Who … gets the shoutout of the race?
How about Dale Earnhardt Jr.? He recovered from a spin early in stage one to finish sixth, his third top 10 at Sonoma in the past four seasons. Earnhardt hasn’t loved road courses before.
He even said he wanted to put some dynamite on the 12-turn road course a few years back and blow it up he ran so poor. But age has been kind to Junebug at Sonoma. He said it himself. “Just like the wine out here, I just get better with age running around this place.”
What … happened to the drivers making their Cup debut?
It was what none of them expected, and the 110-circuit race was certainly an eye-opener for all five drivers.
Billy Johnson, replacing Aric Almirola in the No. 43 car for the weekend, was the top driver make their debut during Sunday’s contest. The Ford factory driver in IMSA worked his way into the top 10 at one point. However, after getting involved in a late-race incident with Matt Kenseth, Johnson fell back in beat-up Ford. He finished 22nd, good enough to beat his peers.
Alon Day, NASCAR’s first Israeli driver, expected to finish in the top half of the field. But things didn’t go the way he expected them to. Early in the race, he experienced overheating issues. He then spun out seconds before a lap 32 crash involving Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It looked like it was going to be a solid break for him, enabling the No. 23 car to catch up to the field.
Instead, Day received damage on the ensuing restart, destroying the hood of his racecar. While Day radioed to crew chief Randy Cox he couldn’t see, the team opted to keep the rookie on the track. Well, after about 15-20 laps of going around the track while barely being able to see, NASCAR gave them the black flag. If Day would have pitted when he wanted to, he would have been fine. Instead, he went a lap down because he was already 40 seconds behind the leaders. Because of the untimely stop, he was off sequence, putting him two laps down in 32nd.
The Premium Motorsports teammates of Kevin O’Connell and Tommy Regan struggled throughout the day. Regan was substantially off the pace the whole weekend, with his quickest lap being more than five seconds slower than the leaders. But O’Connell found his rhythm at Sonoma come Sunday. He ran inside the top 30 for a chunk of the race. Unfortunately, the No. 15 car began falling back late in the going and finishing 33rd, just ahead of Regan in 34th.
Finally, Josh Bilicki came home in 36th, 10 laps down.
Where … did the pole-sitter wind up?
Kyle Larson wound up finishing in 26th place when the checkered flag flew. He led nine laps on the afternoon, all coming in the first stage before being passed by Martin Truex Jr. He got into a little trouble on lap 14, when Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet went spinning in Turn 11. Larson sustained some damage. Despite his run, Chip Ganassi Racing still leads the owners standings.
When … did Martin Truex Jr.’s luck go down the drain this time?
Martin Truex Jr. should have won Sunday’s race. But for only the third time in his career with Furniture Row Racing, an engine quit on him. The No. 78 car prematurely made its way on pit road, with smoke billowing out before heading to the garage for the second time of 2017.
Truex led a race-high 25 laps, dominating stage one and the start of stage two. Before his engine had a mind of its own, forcing the fastest car on the day to pull into the garage, he took the lead with 43 laps to go. When he came off pit road four laps later, his engine showed signs of weakness.
At that point, crew chief Cole Pearn knew what to expect. Once again, bad luck took over. Instead of celebrating his third win of the season and second of his career at Sonoma, Truex was forced to step out of his car without taking the checkered flag.
But even with a 37th-place result, his average finish is 10.6, second to only points leader Larson.
Why … does the Cup Series not have more road course races?
OK, this one got remedied a bit with Charlotte in October of next year. With the sport’s emphasis on the playoffs, it was silly to run the most important ten races of the year without a right-turn course that provides a similar challenge to what these guys face during the regular season.
But why not more? With NASCAR’s aero package a real drag on intermediates it was refreshing to see a race like Sonoma. Drivers could pass and there was a nice mix of pit strategy trying to push people toward the front. Yes, you had some crashes but there was nothing serious and all of stage 3 wound up running caution free (well, all except the final moment of the final lap).
In all, the race took about two and a half hours and featured twice as much passing as a four-hour oval race at, say, Charlotte. Turns out that’s the very track which switched to a road course for next year. More could follow….
How … is the playoff picture shaking out?
With ten eligible winners already in the playoffs, the battle to make the field of 16 remains highly competitive. None of those ten drivers are from Joe Gibbs Racing or named Dale Earnhardt Jr.
That fact alone could get us to as many as 14 winners (subtract rookie Daniel Suarez) by the time the checkered flag falls at Richmond International Raceway. Add in two names that have run up front, Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray, to equal that magic number we haven’t reached since NASCAR’s latest format change in 2014.
That reality makes Daytona Saturday night even more unpredictable. Expect the best plate race of the season as drivers like David Ragan, Paul Menard (fifth in February), and even Danica Patrick know it’s their one shot to pull a major upset. Add in Earnhardt, gaining momentum (see shoutout above) and it’s clear this playoff race may actually sizzle over the summer months.
Davey Segal and Tom Bowles contributed to this story.
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