th-place finishes last year in the No. 5 truck, at Dover and Kentucky Speedway.

At Sonoma, Harraka will drive the No. 52 HASA Pool Products Ford for Go Green Racing team owner Archie St. Hilaire. Veteran crew chief Ben Leslie will oversee the team.

Harraka has three starts at Sonoma in the K&N Pro Series West and an average finish of 9.2, with a career-high result of second, but he realizes taking the next step will be substantial.

“This sport is such a challenging sport because there are so few spots at the Sprint Cup level. It’s not like Major League Baseball, where there are 1,200 players. Our sport is different — there are only 43 guys that have the opportunity to compete on a weekly basis, not 1,200. So it takes a combo of things, including hard, work people helping you and a little bit of luck going your way.”

Hard work is nothing new to Harraka. He graduated from Duke University in 2012 while competing full time in NASCAR’s farm system the first three years — first in the Whelen All-American Late Model Series, where he won the track title at All American Speedway in 2008, then to the K&N Pro Series West and Rookie of the Year honors. Between the two tours, Harraka scored 14 victories — the most of any D4D driver.

Harraka understands the challenge of making his Sprint Cup debut — along with the new group qualifying sessions for time trials — and he feels that working with St. Hilaire and Go Green Racing last year in the Nationwide Series last season will help with the transition.

“Archie St. Hilaire and I have worked together in three Nationwide races already, and it’s there that we built the platform to run this Cup race,” Harraka said. “I feel like it’s a great opportunity for both of us — me and the team — to make the step into the Sprint Cup Series and start learning what that’s like together.

“We’ve built a lot of respect for each other. I’m really grateful for the effort the guys are putting in and the opportunity they’re giving me to race.”

St. Hilaire, who fields the No. 79 Ford in the Nationwide Series full time, is a proponent for both Harraka and the D4D program.

“He can get it done out there at Sonoma,” St. Hilaire said. “He’s run well at Sonoma in the past. And we really like what the diversity program has been able to do. We’ve only run a few Sprint Cup races in the past. I’m a numbers guy, and since we’re not locked into the top 35 in points, we wanted to try a few places that we might have a shot to get into.

“The car’s a nice piece — a former Roush car with a Roush-Yates engine we think we’ll do OK. Hopefully, everything goes smooth and we can keep the car in one piece and run a few more races this year.”

St. Hilaire said realistically he would be pleased with a finish around 25th to 28th. If everything goes according to plan, Go Green Racing would also attempt the Cup races at New Hampshire and Watkins Glen later this summer.

So, is Harraka ready for Sonoma? Of course he is.

“Sonoma is one of my favorite race tracks in NASCAR," Harraka said. "I love the technicality of it. There’s so much going and you never really get a break. It’s got a great rhythm and transition section, a few challenging slow speed corners and some high speed stuff. It dares you to take a car that’s not perfect and use the transitions and pedals to muscle it around. It treats stock cars like overgrown go-karts . . . It makes you work as a driver, and that’s what I love about it."