Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Sonoma: Suarez Win Saves Uneventful Toyota Save/Mart 350

What happened?

Daniel Suarez inherited the lead and held off Chris Buescher for the last 26 laps at Sonoma Raceway to win his first career NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, June 12. Michael McDowell, Kevin Harvick, and Austin Cindric rounded out the top five.

See also
Daniel Suarez Finally a NASCAR Cup Series Winner at Sonoma

The Mexico native has become only the fifth foreign born driver to win a Cup Series race and first since Marcos Ambrose in 2011.

How did it happen?

With a strong pass for the lead made at the halfway point.

At the end of stage two, Buescher had inherited the lead from Chase Elliott after the latter was penalized for servicing the car outside of the pit box – and we’ll get to that later. Buescher would restart as the leader of the final stage. Alongside him was Suarez.

While maneuvering around turn 1 before climbing their way into turn 2 on the restart, Suarez stood his ground on the outside and was able to clear the RFK Racing driver and took the lead with 50 laps to go on the 1.99-mile road course.

And, well, that was it.

OK, not really. But when it comes to lead changes and pit strategy, there was no real challenge to Suarez’s reign with the exception of an offensive mounted by Buescher on the final restart with 26 laps to go.

Buescher was able to stay within a second the Team Trackhouse Racing driver for a majority of those 26 laps, yet Suarez continued to hold his line unbothered by the RFK driver’s charge. By the time the checkered flag waved, Suarez had increased his lead by over three seconds on the No. 17. Third place McDowell was having a strong day by his standards, but certainly did not have the speed to catch the Texan and did have the track position to keep Cup veteran Harvick at bay.

Suarez led 47 of the last 50 laps on route to his first Cup win – three of them were led by Brad Keselowski during green-flag pit stop cycles.

Who stood out?

Suarez isn’t the only feel-good story of the day.

For Buescher, the last two weeks have been probably the worst in his entire racing career.

At Charlotte Motor Speedway, the No. 17 found itself upside down on the frontstretch late in the Coca-Cola 600 in a scary and bizarre crash.

At World Wide Technology Raceway, the Texan had to miss the race completely after he was tested positive for COVID-19. Zane Smith had to fill in for the series’ regular.

However, after everything, the 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion came back for not only a second-place result but ran second for most of the 110 laps at the California-based circuit. Keselowski would finish 10th as well after a bad pit-strategy call forced him out of the top five.

Before Sunday’s race, Buescher had only one top-10 result out of all 19 road-course races he’s entered in the NASCAR Cup Series. But at Sonoma on Sunday, he drove as if he truly was a road-course ringer.

See also
Chris Buescher Finishes 2nd at Sonoma After 2 Rough Weeks

The RFK driver has had a humdrum start to the 2022 season. Heck, both RFK cars would probably like to have a reset of the first half of the year. Before Sunday, both Buescher and team owner/teammate Keselowski had amassed only four top-10 results in 15 races – an abysmal start for a team that was competing for championships a decade ago.

RFK Racing is still undergoing the growing pains that come with new management, but after Sunday, for the first time this year the rebranded team’s potential not only showed but – like their car numbers – shined.

On the subject of underdogs, there’s also that of McDowell.

It is well-known that the Arizona-native is an expert on the road courses, so when the No. 34 qualified up front, he was a pick to run well for the 110-lap event.

Not only did he run well, however, he was a contender.

McDowell stayed in the hunt long enough to keep in touch with the leaders through all of the pit strategy and stage breaks. His efforts were not in vain, as the No. 34 ended his day with a third-place finish – his best result since his third-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway in April 2021.

The top five marks another result for the Front Row Motorsports driver, as it is also his sixth top-10 finish this year – breaking his personal record of five which he set one season ago.

Oh, and as a reminder, we’re still not halfway through the season yet.

Who fell flat?

When Kyle Larson and crew decided to stay out in stage one to collect a stage win, teammate Elliott, who was running second at the time, came to pit road and inherited the lead once the ensuing caution cycled through.

In typical Elliott road-course fashion, the 2020 Cup Series champion lead majority of the following stage with nobody having the speed to challenge his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

However, unlike his reigning series champion teammate, Elliott decided to pit again while in the lead before the end of stage two. The idea was to pit from the lead, lose the stage, but re-inherit the lead once he stayed out and restart first in the final stage.

But those pesky Next Gen lug nuts – rings? – would strike again.

Elliott’s crew serviced the loose wheel before he could return to the track after a heads-up call from crew chief Alan Gustafson. However, Elliott did not back the Chevrolet far enough into the box, and he was hit with a penalty, adding insult to injury and thoroughly ending his chances of a race win.

Now, it was a costly mistake, sure, but the repercussions of a loose wheel would’ve certainly hurt the team even more. After all, the No. 9 still finished in a respectable eighth place. It wasn’t a terrible result, but still far away from what could’ve been an easy race victory. Had it not been for Gustafson’s catch, Elliott’s team would’ve likely ended up far worse.

The same cannot be said about his pole-sitting teammate Larson.

Unlike Elliott, Larson did leave his pit box with a loose wheel during the final green-flag pit stops of the race. While for a time Larson was running in the top 10, his detached wheel sent the No. 5 spinning off track and will send crew chief Cliff Daniels into a four-week vacation with the penalty that will likely follow.

Larson would not recover like his Hendrick Motorsports teammate did. He finished 15th.

What did this race prove?

Team Trackhouse Racing is no longer the one-man watermelon-smashing band of Ross Chastain. Instead, now they also smash taco-shaped pinatas.

No, really. I’m serious.

Suarez and Chastain both have had similar backstories when it comes to their racing career woes.

Both have had to prove themselves time and time again among the best teams NASCAR has to offer moving from team to team before finally landing in their new home of Team Trackhouse Racing.

Suarez was the team’s first driver in 2021, but despite being there since the organization’s inception, Chastain and his two wins were slowly becoming the face of the team co-owned by former Xfinity Series driver Justin Marks.

See also
Up to Speed: Daniel Suarez Reborn at Trackhouse Racing Team

Finally, however, after racing for championship-caliber teams such as Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing before being let go for lackluster performance, and spending most of 2020 out of the car and wondering if he would ever race in the Cup Series full-time again, Suarez has at long-last proven himself.

The Mexican racer was only five races away from his 200th-career Cup Series start – a long time to have to wait for a first career win – but it comes at a time that proves that he is not merely Trackhouse’s second driver, nor does he play second-fiddle to the more successful Chastain.

Instead, Suarez’s win now proves to the racing world that Trackhouse will have two bullets to take a shot with at this year’s Cup championship, becoming already the fourth driver to earn his first Cup win this year.

It’s arguably the most feel-good story of the year so far. That’s the good news.

Better than last time?

Here comes the bad news.

While Suarez win left practically everybody in the NASCAR world something to smile about, there is still something to be said about the racing performance of Sonoma Raceway.

After racing with the carousel consecutively in 2019 and again in 2021, NASCAR decided it was time to return to the short chute once again after it had become the staple of NASCAR racing at Sonoma for so many years.

But it didn’t really change anything.

Sonoma used to be a track that relied on pit strategy to provide intrigue to fans. For years, tire strategy and fuel conservation were the name of the Sonoma road-racing game.

But with the introduction of stage racing, fuel strategy hardly occurs in NASCAR racing anymore, leaving track position the only thing that makes modern-day NASCAR racing. While that’s not always a bad thing, passing at Sonoma isn’t something that happens very often.

Last year on the carousel, there were 13 lead changes among seven drivers. In 2022, there were only six changes for the lead among six drivers. That doesn’t make the race bad, but it was uneventful.

When watching one driver lead almost the entire second half of the race like we did on Sunday, it’s easy to be reminded of Sonoma’s dull racing product. You can only show Tony Stewart‘s 2016 win so many times before it starts to become old. Sonoma’s racing isn’t as exciting as that of Watkins Glen International or the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, and bringing back the short chute was probably not going to change that.

There’s been an argument to be rid of stage racing at road courses for the last couple years, and at Sonoma, that argument is more prevalent than anywhere else.

Paint scheme of the race

There weren’t many special paint schemes being ran this weekend in the NASCAR Cup Series field. In fact, there were hardly any new liveries at all.

In that case, it was a no-brainer to look at some of the common overachievers when it came to wrapping vehicles in cool company-themed pieces of artwork. Said achievers include teams like Team Trackhouse Racing, Team Penske, 23XI Racing and of course, RFK Racing.

Brad Keselowski may still be working out the kinks in his new team-owning endeavor, but his team’s artwork has been fun to look at all year long. This weekend was no exception.

Yes, it is a rather common looking white primary with some blue secondaries just above the car’s side skirts. However, for the more initiated, you may notice its similarity to Mark Martin’s 2003 reverse Viagra paint scheme during the Roush team’s peak years. Same number. Same manufacturer. Same team.

Those peak years may be long gone for the team, and it’s anyone’s guess as to if they’ll ever be back, but clearly their style still remains.

Was it done on purpose? Probably not, but hey, why complain?

What’s next?

After taking a week off, NASCAR will head to the Music City.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to Nashville Superspeedway for the series’ second ever visit to the 1.33-mile oval. Cup qualifying for the Ally 400 begins on Saturday, June 25 at 1 p.m. ET. with the 300-lap main event being televised live on NBC on Sunday, June 26 at 5 p.m. ET.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021 after writing for IMSA. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and graduated with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

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Bill B

I hate the stage racing period but nowhere does it suck more than road courses. It totally neuters any strategy when everyone knows when at least two of the cautions will come out and can plan accordingly.

Congrats to Suarez. A guy that always has a smile on his face and seems like a good guy overall. Trackhouse now has as many wins as JGR and Penske and more than SHR. Who would have bet on that at the start of the season?

No mention of how out to lunch the Toys were today. They had a dismal day collectively. Kurt Busch in 18th was the top finisher. That sucks considering all the JGR cars were running at the end of the race.

While there wasn’t a lot of passing for the lead it seemed like there was passing in the field. It was also a nice change of pace not to have any tire failures.

The playoff spots are filling up. We might see a lot of desperation the next few weeks as the races wind down. And while we are only half-way through the season, there are only 10 races left before the playoffs.

Joe D.

If they’re not going to do away with stage racing (and I doubt they will), at least keep the races green as the stages end (I doubt they’ll do that either). I still don’t understand why they have to effectively stop the races at the end of each stage with glorified “competition cautions”.

With drivers like Truex and Harvick still looking for their first wins and four wild card races (3 road courses and Daytona) in the run up to the playoffs I think there’s at least some chance someone’s going to miss the playoffs even with a win.

Bill B

RE: “I still don’t understand why they have to effectively stop the races at the end of each stage with glorified “competition cautions”

Of course you do, it’s obvious, so they can show more commercials.

Jeremy

The stage breaks really don’t make sense on road courses. With most RC circuits, passing is tough even if you have a dominant car. Pit strategy becomes another tool teams can use to gain position. If you have a really good in lap and out lap, you can leapfrog a position or two that way instead of on the track. It can also backfire too, if you have trouble in the pits or a caution comes out. It also adds more story lines for the guys in the booth (making their job easier to “entertain”, even though keeping up with the various strategies may be more challenging).

NASCAR needs to wake up on this. I don’t mind handing out points at certain distances to entice teams to run hard and not sandbag the first 3/4 of the race, but they need to quit stopping the race at those breaks and allow the races to unfold organically. Especially on road courses, but it wouldn’t hurt on ovals either. It’s not like they cut away from commercials for green flag racing anyway.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jeremy
DoninAjax

You’d think the logic for the TV time outs would be to allow for FEWER green flag commercials but that isn’t the world they’re in. There were 4 yellow laps for the first TV time out and 5 for the second. At 2 minutes per lap that is a lot of time for commercials. At least there wasn’t a “competition caution” because the sun was making the track too hot. Bubba took care of that when he Hamlined his engine.

DoninAjax

If there are more than 16 qualifiers, NA$CAR will just change the “rule” that is written in invisible ink and say any winner qualifies. Right?

Jeremy

Depends on who winds up on the outside looking in. If it’s, let’s say, Cindric, Briscoe, or even Harvick, nothing will change. If it’s Logano or anyone who drives for Gibbs or Hendricks, exceptions will be made!

DoninAjax

Logano drives a Ford for Penske. He’d be out! But you’re right about Reverend Joe and Mr. H. They help NA$CAR pay some of their expenses.

Mr X

At my hometown NASCAR track, if they are running two late model races in the same night, they invert the top 8 for the second race. We were also one of the first tracks to use the choose cone. NASCAR seems to like these gags. Stage racing removes strategy.Let’s have the pole sitter pull two pills at the conclusion of driver intro to set the length of the stages right then. Say a range of +/- 10 laps. A scheduled 40 lap stage might become as few as 30 and as many as 50. Would shake up the stage ends and overall pit strategy.

Kevin in SoCal

They definitely need to adjust the stage lengths so there is a green flag pit stop at the end somewhere.
I also agree with keeping the race green but still awarding stage points.

janice

suarez seems genuine. that’s what i’ve like about him all along. was happy to see him win and the celebration. i wonder if his good luck charm, the little girl with cancer, made it to victory lane for photos. i hope her surgery goes well today. glad the teams are off for a week. they need it. next up, nbc.

JD in NC

I agree janice, Suarez seem like a really great guy. I was so glad to see him win yesterday, he’s become one of my favorites to pull for.

DoninAjax

That could be a reason he didn’t last with Reverend Joe and maybe Jones too.

johndawgchapman

You can say it’s hard to pass at Sonoma, & it is. But mostly overlooked was the fact that the ‘Dinger wrestled his car from starting tail back, to 10th place. With no power steering, until a late lap incident, perhaps fatigue induced dropped him back in the running order.

janice

i was amazed when they told us about aj and no power steering.

wildcats2016

I used to really enjoy the races at Sonoma but the stage racing has ruined it for me. The teams don’t really need to use strategy – at least not to the degree that they did before stages were instituted. Congrats to Suarez, he and his team did well.

I liked the overhead shots of the track.

The whole single lug nut deal seems to not be working out very well either.

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