NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 (4 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN)

Can Elliott Score 1st Sonoma Victory?

Chase Elliott has been about as good as anyone when it comes to road courses in NASCAR. He’s won in COTA, Watkins Glen, Charlotte ROVAL and the Daytona road course. Can he scratch another one off on Sunday at Sonoma?

Elliott, is 0-for-5 in wine country but does have 3 top eight results in his last 4 tries including a runner-up last year. Is he ready to win now in wine country?

He’s the current points leader on the season but has just 1 victory all year. He does have 9 top 10’s though in his No. 9 Chevrolet so if he’s ever going to pick up a win in Sonoma, maybe the time is now.

However, he looked pedestrian in COTA so I’ll be interested to see if Hendrick Motorsports picks up their road course dominance this weekend.

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 06: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane by drinking wine after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 06, 2021 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Will Hendrick Get Back To Old Ways?

Heading into COTA back in March, it was an early test to the Next Gen’s parity. We’ve seen it prior, but would it also end Hendrick Motorsports’ road course reign. Prior to COTA, HMS had accumulated 9 road course wins in the last 11 tries including being 1-2 on that very track in 2021.

They went 1-2 in COTA, 1-2 in Sonoma, 1-2 in Watkins Glen and 3-4 in Indy just last year. Chase Elliott had won six of the last 11 road course races in general at that point with the only four that he didn’t win being last February in Daytona when he led the most laps but was screwed for a caution being displayed for rain in which he was going to cruise to an easy victory. The other was a runner-up in Sonoma and Watkins Glen as well at Indianapolis to where he had a top two car that day before the last race chaos.

Kyle Larson won 3 of the 7 road course races himself last season.

Does the Next Gen car take away their past advantages though?

It did in COTA. HMS finished 2-4-12-29 that day and while they had 2 cars in the top 4, they looked pedestrian. Does that change this weekend for a race that they dominated a year ago?

This is another week for this new car to produce more parity.

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 06: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Sport Clips Toyota, and Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem/Smurfit Kappa Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 06, 2021 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Is This Toyota’s Time To Shine?

There’s no doubt about it, the start of the 2022 season for the Toyota camp was concerning. They looked to be 3rd out of 3 in terms of manufacturers for this new Next Gen race car. However, they’ve since turned things around and have won 4 of the last 9 races on the season including 2 of the last 3 points paying ones at that.

Now, we go to Sonoma where maybe if COTA was any indication, HMS’ road course reign may be over.

Toyota drivers have won 3 of the last 6 Sonoma races including 2 of the last 3 by Martin Truex Jr. by himself. Truex Jr. has led the most laps in 3 of the last 5 years at that.

Between JGR, or an affiliate as well as SHR, they’ve combined to win five of the last seven races in Sonoma and with SHR struggling for speed still, I like JGR’s chances this weekend.

Kyle Busch is a two-time Sonoma winner and has scored five top five finishes in his last six wine country starts including a worst finish of seventh in this time frame. He also has 8 top 10’s in his last 9 starts on the season including 5 top 3’s out of his No. 18 Toyota in the last 7 and 3 straight top 2’s.

Denny Hamlin has 2 top 5’s in his last 3 races on the year with only 1 top 10 in the 12 races prior. At Sonoma, Hamlin has five straight top 10’s including three of which being in the top five. He had just one top five and two total top 10’s in his previous 10 Sonoma starts before that.

Christopher Bell is new here but has 5 straight top 10’s in his No. 20 Toyota and was 3rd on the lone road course this season in COTA, won his only race of his career on a road course (Daytona), was runner-up last year in Road America and had a top 3 car for most of the race in Indy and Watkins Glen.

Kurt Busch has five top 10’s in his last six Sonoma starts and 2 top 3’s in his last 3 races on the season.

I think your winner comes from 1 of these 5 cars on Sunday.

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 23: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Hazelnut Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 23, 2019 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Is Contract Hanging Over Truex Jr’s Head Going To Affect Results on Sunday?

This week is the time I feel like Martin Truex Jr. needs to shine. He’s led the most laps in 3 of the last 4 Sonoma races including having 3 straight top 3 results and 3 wins there overall. However, he’s also only had 2 top 5’s all season. Which Truex shows up?

He does have a pair of 6th place finishes in the last 3 races on the season but something is just not letting him get past that. His best result all year is 4th and that happened once. His next best is just one 5th place finish.

I wonder how much of his future is weighing on his mind and if it’s affecting his performance. He’s not shy in the fact that he’s honest in saying he doesn’t know what he wants to do. He’s thinking about it a lot. Does he come back for an 18th full time season or walk away?

I believe a contract is on the table and just waiting on a signature or a pass. The wording on the contract has nothing to do about money as a hold up. It’s all about if he truly wants to race this new car that doesn’t exactly suit his style and if he has it in him to go a little bit further.

I honestly think until he makes his mind up, these finishes what you see if going to be what you get. I fully buy into the fact that an uncertain future slows you down. Just look at the INDYCAR side. Pato O’Ward didn’t know if he wanted to be part of Arrow McLaren SP’s future after he felt like he was spurred by the team over an F1 role that was given to Colton Herta and not himself. So he sulked. While he sulked, he sucked. When he got over it and put his mind to staying put, the results came.

He looks like a totally different person. He has 4 top 5’s in his last 5 races including a runner-up in the Indy 500. He even has a win in there too.

Same for Alexander Rossi. He wasn’t certain about his future with Andretti Autosport. He instead chose AMSP of all places. That announcement was made last Friday. He finished 2nd on Sunday as his best result in a while.

I feel Truex can get to that point no matter what decision he makes but until he makes said decision, you may only get to 6th but not into the top 5.

Sonoma is a great place for him in the past but is the contract looming going to hamper his efforts?

Is Last Week in Ross Chastain’s Head?

Ross Chastain is an aggressive driver by nature. It’s how he’s gotten to the point he’s at and that’s by being more of a taker than a giver. He’s had to be in what equipment he’s had. Unfortunately, it rubs people wrong and he made some enemies last week in Gateway. Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin both were pissed at him. Chastain even admitted that he was mad at himself for driving what he said was over his head. Now a week later, is it still in his head?

He doesn’t want to make enemies so I wonder if he cools it down a bit on Sunday in Sonoma. Remember, Chastain purposely pushed AJ Allmendinger out of the way to win his first career victory in COTA earlier this year. What happens in that scenario again with what happened last Sunday?

If Chastain drives less aggressive, I almost wonder if that takes away his shot at winning. That’s not his style and usually when drivers go against who they are, results slip. That’s also exactly why Trackhouse Racing is saying everything they are about Chastain right now in trying to not allow him to change anything about this approach either.

However, you have 2 sides beating info into Chastain’s already mudded head and one that could slow him on Sunday.

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