The Headline(s): Toyota absolutely dominated their namesake race, with Martin Truex, Jr. leading 58 of 90 laps to score a comfortable win over teammate Kyle Busch, his fourth victory of 2019, his 23rd in Cup and his 36th career NASCAR national series triumph.
— Joe Gibbs Racing (@JoeGibbsRacing) June 23, 2019
All five Toyota factory cars finished in the top 10, including a career-best fourth place finish for Matt DiBenedetto.
How It Happened: Even before the field took to the carousel for the first time Sunday, outside pole sitter William Byron took the lead from Kyle Larson and drove away from the field. Though Larson faded toward the back of the top 10 during the opening run (PRN would later report that the team found a slow leak in one of his tires after the first stage break), the first stage was largely uneventful, sans a lap 19 spin by Michael McDowell after he came down across Kevin Harvick’s nose after failing to complete a pass on Jimmie Johnson. McDowell drove away, the race stayed green, and Byron won his first career stage by nearly four seconds over the field.
With the field cycling after the stage one leaders pit under yellow, Truex drove away at the front of the field. Though the second stage did involve several on-track incidents; Aric Almirola went off track on lap 31, Ross Chastain on lap 33 and Paul Menard spinning in turn 11 on lap 34 after throwing a late block on McDowell (who had the position in hand), the race stayed green for the duration with Truex in front until pitting on lap 38. With Truex, Chase Elliott and Busch all opting to pit prior to the end of stage two, Denny Hamlin inherited the lead to score the stage win.
With the race restarting at the midway point on lap 45, Truex would again take the point, holding off a charge from Ryan Blaney through the carousel. Despite their being two more on-track incidents in the opening 10 laps of the final stage (Ryan Preece spun in turn 11 after being turned by Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on lap 52, while McDowell spun again in turn 10 on lap 53), the green flag would stay out for the rest of the afternoon.
The final cycle of pit stops started with Byron on lap 61, and would see a number of front runners run into trouble; third place Elliott suffered an engine failure as he came to pit road on lap 62, Daniel Suarez lost his fourth place running position when his car fell off the jack on pit road and led to an uncontrolled tire penalty for his crew on lap 64, along with Cody Ware being forced to retire from the race after being sickened by carbon monoxide poisoning (more on that later).
As for the leaders, Truex pit on lap 64, handing the lead to Busch, who despite suffering nose damage early in the final run, was running down the No. 19 as pit stops began. Busch held the point until pitting on lap 67, handing the lead back to Truex.
Over the final 20 or so laps, Busch was able to cut Truex’s eight second lead down to less than two seconds. However, though Truex did momentarily have a moment with lap cars on lap 84 when McDowell and Ty Dillon were racing side-by-side heading up the hill, Busch never got close enough to cause Truex serious concern, leaving the Truex/Cole Pearn duo to score their second consecutive win at Sonoma.
Why Should You Care?
Maybe it was the addition of the carousel back to the Sonoma race course (more on that later). Maybe the high downforce package stuck the cars so far into the track that there were fewer comers and goers, even on a day where Goodyear brought their softest tire and the temperatures were scorching. Maybe FOX just spent so much time giving DW his farewell shots of Kyle Busch on track that there was a lot of racing unseen. Maybe all the craziness of Saturday’s marathon K&N West event at Sonoma tempered the racing Gods Sunday. Whatever the reason, Sunday’s first road course event in 2019 was one of the worst road races NASCAR has seen at any level in recent memory, a dull, uneventful race that was over 20 laps before the checkers flew (in a 90 lap race, that’s woeful).
And though I’m not ready to say it was the sole cause (this isn’t the first time NASCAR has run road races during the stage racing era), the reality is stage racing put real constraints on the on-track product this Sunday. Road racing will always be subject to more strategy than ovals, no matter how competitive the “package,” and adding defined cautions into the race deprives all race teams of strategy options. In the case of Sunday’s event, with the top two cars literally 20 seconds faster than the rest of the field, not only were the opening 40 laps of Sunday’s race literal parades until those not in line for stage points pit right before pit road closed, but all competitive cars in the field pit in a span of less than 10 laps during the final stage. The only two cars in the field to try a truly alternative strategy were those of Brad Keselowski and Stenhouse, neither of whom were truly competitive at any point in Sunday’s race.
Dull racing is bad enough. But Sunday’s race also defeated the purpose of stage racing off the track as well:
I love stage racing but the mandatory caution really screws with road courses and superspeedways.
FOX has already shown 3 commercial breaks the first 12 laps so I'm not sure what the point of the cautions are today. #NASCAR
— Eric Estepp (@EricEstepp17) June 23, 2019
What’s more, the sheer number of laps lost due to stage breaks was concerning, especially now that the longer Sonoma configuration cut the race lap count down from 110 to 90. With six of 90 laps run under stage break yellow, that’s 6.67% of the race lost to TV timeouts. Just for comparison, at Bristol, the last time this column took a serious look at stage break length, the 19 laps spent under yellow accounted for only 3.8% of the race distance.
This shouldn’t be unexpected. The more teams figure out how to points race, the more likely they are to do it. And after seeing the way Sunday’s race played out as a neutered affair, I’m ready to experiment with road course racing in the stage racing era. One of two things needs to happen here: either remove the cautions from the stages (which will increase variability in strategy for the teams) or remove the stage points altogether on the road courses. Add 20 points to the race winner, 18 points to the second place finisher, etc., and award the race winner seven playoff points. That keeps the road course races on equal footing with the rest of the schedule, while preserving their integrity as road races.
NASCAR already has made deviations to their standard practices to accommodate niche races. Look at how they handle heat racing and pit road when the K&N Pro Series West and Truck Series tackle dirt tracks. To prevent snoozers like this Sunday, the same needs to be done on the road because stage racing, as we all learned, can’t turn right.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Last year, Truex and Furniture Row Racing won Sonoma with one of the best pit road deceptions in recent memory. This year, they won by being that much faster than the rest of the field. It’s scary to admit, but the former Furniture Row team appears to be stronger already for their move to the Joe Gibbs Racing stable.
That Busch finished second and scored his series-leading 10th top-five finish with a car that had a literal underbite when the checkered flag flew was just the latest testament of why the No. 18 remains the flagship at JGR, even with Truex on literal fire in his debut campaign with the team.
It’s not surprising that Hamlin scored a top five on the road course. It’s maybe a little surprising that Erik Jones rebounded to finish eighth after starting at the rear of the field for unapproved adjustments. But to see DiBenedetto score his career-best finish on a road course, and to do it with green flag passes of powerhouse drivers Hamlin and Kevin Harvick under green was awe-inspiring. For as much attention as Christopher Bell gets (and Chandler Smith is starting to get) in the Toyota wings, they’ve got quite the wheelman in their “R&D” car.
On an off day for the Ford camp, the two Blue Oval drivers most in need of good finishes (Blaney, Ryan Newman) both got them; Newman with nose damage (though not as serious as Busch’s).
After winning his eighth career pole, Larson rebounded from a slow tire lea during the first stage to finish 10th, breaking a three-race streak of finishes outside the top 10.
Though he faded to 19th in the final running order, Byron’s blistering pace during the first stage… and his green flag passes to finish top five in the second stage… were a real sign of progress for the No. 24 driver. The summer race at Daytona is two weeks away and no stranger to first-time winners, like Byron would be.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Elliott was running third when the engine let go in his No. 9 machine on lap 67. Instead, he finished 37th, his first finish outside the top 20 this season.
Ford’s two biggest bullets in Keselowski and Joey Logano both fell way short. Mired in traffic during the first stage, Keselowski capitalized on track position to run in the top 10 for the entire second stage, only to stay out for stage points the No. 2 team didn’t need. The No. 2 team didn’t crack the top 20 again until the closing stages of the race.
Meanwhile, Logano ran stronger than his teammate but lost a top 10 running position on lap 76 when a recurring alternator issue forced the team to work on the battery under green. Sunday marked the first time since Texas that both the Nos. 2 and 22 both failed to finish in the top 15 in the same race.
Ford’s mid-pack didn’t go unscathed either. Stenhouse spun Preece out on lap 52. McDowell one-upped him, spinning or being spun three times over the course of Sunday’s race. Lastly, Suarez became Stewart-Haas Racing’s latest victim on pit road. Recovering from a start at the rear thanks to an engine change (and early reported issues with his brakes), Suarez was running in the top five when he pit on lap 64. As the team was changing the right side tires, the No. 41 fell off the jack, and in reacting to that the crew let a tire roll into the pit road. These three finished 21st, 25th and 17th, respectively.
Arguably the worst day of all was had by the Rick Ware Racing organization. JJ Yeley finished dead last in the field after suffering through a fuel pump failure, at least the fourth race in 2019 that the RWR cars have had issues with fueling. Even worse, Ware was forced to park the No. 52 while suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, a rare instance of the cause of a retirement being listed as “driver” in the modern era.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Now, having said that about Ware, the fact that a driver literally had to be treated for this issue by the track medical staff went unreported, especially in a race that had literally nothing happening on track is an objective failure by the NASCAR on FOX team. Even some of NASCAR’s biggest media were left scratching their heads when the tower announced Ware’s retirement from the race:
"52 out – driver" ??
— Jim Utter (@jim_utter) June 23, 2019
A deserved shout out to Frontstretch alumnus Brock Beard for breaking that story as it unfolded in the Sonoma infield.
On that same note, when interviewed post-race Hamlin had an insight into how many drivers were licked exiting their race cars after running in 90-degree heat Sunday. Hamlin noted that NASCAR has now mandated passenger-side windows in the race cars, even on short tracks and road courses, which naturally cuts down on ventilation in cars that regularly heat up to over 140 degrees over the course of a race. Leave it to NASCAR to think that inside the box.
Before Sunday’s race went green, the FOX pre-race show indicated that Sonoma reverting back to the carousel configuration of their road course for 2019 was in response to the track’s 50th anniversary. And before Sunday’s race, I complimented the raceway for proactively changing their layout. After all, if NASCAR racing is truly to be representative of driver skill, it can’t rely on the same two road courses, in the same layout, for decades at a time. Having said that, and having seen how Sunday’s race played out, here’s hoping the 50th anniversary celebration doesn’t carry over into year 51.
Removing what used to be a passing zone in turns 4a and 7a in favor of the carousel, which proved to be too narrow and too low speed to be of any excitement or consequence over the course of 90 laps, resulted in a literal snoozer of a race. Plus, with the cars having more than a half-mile of additional racing surface to play on, the field strung out in a green-flag environment, further exacerbating the dominance of the JGR Toyotas up front.
Adding the carousel back was a worthy experiment for this race, just as adding the boot for a race at Watkins Glen would be. It’s now a failed experiment. Let us never speak of it again. Well, maybe for the 60th anniversary.
Chastain is currently the darling of the NASCAR garage for his Truck Series exploits and his Gallagher impersonations in victory lane. That popularity shouldn’t insulate criticism of the fact that he was allowed by NASCAR, as a rookie who never raced at Sonoma, to be allowed to run Sunday’s Cup race despite not qualifying or even practicing his No. 15 car. That sets a dangerous precedent, especially if the next driver to do it isn’t as talented.
Credit where it’s due that NASCAR didn’t throw a trigger-happy yellow for spins all race long.
Why tweet when Twitter has already expressed your feelings so well? On Darrell Waltrip’s farewell from the broadcast booth:
— Melissa (@OneFabulousFan) June 23, 2019
Having said that, it’s perhaps fitting that the line everyone will remember from DW’s final broadcast was “sitting on a hot stove, peeing ice water” when calling the Busch/Truex “battle” in the closing laps. Fitting, because seeing Toyota run roughshod over the Cup field in a race they sponsored is probably a wet dream scenario for anyone named Waltrip.
Being interviewed after finishing seventh, his best finish at Sonoma since 2008, Newman admitted that he needed to spend more time in either the spa or the workout room to deal with his post-race exhaustion. Maybe his Roush Fenway Racing team could start by getting Newman a Coke-themed water bottle instead of literal bottles of Coke for post-race beverages? (And no, that’s not a dig. I’ve made the mistake of chugging a Mountain Dew after exercising on more than enough occasions to speak from experience here. Oops, sorry Ryan. Of course, I meant Mello Yello).
Best Paint Scheme: DiBenedetto. Paying tribute to DW without literally painting the words and his face all over the car is a good thing. A sharp looking race car is a better thing.
— Toyota Racing (@ToyotaRacing) June 23, 2019
Putting a sharp looking racecar in the top five gets a trophy, even if it’s only in writing.
This Ain’t Watermelon Country: Chastain. Less than 24 hours after scoring an improbable (third) win in Truck Series competition at the old Gateway Motorsports Park, Chastain flew out to Sonoma and learned how the other half lives. His debut among the vineyards resulted in a 33rd-place finish, off the lead lap, with his black car looking much like a passenger sedan leaving a gravel parking lot.
I Ain’t As Good as I Once Was: McDowell. A decade-plus as a stock car racer hasn’t honed the road racing skills of the former open wheeler, who was involved in seemingly every incident on track Sunday.
This Ain’t No Rivalry: Truex and Kyle Busch. Anyone that follows college football will remember the “Civil Conflict” trophy created by Connecticut for their games against Central Florida, a trophy so valued that the winning team left it on the sidelines. The Truex vs. Busch rivalry FOX spent half of Sunday pushing is about as intense as that.
Where it Rated: If Sunday’s race tastes like what California wine country produces, Alcoholics Anonymous should buy every suite and seat Sonoma has to offer. America will sober up fast.
What’s the Point(s): Busch, Logano, Elliott, Keselowski, Hamlin and Truex have locked into the playoffs by winning races in 2019. If the playoffs started today, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Blaney, Alex Bowman, Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Suarez, Byron, Larson and Newman would point their way in. Newman currently holds a one-point lead over Johnson for the final playoff spot.
Dust Off the VCR: NASCAR mercifully gets back to turning left, with a trip to the Chicagoland Speedway. Coverage from an oval that’s as far away as possible from the city it’s named after without it being a lie starts at 3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.
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