Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Sonoma: Watch Out Chevy, Your Biggest Road Course Rivals Are Back

What Happened?

SONOMA, Calif – Martin Truex Jr. hadn’t won on a road course since 2019 at Sonoma Raceway, but he made it look easy in Sunday’s (June 11) Toyota Save Mart 350.

The No. 19 car first took the lead on lap 33, and Truex set the tempo by leading 51 of the race’s 110 laps.

The final restart came with 15 laps to go, and Truex, who restarted fourth after Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick and Ryan Blaney elected to stay out, quickly worked his way back to the top of the pylon and never relinquished the lead en route to his fourth Cup win at Sonoma, his second of the 2023 season and the 33rd of his career.

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

But What Really Happened?

After a combined 28 cautions in the two prior races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Sonoma was the antithesis with only two cautions and one car that failed to finish the race.

Denny Hamlin won the pole – his first at Sonoma – and looked like the dominant car early by leading the first 32 laps. Truex had worked his way from an eighth-place starting spot to pass Hamlin for the lead on lap 33, and the No. 19 team was soon in business.

The first caution of the day came out on lap 50 for an uncontrolled tire on pit road; Truex, Hamlin and all the other leaders were dropped behind the nine cars that had pitted before the yellow flag waved.

Kyle Busch was the first of these cars, and he held the lead for 17 laps until Truex finally got by him on lap 69. The race was once again the Truex show, as Busch slowly lost touch with his former teammate at the front of the field.

The second and final caution came out with 19 laps to go for Hamlin, and Truex made quick work of the cars on old tires to score the victory. Busch held on to finish second, while Joey Logano, Chris Buescher and Chase Elliott – the highest finishing car to not pit – completed the top five.

Who Stood Out?

After Truex’s win at Sonoma in 2019, Chevrolet went on to win 15 of the next 16 road course races in a three-year span. The bowties were all but untouchable to start the 2020s decade on the twisties, but if 2023 has been any indication, Toyota is back and potentially better than Chevy on the left and righthand turns.

Christopher Bell ended the drought for Toyota last October with a win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, and Tyler Reddick backed it up with a dominant win at Circuit of the Americas in March; Truex’s victory made it three in a row for the manufacturer.

Truex is now tied for the sixth-most road course wins in Cup all-time, and the victory vaulted him to the regular season points lead with 10 races remaining before the playoffs. Not bad for a driver and team that went winless and missed the playoffs entirely a year prior.

While Truex did the heavy lifting. he wasn’t the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver to make noise at the front of the field. Hamlin was one of the fastest cars until his crash relegated him to last, and Bell was mixing it up in the top five and top 10 all afternoon.

Sonoma also provided much-needed days for Buescher, AJ Allmendinger and Michael McDowell, who finished fourth, sixth and seventh, respectively. Both Buescher and McDowell finished in the top three at Sonoma last year, and they backed up last year’s good runs by running in the top 10 all day.

For Allmendinger, Sonoma marked his first top-10 finish since the season-opening Daytona 500 in February. The No. 16 team has struggled with speed throughout the year, so a sixth-place effort while running at the front of the field is exactly what the doctor ordered.

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The Underdog House: AJ Allmendinger, Michael McDowell Bark Loud at Sonoma

Who Fell Flat?

Sans Logano, Sonoma was a race to forget for Team Penske. Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric qualified 31st and 34th, respectively, and both drivers were struggling to crack the top 25. Blaney finally had a taste of the lead with a gamble to stay out under the final caution, but he was spun twice and relegated to 31st; Cindric wasn’t much better in 25th.

Daniel Suarez scored his first Cup win at Sonoma in 2022, but he was a no show a year later. After starting ninth, Suarez had an average running position of 22nd and finished there after 110 laps.

Kyle Larson and Elliott were both top 10 cars, but neither was a serious threat for the win. Likewise, William Byron qualified 26th and ran midpack with a 14th-place finish. With Hendrick Motorsports being the gold standard on road courses in years past, the team now has some catch-up to do against its Toyota counterparts.

Better than Last Time?

The last few years of Sonoma seem to run together.

It’s a narrow and windy course, so the field gets strung out quickly with limited passing zones. The winning driver has traditionally checked out well before the final lap, and that was the case once again.

However, Sonoma did benefit from a lack of stage cautions this time around. No scheduled breaks allowed drivers to short pit or run long, and the two strategies were at odds with each other throughout the day. The unpredictability of the cautions also added a layer of suspense, as the threat of a yellow at any moment was going to benefit half the field and hurt everyone else.

The race was largely cut and dry overall, especially with Truex being in his own zip code. However, Sonoma had a classic, old-school feel to it without stages. With the number of races that have devolved into mayhem in the first half of the 2023 season, there was some beauty in seeing a clean race play out to its conclusion for a change.

Paint Scheme of the Race

Northern California and the winner drinks from a wine glass? Had to go with the one that fit the spirit of Sonoma.

Allmendinger’s Gabriel Glas paint scheme is a simple, yet effective, design, as the primarily black car contrasted well with the white font, white glasses and splotches of red wine.

And in an era where Next Gen paint schemes are altered or disrupted by the forward numbers, Kaulig Racing gets extra brownie points by adjusting the Cup paint scheme to maximize the extra door space.

Up Next

A week at home, as the NASCAR Cup Series has its lone off weekend until the season concludes at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 5. If you still need to get your racing fix, the NTT IndyCar Series will compete at Road America on Sunday, June 18.

For the next race, the Cup Series will be back at Nashville Superspeedway at 7:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 25. The race will be the first of NBC’s 20-race schedule to close out the year.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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4 Comments
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janice

suarez missed a shift and that is what kept him in the back. he raced saturday and the cars are different.

Bill B

Nice to see a road course race unfold without knowing when the cautions were going to come out. It changes the whole game. Definitely more interesting strategies to consider for each team.
Also nice to have a race without a crapshoot ending.

DoninAjax

When Baby Busch crossed the line to end the second segment it took about 15 seconds to go to commercial. And most of that was him acting like a clown.So tell us again why they have to throw a caution flag when they know electronically who the first ten are? Oh right! COMMERCIALS! Which they can inundate us with any time they want to.

Kurt Smith

Agreed on both counts. Was also happy to see Truex get a win, he’s an underrated driver for sure.

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