Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Kyle Larson Toasts the Field in Wine Country

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

On a day where Sonoma Raceway had a few surprises up her sleeve, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 came down to pit strategy, and it was the No. 5 team of Kyle Larson that pulled off the best one. Larson held out a little longer than either Chris Buescher or Martin Truex Jr., leaving him with ground to make up but with fresher tires and plenty of fuel to do it.

As Truex stalked Buescher, Larson was turning the fastest laps. Had Truex been able to dispatch Buescher with more laps remaining, Larson might not have passed him as easily as he did, but with the Nos. 17 and 19 battling up front, Larson made quick work of both.

Buescher used up his car trying to hold off Truex and faded to third behind Larson and Michael McDowell as Truex ran out of fuel and coasted to a stop just a few yards short of the finish, eventually limping it across in 27th.

It’s Larson’s third win of 2024 and the 26th of his career. He now has 22 playoff points, best among all drivers this year, and takes over the point lead after Denny Hamlin finished 38th.

“I didn’t know what we were doing,” Larson said afterward of his team’s strategy.

Instead, he concentrated on completing his laps and running down the leaders, leaving the rest to his team. Maybe they should consider not telling him the strategy every week.

See also
Kyle Larson Snags Sonoma Win

And don’t forget Ross Chastain. Chastain started ninth and, while he wasn’t in the conversation for the win, he had a consistent day and a top-five finish to show for it, scoring a few stage points with his seventh-place finish in the first segment. Despite a tangle with Kyle Busch on the final lap, Chastain scored his first top five since Las Vegas.

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

Truex was contemplating retirement a year ago before he won at Dover Motor Speedway, Sonoma and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The hot streak convinced him to return to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 for another year, but that only put off the decision again.

Now, Truex is grappling with his future again, aware that Gibbs needs an answer soon enough to find a suitable replacement should he step down. But will he stay or will he go?

Truex doesn’t have a win, but he’s not having a terrible season. Currently fifth in points, he’s had some solid races. But the last four races have been dismal, with a best finish in that span of 12th and three of 25th or worse. But his 12.8 average finish is his best since 2021, and his seven top 10s are only one less than the points leader.

Truex, the 2017 Cup Series champion, doesn’t have the luxury of waiting until the 11th hour, so expect a decision in the coming weeks. At this point, neither another year in the car nor retirement would be a terrible decision, so it’s up to Truex to decide how brightly the fire is still burning.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Joey Logano led the first 16 laps of the race before getting stuck midpack and wrapped up in a multicar melee all in the first stage. From there, he worked his way forward, running 10th at the beginning of the final stage. The long green flag run to the checkers didn’t do Logano any favors, though, and he eventually finished 21st.

Defending race winner Truex has more Sonoma wins than any other active driver, and he drove like a veteran on Sunday (June 9). Truex started 21st and as a result, got a little roughed up in the first half. He started the final stage in second and ran down Buescher as the laps wound down, briefly taking the lead before Larson was able to get by. 

It was insult added to injury for Truex on the final lap when, left to battle for second, the No. 19 ran dry and he coasted to a stop just a few yards from the finish line. With the line in sight, Truex had to use the battery power from the starter to roll across the line in 27th, the final finisher on the lead lap.

Point leader Hamlin qualified 25th and had his work cut out for him even before the green flag waived. But his day was ended almost as soon as it began as the No. 11’s engine let go after just two laps, relegating Hamlin to a last-place finish and the loss of the points lead to Larson.

Last week’s winner Austin Cindric had an exciting moment early in stage two, when he ran off track and nearly rolled his No. 2. He kept the tires on the ground and continued on, but after a separate issue late in the race, Cindric only managed to climb back to 22nd.

When… was the moment of truth?

What made this race entertaining was the variety of strategies and the unpredictability provided by the repave of the racing surface. Until the final round of pit stops, there was really no clear-cut favorite. Logano and Tyler Reddick looked great early, then it was Buescher. But until Larson was able to run down Buescher and Truex in the closing laps, it was hard to pick one driver with a clear advantage. 

The repave provided some good moments, and varying strategies from teams added another layer of intrigue. The only thing that put a damper on the game was NASCAR’s insistence on returning to stage breaks on road courses this year.

The breaks aren’t needed (they aren’t necessary anywhere but actively hurt the racing at the road courses) and while stage points do add to the excitement at some tracks, road courses aren’t like other tracks and don’t need to be lumped in with them when it comes to the rules. 

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

With just 10 races now remaining in the regular season, things are heating up for teams who don’t yet have a win to lock them into the playoffs.

This season hasn’t seen the glut of different winners so far that the last couple of years have produced. A few more drivers will likely win their way into the postseason by summer’s end, but it’s likely that at least a few will have to fall back on points, which will make stage points that much more important as well. Expect action around stage finishes to heat up.

See also
Sonoma: The Race JGR Would Like to Forget

This week, the Cup drivers visit Iowa Speedway, a relative unknown for many drivers. Iowa was a staple on the Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series schedules for years, but it hasn’t hosted a national series since 2019.

Former Iowa winners who will be in Sunday’s (June 16) field include Brad Keselowski, Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Buescher, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Preece, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Austin Dillon and John Hunter Nemechek.

On the flip side, there are several top drivers who have never turned a lap at Iowa. Add a partial repave in the corners into the mix and there are a lot of unknowns here. Could that include a surprise winner?

How… will NBC handle the second half of the season?

In general, NBC has handled its NASCAR coverage with less hype than FOX and more in-depth analysis, But that could change this year with the departure of analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been an anchor of NBC’s coverage. Jeff Burton is a savvy analyst in his own right, but he does tend toward the dramatic at times and is often too quick to place blame where it’s not necessarily due.

Burton will have to step up his game this year in Earnhardt’s absence, and he also has a tough act to follow in FOX’s Kevin Harvick, who quickly proved his mettle in the booth this year by offering exceptional insight and bringing out the best in Clint Bowyer as well.

NBC is in an interesting position with Earnhardt’s departure because it still has the other components of its previous success, but it’s also entering a new realms as the team will have to learn to interact differently. It will be intriguing to see how they handle things, and if the rest of the team can collectively make up for Earnhardt’s absence.

About the author

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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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Christopher

I look forward to the NBC portion of the season. While the Fox booth has been reinvigorated with Harvick’s arrival, its production values and choices are atrocious. Speaking of Fox, I found it quite bizarre that Fox choose to not have Mike Joy address the fact that this was Fox’s last Sonoma broadcast until at least the end of the new media package, nor give his usual wrap up and screen scroll of names and thanks to all of the people behind the Fox NASCAR production (Joy did get in multiple thanks to cameramen). What an insult to the men and women behind the cameras at Fox Cup and Xfinity broadcasts. In contrast, Fox’s Xfinity broadcast on Saturday did acknowledge that it was the last Xfinity race to be on Fox, had a retrospective of all its years of broadcasts, etc. Just weird.

Last edited 5 days ago by Christopher
Wildcatsfan2016

i agree Christopher. I was watching the Xfinity race and they did a nice tribute to everyone. I guess I haven’t been paying attention to these changes didn’t realize what is going on with NASCAR and Fox?

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