It’s an eighty-one-mile drive from Elk Grove, California, the hometown of NASCAR driver Kyle Larson, to Sonoma, California, home of the aptly named Sonoma Raceway and host of today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, this explaining why you saw more Larson fans in the RV parking area and more Larson shirts in the stands than probably every other track in NASCAR combined. Larson delighted those faithful to the local boy by making good with a dominating win, his second straight and third victory of the season.
Larson started the race on the pole position, winning this by dint of the field being set by NASCAR’s qualifying metrics rather than on-track qualifying due to the lingering cloud of COVID keeping all racing presence and activity to a one-day affair. Larson proceeded to set a blistering pace at the green flag, quickly assuming a four-plus second lead over teammate Chase Elliott. 2018 and 2019 Sonoma winner Martin Truex Jr. aggressively tore through the field, moving up from his nineteenth starting position up to ninth in seven laps. With a competition caution scheduled for lap ten so teams could check tire wear, multiple cars pitted one lap early for tires, calculating they could either come in for fuel during the competition caution or stretch their fuel until the first stage’s conclusion. Most all chose the former strategy, end result being when all was said and all were done in the pits Larson reassuming the lead, with Elliott second and Truex Jr. having moved up to fifth.
The race resumed with eight laps remaining until the first stage ended. The top drivers held serve aside from Truex Jr. assuming fourth from Alex Bowman, with some minor shuffling further back. A plethora of strategy, not some of it fueled (no pun intended) by confusion as to exactly when it was permissible to pit, played out with the second stage’s beginning showing Kurt Busch in the lead and Larson back in fifteenth. The cars up front had significantly more worn tires, the gamble being this disadvantage would be negated by the sheer amount of traffic ahead sufficiently hold up the faster cars with fresh rubber. Thus, by the end of the second stage, the cars that started on older tires would still be well enough positioned so when everyone pitted, they would still be in contention.
At the beginning of the second stage, Elliott quickly passed Larson, leading him back into the top ten eight laps into the stage. Larson re-passed Elliott and was up to second halfway through, chasing William Byron who had passed Kurt Busch for the lead on the previous lap.
With nine laps remaining in the second stage a blown tire took Ricky Stenhouse Jr. into the wall just before Turn One, bringing out the caution. Given that all cars would be able to take advantage of the situation by pitting here and thus needing to make only one more stop before the race end, many chose to stop. Larson and Truex Jr. stayed out among others, with Larson in the lead which he easily held until stage end. Elliott, who did pit, moved up from seventeenth to fifth.
Strategy played out once more during the caution in-between stages. Truex Jr., who pitted just before the second stage concluded, restarted fifteenth. Larson was twenty-third after pitting during the caution. Elliott, who stayed on track throughout, restarted second behind Kurt Busch.
The final stage saw Larson quickly moving up through the field. Elliott took over as leader on lap 45 and set sail. Truex Jr. swiftly progressed into the top ten with 43 laps remaining, followed by Larson. Both were in the top five by lap 50. The shootout was briefly on, with the Busch brothers (Kyle in second and Kurt in third) hoping to take advantage of any miscues by the aforementioned three. There were none. Larson passed Kyle Busch with 38 laps remaining and Elliott for the lead with 33 laps remaining, Truex Jr. in third and quickly taking over second.
Elliott made his final pit stop with 28 laps left. Truex Jr. pitted a lap later, Larson the following lap. The resulting shuffle in the running order had Truex Jr. ahead of Larson and Elliott, all in traffic as different pit strategies played out.
Larson eventually passed Truex Jr., although speculation was rife that the latter was biding his time to see if Larson would perhaps overdrive and overly abuse his tires as had been the case during his previous run, which saw excessive tire wear on what would be a six-lap shorter run than the final.
Everything strategy-wise was instantly recalculated with nineteen laps remaining, at which time Quin Houff’s engine expired leaving oil on the track and the caution flag flying. Most everybody chose to pit, with Larson the first car out who pitted, lining up sixth on the track with Truex Jr. and Elliott directly behind. Joey Logano stayed out and assumed the lead.
The race resumed with sixteen laps to go. Elliott quickly passed Truex Jr. Larson passed Logano with fifteen laps left and took off. A chain-reaction accident on the same lap, initiated when Ross Chastain’s dive-bomb maneuver on Corey Lajoie in Turn Eleven bombed, damaged several cars including those of Kevin Harvick, William Byron, and Alex Bowman, brought out another caution.
Action reignited on Lap 79. Larson, to the surprise of no one, quickly scooted out to a nice lead with Elliott, and then Truex Jr., passing Logano for second. The only thing that could prevent a Larson win would be a huge mistake or equipment failure. Or perhaps an ill-timed caution. This happened with five laps left, when a literal dust-up involving Ryan Preece and Cody Ware going off track and kicking up the dirt, brought out the yellow flag.
The race resumed with three laps to go. Larson quickly jumped ahead of Elliott, but it proved to be for naught as several cars back in the pack did a not-so-merry-go-round, once again bringing out the caution. The race went to overtime, which in NASCAR terms means two laps of racing, and should the first lap run without a caution, the next flag, be it the checkered one or a caution, ends the race. If a caution comes during the first lap, you start over with two laps left.
The overtime was surprisingly without incident. Larson was too strong for Elliott to pass, though he tried mightily and kept it competitive, as he took the win. Truex Jr. finished third. The victory was the fourth straight for Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Cup Series and the fourth straight race in which Hendrick cars finished first and second.
Next up for the NASCAR Cup Series is the annual All-Star Race, to be held next Sunday evening at Texas Motor Speedway.