Kyle Larson is in another dimension right now. The Hendrick Motorsports driver dominated Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway en route to his second straight NASCAR Cup Series victory and ninth of his career. Larson, led a race-high 58 of 92 laps in scoring the third win of the season in his No. 5 Chevrolet.
It was a home win for the California native and one that he’ll cherish forever. A week after winning the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, his new home, he wins in his childhood home as Larson grew up in nearby Elk Grove.
The win on Sunday shows just how strong Larson is as it didn’t matter what strategy he was on, his No. 5 Chevrolet was in its own zip code. Larson, elected to pit one lap before the competition caution on Lap 9. When a lot of other cars pit again before the end of the first and second stages, Larson didn’t. He stayed out and swept both stages for his 10th and 11th respective stage wins of the year. He also swept all three stages a week ago in Charlotte to give him five straight.
How dominating is that?
The next best in the stage wins column is five by Denny Hamlin. By comparison, Hamlin led all of NASCAR with 11 stage wins in 36 races last year. Larson has the same amount in 16 events in 2021. The record for single season stage wins is 19 from Kevin Harvick (2018) and Martin Truex Jr. (2017). Larson, is only eight shy of that mark with 20 races still remaining in the season.
Still, almost every winner during this stage era gave up the lead before the stage breaks for track position after. Larson, didn’t. He pit on Lap 21 then again on Lap 41. He was restarting the final stage from the back. It didn’t phase him. Not too long after, there he was in the top five again, showing no regard for strategy. They could drive through and pass anyone, negating anything anyone else was doing.
It was a fight between Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott for the win in the end. They had the three best cars. Truex, elected to not pit on Lap 32 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. brought out the third caution of the race. Larson and Truex remained out as Elliott, the Busch brothers and almost everyone else came in. We all thought then that they were sitting ducks. With the stage break coming in a few laps, why not pit and know that you can make it to the end on just one more stop.
Truex, wanted to see how he stacked up with Larson. They quickly found out after the ensuing restart — not very well. So, they did the opposite of whatever Larson was going to do prior to the end of the second stage. If he pit, they’d stay out. If he didn’t, they’d pit.
Larson, stayed out, Truex hit pit lane.
So, for the final stage, you had Truex last pitting on Lap 37. Larson, last pit on Lap 21. Elliott, last pit on Lap 32. Varying strategies would commence.
The Busch brothers hit pit lane on Lap 53 and hoped for a caution to make it to the end. Elliott, pit on Lap 61. Truex, did so on Lap 62. Larson followed suit on Lap 63.
Truex did the undercut move and passed Larson as he was exiting pit lane. Elliott was behind both. Joey Logano made things interesting by staying out until Lap 66. He, like the Busch brothers, was hoping for a caution.
They’d get it via Quin Houff stalling on Lap 70. Decision time for most. One set of tires left. Do you give up track position?
Larson, Truex, Elliott and almost everyone else did and hit pit lane. Logano, since he had just pit, stayed out. The caveat to all of this is, Brad Keselowski was hitting pit road just as the caution came out. He was good and was going to line up second behind his Team Penske teammate of Logano on the ensuing restart. Instead, he had a pit penalty for having a tire sitting on pit road before he got there. That took him from second to the end of the line. That cost him the race as he had six laps fresher tires than Logano and the same tires as everyone else behind.
The top five stayed out with Larson restarting sixth. He went from sixth to second on the first lap. A lap later, he was in the lead. Despite three more cautions, including the fourth overtime in Sonoma’s history, Larson led the final 17 laps to earn his fifth straight top two result.
Elliott, passed Truex then Logano to score his sixth straight top six result on the season in his No. 9 Chevrolet to give Hendrick Motorsports their fourth straight top two finish on the season.
Truex Jr. was third in his No. 19 Toyota for his third straight top three on the road course while Logano and Busch rounded out the top five.
Here are my main takeaways.
The Top 4 The Championship 4?
Was the ending of Sunday’s race a preview of the championship round this Fall? Larson looks like the best car through 16 races of the season as he scored his third win and fifth straight top two result. Elliott, the defending series champion, has four straight top three results including three in-a-row in the top two. Truex Jr. has three wins on the year and is arguably the best of 750 tracks. Logano was fourth as he has three top five finishes in his last four starts on the season and arguably the second or third best car on 750 tracks.
They were duking it out for a win in the end.
Then, you get Kyle Busch in fifth as he has to be the top guy right now on the outside looking for the Championship 4 spots. Busch, has five top 10’s in his last six starts on the season, four of which being in the top five at that.
Could Sonoma be a preview of the finals? It sure seems like it.
Larson/Truex Separating Themselves From The Pack
In saying that about the point above, is Larson and Truex the clear championship favorites. I mean we had eight straight weeks of eight different winners. I mean if you factor in the Duels, we had 10 races with 10 different winners. Even as we hit last month, Kyle Busch’s win at Kansas was the 10th different winner in 11 races run. Would we get to 16?
Well, as we hit the month of June, I don’t think the 16 different winners is going to get threatened. That’s because as I’ve been saying all along, someone is going to get hot. Someone is going to separate themselves from the pack.
That someone has become a duo of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson. The tandem have combined to win three of the last five races run and look like the clear championship front runners as we near the midway mark of the season.
Hamlin and Harvick Have Cooled
Last year, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick combined to win 16 of the 36 races in 2020. This year, they’re 0-for-16. In fact, you can go back to the final five races of last season to extend this winless drought for them. Even as this season has gone on, both have cooled even further.
Hamlin, started the year off with eight top five finishes in the first nine races run. He’s had one in the last seven including an eighth place run on Sunday in Sonoma.
Harvick, has had just two top five finishes in his last 13 starts on the season with Sunday’s 22nd place result his worst finish since 2009 at Sonoma. His previous five results in wine country was sixth, fourth, first, second and sixth respectively.
The combined to lead two laps all day, both by Hamlin.
Dual Top 10’s Just What Ganassi Guys Needed
There’s no question about it, Chip Ganassi Racing was reeling entering this weekend. They had just four combined top 10 finishes all season between both drivers. On Sunday, they nearly doubled that with both Kurt Busch as well as Ross Chastain scoring top 10’s in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Busch, had a solid day in making up 20 points in the standings. He went from -83 (19th) to -63 (18th). That’s because he finished eighth in Stage 1 and fourth in Stage 2 to score 10 bonus points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had zero, Matt DiBenedetto had two. Chris Buescher also didn’t score any stage points.
Then, Busch went off strategy early as he pit on Lap 9, one lap before the competition caution. He stayed out not only before the end of Stage 1, but after it too. That gave him track position. He’d not relinquish it as he next pit on the Lap 32 caution. His next stop came on Lap 53 and he was able to get a caution to get his final set of tires and pack his No. 1 Chevrolet full of Sunoco fuel to get him to the end with a sixth place result.
It was Busch’s first top 10 in his last 12 races of the season and third all year. Two of which have come on road courses.
For Chastain, he was solid too in bringing his No. 42 Chevrolet home in seventh, one spot behind Busch. Chastain, also has three top 10’s and two of them are also on road courses. He was fourth a couple of weeks ago in COTA to go along with a top 10 in the season opener at Daytona.
RCR’s Momentum Halted With Bad Luck, But Rallies For Respectable Finishes
RCR was quietly flying under the radar. Heading into Sonoma, Austin Dillon sat +92 in the playoff standings on the heels of four top 10’s in his last seven races run.
Tyler Reddick was +61 with five top 10’s in his last six. They each started in the top 10 of Sunday’s race and both scored stage points in it too. Then came some bad luck. Dillon, was battling a bad battery for the first half of the race and they had to swap it out. Still, he battled back for a 13th place result.
Reddick, had an unscheduled stop for a tire rub but came back to finish 19th. They now sit +105 and +67 to gain on the bubble even though they had top 10 cars.
Factor in their alliance cars with Daniel Suarez (12th) and Erik Jones (11th) and you get a solid day for RCR in wine country.
SHR Struggles Again
Stewart-Haas Racing has to be frustrated right now. They’re no where close to the top and saw their cars finish 17-20-22-27 on Sunday. It was Kevin Harvick’s worst finish in well over a decade at Sonoma. Aric Almirola’s last six finishes now are 29th, 37th, 37th, 26th, 22nd and 27th respectively. Cole Custer finished 20th as he’s had two top 10’s all year, both being in 10th. Chase Briscoe was 17th as the best finisher among the group.
The start of this season looked like we were shaping up for parity and a lot of different winners. I mean, we were 11 races down and had 10 different drivers celebrating in victory lane. Over the last five races now, we’ve had just one new winner (Chase Elliott).
That’s made it come down to more emphasis on the wildcard spots. Denny Hamlin holds the top spot at +333 but he’s also the overall points leader too and if he holds onto that spot but doesn’t win a race over the next 10 events, then he’ll be in the postseason via a regular season championship. Plus, being that far up, he’s good either way.
Kevin Harvick is second in the wildcard standings at +152. The RCR duo of Austin Dillon (+105) and Tyler Reddick (+67) hold the next two spots. Chris Buescher is sitting in the 16th and final playoff spot at +60. That means everyone minus Harvick gained points on the bubble on Sunday. Harvick, the exception, only lost one point as he goes from +153 to +152.
Dillon gained 12 points, Reddick six and Buescher five.
Matt DiBenedetto falls from -55 to -60 after he brought his No. 21 Ford home in 23rd. His last five finishes are 19th, 24th, 23rd, 18th and now 23rd respectively. Kurt Busch gained 20 points going from -83 to -63 with earning 10 stage points and a sixth place result. But, this was also his first top 10 in the last 12 races too.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. goes from -62 to -82 after he finished 37th. Ross Chastain goes from -93 to -84 with a top 10.
See the gap?
The problem is, if someone new is going to get in, they’ll likely need to win. Nine of the drivers from 17th-30th have yet to win a Cup race. Another couple of have won just twice. Another one has one trip to victory lane. You have one driver who hasn’t won since 2018 and another since 2017. Among the 14 drivers from 17th to 30th, only one has won since 2019.