Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Sonoma Points Swing Ends Wild Month for Kyle Larson

Over the past five weeks, there hasn’t been a lack of headlines surrounding Kyle Larson.

At Kansas Speedway, Larson was the victor in the closest finish in NASCAR Cup history, beating Chris Buescher to the finish line by 0.001 seconds. A week later at Darlington Raceway, Larson’s No. 5 featured the best throwback paint scheme of the weekend – a tribute to Terry Labonte’s Kellogg’s car from the 1990s.

Yet historic finishes and classic paint schemes all felt like a warmup for Larson’s attempt to complete The Double and run the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Plans had been in place for more than a year and many in the American motorsports world were anxious to see how Larson would fare in racing 1,100 miles in one day.

Then it rained.

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

The Indianapolis 500 was delayed by several hours and Larson’s ability to start both races slowly became a logistical impossibility. Making the decision to stay in Indianapolis, Larson ran well at the Brickyard until a late pit road speeding penalty dropped him to 18th in the final finishing order.

With NASCAR’s longest race already in progress, Larson then jumped on a plane bound for Charlotte. By the time he arrived, the race was already half over and a caution was out for rain. The same storm system that had soaked Indianapolis was now impacting Charlotte and Larson waited to take over the No. 5 car from substitute Justin Allgaier.

Frustratingly, he never got that chance. In a move that surprised the competitors and disappointed everyone, NASCAR opted not to continue battling the rain late into the night, declaring the Coca-Cola 600 official after 249 of 400 laps. Larson never had a chance to race at Charlotte. Worse yet, word got out in the following days that NASCAR was debating whether to give Larson a waiver for missing the Coca-Cola 600.

The news was puzzling, especially since NASCAR has typically given out playoff waivers like candy. Yet the sanctioning body was apparently unsure if Larson’s rain-soaked weekend counted as an attempt to race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Additionally, there were rumors flying that NASCAR was unhappy that Larson chose to prioritize the Indianapolis 500 over the Coca-Cola 600.

Whatever the reason for NASCAR’s discussions, the question of Larson’s playoff eligibility polarized fans for a solid week until the sanctioning body declared that he would, in fact, get a waiver. NASCAR’s announcement seemingly tied up all the loose ends from a weekend of racing that, thanks to Mother Nature, did not live up to the hype.

However, one overlooked aspect of Larson’s ill-fated Double attempt was that he lost the points lead. Prior to Charlotte, he led Martin Truex Jr. by 30 points, Denny Hamlin by 39 and Chase Elliott by 49. Since Larson did not start the Coca-Cola 600, he did not earn any points for the race and dropped below Hamlin and Truex in the overall standings. Larson climbed to second after a 10th-place run at World Wide Technology Raceway, but his deficit to points leader Hamlin grew from six to 21.

Since Larson lost the points lead, it is fair to question whether staying in Indianapolis was the right call. It is understandable why he wanted to stay; the Indianapolis 500 is the most storied motor race in America and arguably the world. Only a lucky few ever get a shot to run the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. You cannot fault Larson for being unwilling to pass up the opportunity, even if he will likely get another chance next year.

But it feels like Larson and Hendrick Motorsports may not have considered all the implications of that decision. Missing the Coca-Cola 600 could set off a chain of events that costs Larson the regular season championship and the playoff points that come with it. Even though his playoff eligibility remains intact, Larson may not be free from the consequences of Memorial Day Weekend.

Of course, the most recent chapter of this story is Sunday’s event at Sonoma Raceway, where fortune swung heavily back in Larson’s favor. Hamlin blew an engine just three laps into the race. Truex spun off course early in the afternoon, then got collected in a multi-car incident in turn 11, but made his way back to the front of the field in the closing laps. Larson made his final pit stop after Truex and fell further behind the leaders, but he carved his way through the field and caught Truex as he was battling Buescher for the lead.

Once Larson joined the fight for the lead, everything went his way.

The No. 5 slipped past the No. 17 seconds after Truex completed his pass on Buescher. Larson then got by Truex on the next lap and held the top spot the rest of the way. But the kicker was when Truex, much like Ryan Blaney the week before, shockingly ran out of fuel on the last lap of the race. The No. 19 effectively came to a standstill within sight of the finish line, and Truex fell all the way to 27th place — the last car on the lead lap — before he got his car re-fired and rolled across the line.

See also
Sonoma: The Race JGR Would Like to Forget

If Larson spotted Truex and Hamlin a race at Charlotte, then Truex and Hamlin gave that advantage right back at Sonoma. Larson is once again the points leader, this time by 14 over Elliott in second. The rest of the top five are Hamlin (-26), Tyler Reddick (-49) and Truex (-53). For Larson, the points have essentially reset to where things stood prior to Kansas when he led Truex by 15. His wild month of highs and lows has brought him right back to where he started in terms of a points cushion (though, importantly, he does have an additional 11 playoff points.)

The 2024 Cup Series season has not had a clear championship favorite emerge just yet.

The top four or five in overall points have stayed relatively close to each other so far, and the regular season title is still in doubt. That said, Larson is starting to build a case as the driver to watch in the second half of the season.

If he can skip an entire race, survive a month of distractions that threatened his championship eligibility, and still come out ahead of everyone else, that is bad news for the competition. After Sonoma, the No. 5 looks like the most complete team in the Cup Series, and a win in wine country may have put Larson on the path to a second championship.

About the author

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Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong student of auto racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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