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Kyle Larson Wins a Wild One at Sonoma

Photo Credit: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

By Adam Carabine

The newly repaved Sonoma Raceway did not disappoint in its Cup Series debut, as Kyle Larson took the checkered flag. 


Much was made about the new surface and how the race would be much faster than years past.  The last time Sonoma was paved was over 20 years ago. In qualifying and practice, lap times were 4-5 seconds faster than last year’s pole lap set by Denny Hamlin.


Earlier this year at COTA, the race ran with no natural cautions (only the two stage breaks), and there were questions circulating about whether the increased speeds might lend itself to another race like that, but Sonoma quickly proved that would not be the case.


Unrelated to the track surface, Denny Hamlin’s engine blew up on lap 2, ending his day early.  That might have been a harbinger of things to come.


Joey Logano emerged as an early favourite, as he led the field to green after winning the pole on Saturday.  He led every lap until the second caution of the day came out for a Ty Gibbs incident (which also ended his day).  In an attempt to do something different strategy-wise, Logano pit, hoping to trade some track position for future dividends. 


Unfortunately for Logano, on the ensuing restart there was a big incident involving many drivers in turn 3A, and he was caught in the middle of it.  While he was able to continue running, his hopes of winning were quickly dashed, and he finished the day P21.


Tyler Reddick took over the lead when Logano pit, as the 45 team opted to stay out on a differing strategy.  Reddick held the lead through the end of Stage One, and into Stage Two, despite more calamity on the track.


There were another four cautions in the second stage, including three over the course of just eight laps. Reddick opted to flip the second stage, and Chris Buescher took the stage win. 


As the final stage started winding down, the strategy fell right into Kyle Larson’s lap.


Once the leaders got to a point in the race where they’d be able to make it to the end on fuel, they started peeling off, making their way to pit road.  In theory, this would be their last stop, and they should be able to cycle back to the lead – assuming it stayed green.


However, Kyle Larson stayed out for another 20 laps or so, opting to take fresher tires over fuel.  He came back out on the track on lap 81 in 21st. 


With a mixture of other cars still pitting ahead of him, and the leaders on older tires, Larson spent the next 20 laps reeling everyone in, eventually taking the lead with 8 to go. 


Both Chris Buescher and Martin Truex Jr. had been putting up a fun fight for the lead, and at one point Truex did catch Chris Buescher, but Larson was able to capitalize on the two of them and passed them both on the next lap. 


It was a gutsy call from a veteran crew chief in Cliff Daniels, as there were plenty of unknowns about tire wear coming into the weekend.  Despite an extended practice session on Friday, most teams took advantage of the extra time to do some “R&D,” as Daniels put it post-race, rather than focusing on long tire runs.  Not a single team ran more than a 15-lap run in practice.


Cliff Daniels added, “We just don’t get that many opportunities with a full open practice to change springs, geometry, and other things.  A lot of us had planned changes that were outside of our weekly impound-style changes.  Without cars running that many laps in practice, you just didn’t see the number of laps on tires to know – is blistering a thing? Is wear a thing? You just didn’t quite have the data to go off of to understand that.”


Jeff Gordon, Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, said, “The tires held up really, really well today. I think we knew that if the tires didn’t blister, then the pace would hold on.  If you could get off-strategy [to the rest of the field], then you might have a fuel or a tire advantage, and that’s the way it worked out.”


Luckily for Larson, his tires held on, and he was able to hang on to win the Toyota Save Mart 350.  Martin Truex Jr. was trending for a runner-up finish but ran out of gas on the last lap, falling back to finish 27th.


Michael McDowell, Chris Buescher, Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain rounded out the remainder of the Top Five.


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