Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Martin Truex Jr. Drinks in Another Victory in Wine Country

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Active Sonoma Raceway win leader Martin Truex Jr. bided his time in the first stage of Sunday’s (June 11) Toyota/Save Mart 350, working his way forward from his eighth starting spot. However, as stage two played out, Truex pounced on early frontrunner and teammate Denny Hamlin to take the lead. He then paced the field for most of the stage until a caution for an errant wheel during a round of green-flag stops mixed up pit strategy, trapping his No. 19 Toyota back in traffic.

But fresh tires meant it didn’t take long for Truex to work his way back to the front, even at a track where passing proved difficult. He took the lead back from Kyle Busch on lap 69, a power move serving notice about both the strength and speed in this car. 

It was over from there, with Truex the class of the field for the rest of the day. Even after the second and final caution, his pit crew got him out in front of all rivals, leaving him behind just a handful who stayed out. He easily dispatched Chase Elliott, the last of the holdouts, then held off Busch to earn his fourth career wine country win in dominant fashion.

And don’t forget Chris Buescher. The RFK Racing veteran backed up a 2022 runner-up finish at Sonoma with a fourth-place run this time around. His No. 17 team continues to make small gains, and Buescher has quietly been having a strong 2023 campaign. He’s also proving to be one of the most consistent road course racers in the Cup Series, earning seven straight top 10s on the right-handers.

See also
Chris Buescher Finishes 4th at Sonoma, Misses Out on More After Late Pit Strategy Shuffle

Buescher finished 21st in points last year, as his win at Bristol Motor Speedway in the fall was too late to grab a playoff spot. However, Buescher is putting himself in line for a spot this year. His top-five total already matches 2022, and while there’s still work to do before RFK is a true title contender, he’s showing exactly why the team believed in him in the first place. He’s now got three top-10 finishes in his last four races and sits 11th in driver points leaving Sonoma.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

The first 50 laps at Sonoma ran without a single caution flag. NASCAR’s road course rules don’t include yellows at the end of the stages this year after learning from experience they hurt team’s overall race strategy. The old way scripted out the event to the point crew chiefs lost their options to gamble and gain (or lose) massive chunks of track position.

After working out well thus far, both here and at Circuit of the Americas in March, the situation raises two questions. One, should NASCAR eliminate stage cautions at ovals as well? Keep in mind they are essentially TV timeouts, something the broadcasters asked for in order to have built-in commercial breaks. Stages were sold on the idea broadcasters could show a large number of commercials during scheduled breaks and fewer during the race itself.

But in practice, fans watching at home haven’t seen much of a difference. If anything, it just gave the networks time to show more commercials in addition to the liberal ad breaks they were already taking.

So, is it time for the planned cautions to go?

Or would that bring on its own set of issues?

As much as fans have voiced dislike for stage breaks, they also tend to be vocal in their distaste for long green-flag runs. Would a caution-free race really be well-received by the majority of the fan base?

One thing the stage breaks also eliminated were phantom debris cautions that would pop up, usually late in a race, just when the action wasn’t “good enough.” If eliminating planned breaks means an uptick in unnecessary yellows late in the race, would that really be an overall improvement?

When it comes down to it, stage breaks are at least early in races, less likely to affect the outcome than a phantom debris yellow late in the game. It’s a great idea on paper, but could it work in practice without NASCAR getting too trigger happy to throw a yellow for virtually anything if the race gets boring? As it is, we had one caution this race for an errant tire on pit road, a miscue that didn’t leave debris on the racing surface itself.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Denny Hamlin looked to have things well in hand early, cruising through the first stage until a caution shook up pit strategy. Hamlin never could regain the lead after that, struggling with the handle in traffic although a top-10 finish appeared within reach as the laps wound down.

However, Hamlin made a rare tactical error late in the race, smacking the inside wall and shooting his car across the track into the outside wall on the frontstretch. The day’s lone serious wreck did enough damage that Hamlin could not continue, finishing the race on the sidelines with a 36th-place result.

Defending race winner Daniel Suarez started a solid ninth but made a shifting error on the first lap which cost him multiple positions. Suarez quickly reported on his radio that something wasn’t quite right with the engine, losing both confidence and horsepower all at once. While he was able to finish in the No. 99 Chevrolet, Suarez was never able to make up lost ground and wound up 22nd in the final tally.

Points leader Ryan Blaney almost made a late pit gamble pay off. Staying out as the leaders pitted on the final caution, Blaney, who has struggled outside the top 20 for much of the day, found himself inside the top three. But old tires lose grip, and Blaney went for a spin with six laps to go, then a second one, relegating him right back to where he had been running.

That doesn’t mean Blaney shouldn’t have stayed on track, because if it had worked, he’d have a fistful of points to show for it, and what he could have gained was more than he ultimately lost. It didn’t stop the frustration, though, as he was miffed over contact that wiped out a potential top-10 finish.

Last week’s winner Kyle Busch caught a little luck when the caution came out during a round of green flag pit stops just before the end of stage two. He was able to stay on track, gaining valuable track position, and from there, the lead was always within reach. Busch was the only driver able to run anywhere near Truex all day, and while he couldn’t catch him outright, Busch was in position to capitalize if Truex made a mistake or a late caution flew. Neither happened, leaving Busch to settle for the runner-up spot, but he’s got great momentum heading into the summer stretch and could very well be a title threat when all is said and done.

When… was the moment of truth?

The race wasn’t much of a nail-biter. There was no side-by-side battle for the win, because when it came down to the finish, nobody could put up much of a fight against the No. 19. Truex had the field covered on long runs, which is how the race played out.

Even when there were restarts to shake things up with pit strategy, Truex was able to dispatch anyone who restarted in front of him with ease. He was just that good.

And … that’s OK. There are a lot of ways to win races, and dominating the field is one of them.

The race played out organically. There were no manufactured cautions and the best drivers and cars became evident as the race went on. There was no fuel mileage in play, no team orders, no controversy and no crash. And anyone who thinks that every race should be a barn-burner featuring one or more of these is missing a bit piece of the puzzle: sometimes a race can simply be won because of a dominant team, and sometimes the result is a race that’s not as exciting to watch. 

The alternative is some kind of gimmick (see: phantom cautions above). Is that what race fans really want?

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

The Cup Series has its only week off of the season this weekend. It’s a good chance for teams who haven’t performed up to expectations to reset and reevaluate a bit. Even for those off to sensational starts, it’s a great chance to breathe.

Once the Cup Series returns to action, it will be 20 nonstop weeks, beginning with a quintet of very different tracks: the concrete oval of Nashville Superspeedway, the Chicago street course, Daytona Lite at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the flat mile in Loudon, New Hampshire and one massive Pocono Raceway triangle. The kickoff to the summer season features something for everyone, but it’s also the beginning of the last push to the playoffs, silly season and a long run to the finish.

See also
NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports Surprise With Next Gen Car at Le Mans

How… much can NASCAR take away from Le Mans?

The 24 Hours of Le Mans was a decent way to showcase the Next Gen car and to put it in front of an audience unfamiliar with NASCAR. It gained attention among fans in attendance and was decently competitive considering it was literally in a class of its own within a field of smaller, lighter, more easily maneuverable cars. It got outrun in the wet and had a mechanical issue late that cost the entry a few laps.

But it was loud, angry and got people’s attention. The car also ran with a 750-horsepower engine, about 200 over what the current Cup version races. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that NASCAR needs more power, especially on road courses and short tracks. If durability was a question, well, that thing just ran under full power for something like 22 hours. If safety was a question, none of the three (granted very experienced champion) drivers had an incident and the team finished the race clean. Jimmie Johnson, whose best Cup efforts were always in higher-powered cars, ran better with it than he has this season in his return to the sport as a driver/owner.

NASCAR has expressed a desire to improve the racing on road courses, flat tracks and short tracks with the Next Gen. If they are serious about that, the place to start is under the hood. And Le Mans showed them why they can.

Follow @Writer_Amy

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Dawg

Chase was exactly right, if 9 more cars would have stayed out with him. He stood a very good chance of winning.

But as it turned out, the best car & driver won. As fans that’s all we can ask for.

gbvette

Races without stage breaks are so much better.

On the subject of cautions, why was it necessary to throw a caution for a loose tire on pit road? Sonoma has a pit wall that kept it off the track and I don’t think it was during scheduled pit stops. It’s a road course, they could easily have had a local yellow (something NASCAR should employ more often on road courses) at pit in or even closed pit road for a lap. There had to be a better way to handle it then multiple laps under caution to retrieve one tire on pit road.

More horsepower would go a long way toward improving the short track and short oval package. With IRS and a trans axle, the new car has great weight balance. It sounds strange to say, but I think it may handle too well. As a spec car, extra power might allow the drivers to throw the cars around more and power through turns.

KU

As for the stage breaks, I am not sure what is better or worst. The one thing they remedied was the “phantom” debris cautions. So would it better to have those or schedule yellow flags. I am conflicted. So if one takes that as wash, should points be awarded at each stage break with the winner getting a playoff point? Personally they should get rid of the “stage racing”. The race would progress more naturally. IMO.

Kevin in SoCal

The whole point of stage racing is to make the drivers race hard all the time for points, rather than coast for the first part of the race and then race hard at the end. When there happens to be a caution before a stage break, then various pit strategies happen and different drivers get bonus points. I think that is a good thing.

Last edited 10 months ago by Kevin in SoCal
Jeremy

True, and for that reason I don’t hate the idea of points being given at various stages of the race based on running order to encourage hard racing start to finish. However, I do not think the race needs to be arbitrarily stopped. Instead, award points at completion of predetermined lap numbers while the cars remain racing. No yellow flag needed. Cautions happen often enough organically, no need to infuse extras in. Plus, as an unknown variable it makes strategy plays more interesting.

DoninAjax

The breaks (TV time outs) are to allow for more commercials. It is basically the same drivers every event so no one gains points on anybody over the season.

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