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Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

What happened?

Kyle Larson won the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at his hometown track, Sonoma Raceway, on Sunday (June 6) after holding off two of the sport’s best road racers on two late restarts. 

Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kyle Busch rounded out the top-five finishers.

See also
Kyle Larson Leads 57 Laps, Survives Late-Race Carnage to Win at Sonoma

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Larson pulled ahead of his teammate Elliott on the initial start of the race and stayed there frequently throughout the afternoon. Christopher Bell hit pit road on lap 4 with an apparent fuel pressure issue and rejoined the race on the tail end of the lead lap. Before the competition caution at lap 10, everyone besides five drivers pitted to retain their track position.

Larson held the lead over Elliott on the restart following the competition caution with seven laps to go in the stage. Elliott stayed close at first before Larson began to gap the field. Several drivers pitted with two to go in the stage just before pit lane closed to gain track position for the second stage. That left Larson cruising to the stage one win.

Kurt Busch led the field to green for stage two with 16 laps to go. Larson and Elliott restarted back in 15th and 16th, respectively. Both drivers worked their way through the field, but it was their teammate William Byron snatching the lead from Busch with 12 to go in the stage. With nine laps left, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall and wrecked just past the pit road exit by turn 1 to bring out a caution.

Larson and Truex led the field to green after Byron pitted under yellow, with the No. 5 again showing its speed. Larson pulled ahead easily and rolled to another stage win as Truex pitted with two to go in the stage. The stage win was Larson’s series-leading 11th of the year.

Kurt Busch and Elliott held the top two spots on the next restart, with Elliott eventually taking the lead on lap 46 of the scheduled 90. Larson restarted 21st and got up to fourth within five laps. After a good battle with Elliott, Larson took the lead with 33 laps to go. It took Larson just 13 laps to go from 21st to the lead.

Elliott pitted from third with 29 laps to go, Truex pitted from second with 28 to go and Larson pitted from the lead with 27 to go. The three best cars all day exited with Truex leading Larson then Elliott, though there were still other drivers ahead of them on the track due to strategy. Larson passed Truex for what would eventually be the lead with 24 laps to go.

Larson got past Logano for the top spot with 22 to go, but a caution came out with 19 to go when Quin Houff stalled on the track. Everyone pitted except four cars. On the restart with 16 to go, Logano held the lead over Tyler Reddick and Corey LaJoie with Larson and Elliott charging fast. Another caution came with 14 to go due to a big wreck involving LaJoie, Byron, Ross Chastain, Kevin Harvick and Alex Bowman.

On the restart with 11 to go, Larson passed Logano and Elliott quickly followed. Larson grew the lead to just over three seconds when Ryan Preece and Cody Ware got tangled up in the esses with five laps remaining.

Larson again cleared Elliott on the restart with three to go, but they didn’t even complete a lap before another caution came out thanks to an incident with rookie Anthony Alfredo, Bell and Bowman.

On the overtime restart, Elliott stayed tight with Larson throughout the first lap. He was within striking distance through the carousel before losing some ground in the esses and eventually fading slightly. Larson held him off, winning the race by 0.614 seconds.

The victory was Larson’s third of the season, his first at Sonoma and the ninth of his career. It also marked the fourth straight 1-2 finish for Hendrick Motorsports.

Who stood out?

Larson was so good at Sonoma that he defied strategy. In recent years, there’s been no road course race with more varying strategies than Sonoma. It seemed like crew chief Cliff Daniels had Larson on an odd strategy when he restarted 21st during the final stage. Instead, he raced to the lead within 13 laps. He was just that much better than the competition.

Another race win and two more stage victories bring Larson to 26 playoff points. His 11 stage wins are more than double the next-closest driver (Hamlin, five). Similar to Harvick and Hamlin last year, Larson is building up that points cushion so he can coast through most of the playoffs to the finale. Now, as Harvick showed last year, that doesn’t always work out. But I’d rather have the points than not have them.

Elliott continues to be the hottest driver not named Larson. Sonoma marked his sixth straight top-10 finish, with five of those being top fives. He’s finished in the top three in each of the last four races and has climbed up to third in the points standings. The No. 9 is clearly still a tick below the No. 5, but with playoff experience and a slew of road courses still on the docket, Elliott will definitely be in the mix all summer and fall.

See also
Up to Speed: Will a Teammate Battle Decide the 2021 NASCAR Championship?

Truex played the role of best non-Hendrick driver at Sonoma while finishing third. He mentioned it in his post-race interview — the Joe Gibbs cars are good right now, the Hendrick cars are just better. Sonoma has been one of the 2017 Cup champion’s best tracks throughout his career. Truex had speed to stay closer to Larson than just about anyone on long runs; he just wasn’t good enough to ever get by him. Upcoming races at Pocono and Road America will be good chances to gauge where this team is at versus the HMS cars.

Who fell flat?

Following an incredible string of 13 straight top-11 finishes, Byron’s luck turned at Sonoma. There were points during the race where he battled Elliott and appeared to be just as fast as his teammate. A differing strategy shuffled the running order and put him back in traffic when he got collected in the big late wreck. The streak clearly wasn’t going to last forever, so perhaps it’s a good time for the No. 24 team to reset and lock in as the playoffs inch closer.

Something else to remember: 2021 is Rudy Fugle’s first time calling races this long. He’s been an excellent Camping World Truck Series crew chief for years, but these distances are an adjustment for sure. Fugle has been a great match with Byron and now is a good time for him to learn with a win already in their back pocket.

Harvick was a dark horse favorite entering Sonoma, yet he just never had the speed to run with the leaders. That’s been the story of Harvick’s season, really. He was fast enough to run in the back half of the top 10 for most of the race until the late wreck destroyed his day. Stewart-Haas Racing still has a ton of work to do over these summer months if Harvick wants to have any chance at a second title.

What did this race prove?

Sonoma was badly missed on the schedule last year. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I saw the cars going around the track on Sunday afternoon. There’s something nostalgic about those big, clunky cars going through sharp corners while surrounded by dirt. It was great to have the California track back on the circuit in 2021.

Competition cautions have to go. I know that NASCAR claims it’s for safety reasons and to check the tires because there are no practice sessions. But how often do we see an actual tire problem before the competition yellow? Almost never. I’m ready to throw away competition cautions permanently and if teams start having tire problems, they’ll just have to pit on their own. 

Along those lines, stage cautions at road courses shouldn’t exist. Road courses are all about strategy. Before stages were implemented, the strategy of running the race backward was discussed throughout every broadcast. There were way more fuel mileage questions and different things teams could do to steal points. NASCAR can keep the stages just for consistency with the other races and award points to the first 10 drivers to cross the line on their predetermined lap.

Paint scheme of the race

Ever since SunnyD entered NASCAR with Stenhouse in 2016, the paint schemes have been fantastic. The patented bright orange and dark blue colors moved back to Stenhouse at JTG Daugherty Racing in 2021 and created another gorgeous design:

Better than last time?

Last year, the race was canceled due to COVID-19. In 2019, Byron led every lap in the first stage while other contenders opted to pit early and prioritize the race win over stage points. The same story happened in the second stage with Hamlin taking it. The final stage was largely anticlimactic as Truex held a steady lead over Kyle Busch and led the final 24 laps for his third Sonoma win. Stage breaks were the only cautions in the event, which used the 550 horsepower package.

This year, the 750 HP package was used and it was absolutely an improvement. Larson was much better than the rest of the field and the late cautions probably saved it from being a five-second or more win. But the strategies in the final stage did jumble up the running order a bit to keep things interesting and two late restarts kept the race outcome in (some) question.

Playoff picture

Larson and Truex are now leading the series with three victories on the year. There are still five playoff spots open for non-winners, with two of those still very secure — Hamlin (+333) and Harvick (+152).

The three other drivers below Hamlin and Harvick have also built a sizable cushion over 17th. Austin Dillon (+105), Reddick (+67) and Chris Buescher (+60) are all in a great spot on points unless there’s a new winner who is outside the top 16. Matt DiBenedetto (-60), Kurt Busch (-63) and Stenhouse (-82) are the closest drivers outside the playoffs. There are now just 10 races remaining until the playoffs begin.

Here’s a look at the full standings following Sonoma:

What’s next?

The Cup Series is heading to Texas Motor Speedway for a non-points event. The 2021 NASCAR All-Star Race at TMS is set for Sunday (June 13) at 8 p.m. ET, with the All-Star Open beginning two hours earlier at 6 p.m. ET. Both races will be shown on FOX Sports 1, the final race of the season with FOX before NBC takes over for the remainder of 2021.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: MID-OHIO

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: SONOMA

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Bill B

Well all I can say is that it was more interesting to watch Larson dominate at Sonoma than Charlotte. The stage breaks continue to ruin the strategy at road courses. At least the 3 best cars finished 1-2-3. Could have done without all the cautions at the end.

David Edwards

The way nascar conducts road course races is almost unbearable. Full course cautions which seem interminable for any incident no matter how small. Combine that with the mandatory competition caution and stage breaks……
Maybe they should look at how the rest of the world conducts events.
anyway the Hendricks engineers are a step ahead of Gibbs right now.

janice

i kind of thought there would be more cautions at the end. they just start racing hard on old, worn out tires.

onto all star race that will make little sense in the format.

Echo

Joke format for sure. Who wins fan vote !

Bill B

Rhetorical question.
Hope he wrecks in the open.

Echo

Yes it was and yes I too hope he does.

DoninAjax

Maybe NA$CAR will let Flubba win one of the pre-event events so ir will look like he “earned” his way in?

janice

i hope not the 23

Echo

Does Nascar count the votes in secret ! it will be bubba.

sb

Eliminate the stages and give the drivers a 50 minute practice. Solves a lot of issues. Still love the road courses!

Carl D.

After the last two races, how does Larson show up at TMS without a sponsor? That’s a rhetorical question…

Kevin in SoCal

#stopasianhate

Echo

3 seconds, 2 firsts in last 5. How indeed can a company ignore the tv exposure their company will get.

Bill B

Afraid of the snow flakes whining.
He committed the worst crime possible.
He shouldn’t be allowed to live.
The horror. The horror.

Jo

Of course, he should be allowed to live. The question is whether he deserved to get a promotion out of his mistake. That’s called “failing upward.” But how long will the Fat Felon be willing to foot the bill for the promotion?

OTOH, both Larson and Wallace used their situations to further their own careers. Yet I don’t see NASCAR fans complaining about Larson every time his name is mentioned.

BTW, Bubba beat Larson at Eldora on the dirt in 2014. Just saying….

Bill B

Only you would have a name for that. Failing upward… what a load of crap.
I call it; his career picking up where it left off before he was made an example of for something that wasn’t a crime and didn’t warrant the reaction it got.
It’s hard to complain about someone furthering their career when they back it up by winning at every place they’ve been. That’s why so many had a problem with Danica. She got the start treatment without having a star’s success. So why don’t you see fans complaining about Larson? Because he’s a winner and a racer and therefore he belongs. All Bubba has to do is start winning regularly and that will shut everyone up. Wait for it…. Wait for it…..

Jo

You give me too much credit. “Failing upwards” has been around as a term for a long time. Guess you’re just out of touch.

And Larson is getting a free ride from HMS in more ways than one.

fail upwards
To repeatedly get fired but consistently find a new job that are better than the one you just lost.
“She’s never had a job for more than two years without getting canned and now she’s a VP. I’ve never seen anyone fail upwards better than she does.”
by Eggsocket July 09, 2009

Bill B

The term fail upwards sounds like it applies to someone that can’t do their job and yet they keep getting promoted. Of the two drivers being discussed which one keeps finding a better ride without ever having success on the track? THAT is what it means to fail upward. Do you not realize that a race car driver’s primary job is to win races? The part that Kyle failed at is not pissing off SJWs like yourself. “Failing Upwards” is more applicable to Bubba than Kyle. He keeps getting rides without ever proving he can do his job…. win races. I wonder why?

Jo

All I’m saying is that Larson’s “penalty” for his racist slur was that he went from a second-tier team to a first-tier team. Prior to this season, he had a grand total of 6 Cup wins in 9 years. He’s not even one of the young guys at 29. Sure, he is probably a better driver than Bubba, but that isn’t even the point. Larson has been rewarded for his transgression. Not only is HMS footing the bill for his sponsor-less team, his teammates have been treating him with kid gloves, possibly to help him snag a sponsor. That can’t last forever.

You want to crown him King of NASCAR, the Second Coming of Petty, Earnhardt and Gordon. A more reasonable approach would be to see how this season and future play out. He is not the best driver in NASCAR now. He has the fastest car. When things equalize within HMS and the other teams make improvements (the #18 is very close with a better driver), we’ll see how good he really is.

As for Bubba, his stats coming into Cup were as good as most drivers coming through the ranks with 6 Truck Series wins, 2 of which came at Larson’s expense at Eldora and Homestead. He is not a factor to win with the #23 now, but I’m not going to write him off with his new team, especially if Kurt Busch joins him next year. Sure, he took advantage of being the sole Black driver in securing his ride, but no more than Larson did playing the victim of “cancel culture” in getting his ride.

If Bubba benefits from SJW’s, Larson benefits from outright racists and white privilege advocates, but not to the point of securing a sponsor. Winning races is only part of a driver’s job today. Securing sponsorship is also part of the job and Larson is not doing well at that. Larson’s teammates have so many sponsors there is barely room on their cars and uniforms to display all their logos. I wonder how much of their sponsorship money is being diverted to the #5 team.

Bill B

You can’t be that stupid….. ” Larson has been rewarded for his transgression.”

NONONONO – he has been rewarded for being a GOOD DRIVER.

Of course it looks that way to you because you can’t see past it. You would like to cancel him for his crime against humanity.
Make no doubts about it, if he wasn’t a great driver, he wouldn’t have gotten the “:promotion” (as you call it) because Hendrick wouldn’t have picked him up. What do you think he picked him up because he uttered a bad word, or did he pick him up because he’s a good driver. Surely you have to be able to see that. Just because you don’t like it TS,
Now maybe others are but I’m not crowning him the next Petty or Gordon or anything, but he definitely has above average skills.

Jo

Sure, Hendrick picked him up because of his driving skills and that was enough to make him take a chance on damaged goods. But here we are, almost halfway through the season, and ol’ Rick is still footing the bill for the #5 team – or using money from the other 3 cars’ sponsors to offset the lack sponsorship for Larson. Nonetheless, Larson’s firing and suspension had the net effect of getting him a superior ride.

How stupid do you have to be to not see that?

Tom B

We assume, for completely different reasons, Ty Gibbs does not have a sponsor on his race cars and he is a weekly winner.
I wonder if there is a business conflict between Rowdy Energy and Monster Energy?

DoninAjax

Laps 11, 12, 13, 21, 22, 23, 24, 41, 42, 43 and 44 were run under needless caution flags. That is 11 out of an expected 90 laps and destroyed any possible strategy for the teams.

Echo

Isn’t that totally ridiculous. Lot of commercials went into those long slow laps.

DoninAjax

NA$CAR results for the event show 8 cautions for 18 laps. But each one they list has one less than in reality. The first caution they say lasted laps 12 and 13. But it came at the end of lap 10 so they didn’t count lap 11. That means there were 8 additional total laps for a total of 26 laps under caution. That is almost one third of the example of Brian’s product, 11 of which were needed only for commercials, which they could have included without the caution flags.

Echo

Larson is getting a free ride from HMS huh something is really wrong with you Jojo. He should never have lost his ride in the first place. I think Rick and Gordon had to be licking their chops at the opportunity to sign one of the top two natural wheelmen in Nascar today. Rick already let the other one get away. I believe Jeff was definitely instrumental in getting Kyle to HMS. Do you really believe Rick is worried about any monetary loss Kyle is costing. While on the subject of Rick, do you know how many fortune 500 companies pay ZERO federal income taxes a year. How about the top 20 companies in this country. I could care less if Rick didn’t pay taxes back in the stone age. Or even presently for that matter. You would find something to whine about even if chase won 36 races.

Bill B

I’d say with the success Kyle has had so far this year, the purse money is covering the cost of him winning. A couple more wins and top 5s and HMS will be turning a profit without a sponsor on the 5 car.

David Russell Edwards

Only the accountants know whether the 5 car is making a profit. I suspect that it is far from it. But that is Hendricks business.
As to whether Larson should have lost his job thats a no brainer. When the sponsor money goes away few owners would keep the driver. Doesnt matter what the reason was.
Yet I doubt that Larson is a better driver now than before. But much better equipment makes it appear that he is.
Meanwhile the show continues.

Jo

We’ve seen drivers promoted to better rides solely on the basis of their ability to bring sponsorship with them and we have also seen drivers lose rides when they were unable to keep and attract new sponsors. Purse money doesn’t make up for direct infusion of cash. Once you remove the driver’s cut of winnings, purse money pays the tire bills. All three of Hendrick’s other drivers had to secure sponsorship BEFORE they got their rides. I wonder if those sponsors would be happy to know that some of their money is being diverted to the #5 car.

Winning races is only part of a driver’s responsibility today. His/her ability to attract sponsorship is probably equally or more important. I doubt that Bill B or anyone else here has a good handle on whether HMS is turning a profit on his charity case.

And Echo would hate Bubba no matter what his on-track performance was.

Jo

My only complaint about Chase is that he didn’t move Larson out of the way when he had 3 clear shots at him after the last restart. I guess Chase is playing the long game. OR following team orders to help the charity case. We’ll see how that plays out in the later part of the season.

As for Hendrick, do your homework. He wasn’t convicted of failing to pay taxes. He was convicted of bribery. Hendrick pleaded guilty to mail fraud, admitting that he sent $20,000 in cash to a Honda executive. In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to dismiss a conspiracy charge and 13 money-laundering charges. The mail fraud charge carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Then he claimed illness and was allowed to serve his sentence at home. Sweet deal for a crook!

Jo

Oh, not to mention that after contributing to Bill Clinton’s campaign, Hendrick secured a pardon for his conviction from Clinton. The bribes keep coming.

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