Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Sonoma: A Mistake-Free Kyle Larson Is Very Dangerous

What Happened?

After a rash of yellows to start the race and a field of mixed-up strategies, Kyle Larson used fresher tires to track down Chris Buescher and Martin Truex Jr. to win the race on Sunday (June 9), his second victory at Sonoma Raceway and third win of the season.

Truex ran out of fuel on the final lap, so Michael McDowell picked up second while Buescher finished third. Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain rounded out the top five.

See also
Kyle Larson Snags Sonoma Win

What Really Happened?

In a race full of mistakes, Larson remained perfect to cap off a difficult drive with a victory in wine country.

Sure, Larson has the ability to win every time he sits behind the wheel of a racecar. But this season, something seems different.

Larson — and the No. 5 team — are not making mistakes.

Last season, many marked Larson as the championship favorite, especially after two wins early in the year. But a Jekyll and Hyde season from Larson featured many mistakes that took him out of contention and ended his championship pursuit.

The self-sabotage began in May, when Larson had wins at Kansas Speedway and Darlington Raceway within grasp before he had run-ins with Denny Hamlin and Chastain. Hamlin foiled another bid for victory at Pocono Raceway later in the summer.

In the playoffs, Larson dominated at Texas Motor Speedway but crashed, ultimately leading to his Round of 12 elimination. After getting knocked out, he had another win at Homestead-Miami Speedway within grasp until he ran into the pit road barrels.

Coming from the world of short dirt races, most of the criticism levied against Larson revolved around his inability to put together a full race. He certainly improved since his rookie season in 2014, and the No. 5 team completed a full season in 2021, earning 10 wins and the championship.

But the Next Gen car has caused Larson fits these past two seasons. He’s pushed hard — a little too hard at times — as he had eight DNFs in 2023.

This year, Larson has found a way to continue his performance, all while minimizing the mistakes. On Sunday, he even flipped the script.

Bearing down on Truex and Buescher, Larson arrived to the three-car battle for the lead with a little more than 10 laps to go. With the Next Gen car, we see guys seemingly stick to their lines and minimize mistakes.

But with Truex pushing Buescher hard, the No. 17 went wide in turn 10. That led to a fun battle with Truex before the No. 19 finally got by, bringing Larson with him.

Almost immediately, Truex made a mistake of his own, relinquishing the lead to Larson.

After giving up the top spot, Truex kept the pressure on Larson for a couple of laps. Maybe Larson didn’t hit every corner perfectly, but he didn’t make any major mistakes — a change from past seasons.

He may not be on pace to win 10 more races, but Larson has been good, even perfect at times. Today’s drive from multiple seconds back on a long green flag run proved just how perfect he has been this season when he has the fastest car. 

I know it’s a recurring theme every year, but after two seasons of constant mistakes, this might be the year Larson puts together another perfect season to capture championship number two.

Who Stood Out?

Outside of Larson completing an impressive drive on an unfavorable strategy and making the only on-track pass for the lead, a few other drivers also had nice runs. 

Of course, we would expect McDowell to run well on a road course, but today’s second-place finish had its own barriers. Speaking of barriers, McDowell ended up in one in the second stage after getting collected in the final incident that caused a caution.

His strategy earned track position, but he did pass Kyle Busch and Buescher late to better his finish.

After falling flat last week, Corey LaJoie had a pretty impressive race at Sonoma. His team missed the strategy at Gateway, but the yellows played to their advantage this week. On top of that, LaJoie did make some passes to improve his finish, winding up in 11th.

Who Fell Flat?

Two guys had some impressive road course streaks come to an end. An early mistake from Ty Gibbs kept him from finishing the race.

All jokes aside, both Gibbs and William Byron had three straight top-five finishes on road courses entering Sonoma. While Gibbs made an error on his own, Byron had a tire puncture mix his day up. It looked like fortune would be kind to Byron, until Erik Jones and Josh Berry decided to take out his right-rear toe link.

Better Than Last Time?

While the race had too much chaos early, the overall race had much more fun and flavor than last year’s event, which was dominated by Truex.

The cautions early showed just how much of a challenge the repave posed to drivers, and it really hurt the flow for the start of the race.

Once things got green, however, the race did become boring. That is, until the pit stops cycled through. Once the drivers on fresher tires came out to battle the guys on older rubber, the real racing began. 

No matter who ends up winning, it’s always great to have a three-car battle for the lead at the end. 

See also
NASCAR 101: Do Drivers Who Participate in Tire Tests Have an Advantage at Road Courses?

Paint Scheme of the Race

From the side angle, Chase Briscoe’s new Ford Performance livery simply had a new look. But the hood and roof added another layer to the scheme, looking almost like a patriotic California surfboard. 

When the entry list released on Monday, Brad Keselowski’s car had a “TOP SECRET” label on it. The scheme finally unveiled Friday, and the Kings Hawaiian orange morphed into a bright yellow, with a few Despicable Me Minions hanging off the back of the car as a promotion for Despicable Me 4, which hits theatres this summer.

The firesuits also added to the theme. Keselowski donned a firesuit designed after main character Gru’s outfit, while his No. 6 team wore firesuits resembling Gru’s beloved minions.

What’s Next?

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Iowa Speedway for the first time. The Iowa Corn 350 Powered by Ethanol is scheduled for Sunday, June 16 at 7:00 p.m. The night race kicks off the switch of TV networks, with this race starting on USA Network.

About the author

calebbarnes924

I began sports writing in 2023 with The Liberty Champion, where I officially covered my first NASCAR race at Richmond in the spring. While there, I met some of the guys from Frontstretch, and I joined the video editing team after I graduated from Liberty University with degrees in Strategic Communications and Sports Journalism. I currently work full-time as a Multi-Media Journalist with LEX 18 News in Lexington, Kentucky and contribute to Frontstretch with writing and video editing. I'm also behind-the-scenes or on camera for the Happy Hour Podcast, live every Tuesday night at 7:30!

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Kevin in SoCal

I liked the race, but I still say its too short. 350km is only 217.5 miles, way too short for a Cup race. There’s not enough time for the different fuel and tire strategies to fully play out. I want to see 500km, or at least 450km.

Bill B

Agree overall but as long as they insist on throwing a caution at the end of each stage, road course strategies are tainted anyway.

DoninAjax

Remember when Riverside was 500 miles?

Carl D.

The HMS teams are the standard by which all teams are judged. Larson is the biggest dog on that porch. He’ll be in the final four at Phoenix. It’s a crap shoot beyond that.

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