Larson makes a strong statement to the field, and NASCAR, with Sonoma win

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 09: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Valvoline Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 09, 2024 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

There’s making a statement, then there’s Kyle Larson making a statement. After starting the week not even sure if he would be eligible for NASCAR’s Playoffs, Larson didn’t just make a statement that he belongs Sunday but might have just raised a middle finger at NASCAR for making him wait so long to grant a waiver.

Larson emerged from a chaotic filled first two stages on Sonoma’s repaved road course taking the lead from Martin Truex Jr. with 9 laps to go and cruising to third win of the season and the second of his career at his home track.

The winning move came late in the 110 laps when Larson waited to make his final pit stop under green. He was one of the final cars to pit diving in from the lead on lap 80. From that point Larson picked his way forward and with the freshest tires in the field powered by Truex in Turn 4.

“Yeah, I didn’t know what we were doing as far as strategy,” Larson said. “I was just out there banging laps away. I don’t know, we study all the strategy, but it’s like doing homework. I don’t really know what I’m looking at.”

The news for Truex wasn’t good. Last year’s race winner recovered from a spin early in the race and when Larson took the white flag looked to be in a position to comfortably bring home a runner-up finish. But towards the end of the final lap, Truex, who had pitted 13 laps prior to Larson, ran out of fuel. He was forced to use the starter motor on his Toyota to bump the car across the finish line settling for 27th place, the final car on the lead lap.

“It’s a shame that we went around the last corner and went from second to wherever we finished,” Truex said. “It sucks, but it was a tough day, and we had a good car. We battled and did a good job. We were going to have a good day, but just one corner short.”

Truex’s woes awarded Michael McDowell second place.

“It hurts to finish second,” McDowell said. “We desperately need a win to make the playoffs, but I’m proud of the effort and proud of the speed we had, but just a little bit short.”

He was followed by Chris Buescher who won Stage 2 in third. Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain rounded out the top five.

“It was a really good day,” Buescher said. “We knew it was going to be a tough one where we started, and just didn’t get to where we needed to yesterday. Ultimately my team did a great job on strategy, and I got the car a lot better. We were in a good place, just needed a little bit more long run pace, maybe a little bit more spill together.”

The first two Stages featured 8 cautions one short of the track record; six of those cautions were for on-track incidents. Denny Hamlin, who crashed out of the race early last season, lost an engine on the second lap and was forced to retire.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s no good very bad day at Sonoma

Ty Gibbs brushed the new concrete wall in the final turn, 11, on lap 17, cut down a tire and made contact with the frontstretch wall bringing out the second caution of the day and sending him to the garage.

During that caution, polesitter Joey Logano, who had led every lap to that point, saw hopes for a win evaporate when an attempt at pit strategy from his team came back to bite them. During that second caution Logano was called into pit from the lead and was the only car to pit from the top10.

Logano restarted 33rd and could have stayed out at the end of the stage and cycled back to the lead. But on lap 20, Chase Briscoe running ahead of Logano spun in the Turn 3 S’s collecting Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Logano slowed but also spun and was hit by Harrison Burton. Though he was able to continue, his Ford was damaged and his hopes for a win were gone. Logano finished 21st.

Tyler Reddick took control of the race at that point, winning Stage 1 and going on to lead a race high 35 laps. In the end his speed couldn’t match that of the front runners and the final Stage ran caution free. Reddick finished 8th behind AJ Allmendinger and Ryan Blaney. Reddick later said he had some sort of damage to his Toyota from contact that slowed his pace.

“The wheel was off a little bit – just stupid,” Reddick said. “I was on cold tires, and it was going to be really hard to hold him off anyway. I kind of just fell for it. I don’t know. I guess we will know once we go back to the shop – just weren’t as good. I didn’t have a great restart – that also played a big factor. Even when we kind of got some clean air after, we got the second set of tires on it – it didn’t seem as good. We will go back and look at it, and try to understand what got away from us, but at least we got a Playoff point out of it.”

Christopher Bell and Todd Gilliand completed the top 10. Will Brown and Cam Waters, the Aussie Supercar stars making their debuts both had unforgettable outings. Brown lost two laps with an electrical issue and finished 31st, Waters was forced to retire early with mechanical issues.

“I had so much fun,” Waters said. “This weekend and the whole experience coming to a road course in a Cup car was sensational. I had so much fun and I can’t thank everyone enough for making that happen.”

For Larson the win was a redemption after NASCAR took their time deciding on granting Larson, who missed the Coke 600 while trying to run the Indy-Charlotte double. NASCAR finally granted the waiver this week, much to the relief of Larson.

Yeah, I would say he’s very calm and cool through a lot of things, maybe even too much sometimes,” Hendrick Motorsports VP Jeff Gordon said after the win Sunday. “But it is just sort of his personality and his upbringing and the way that he handles things, and that really works well for you when you’ve had a bad weekend or something that hasn’t gone well.

“It works against you when you want to savor the victory and enjoy it because you’re able to move past things fairly quickly, good and bad. I mean, I definitely saw a little bit more in him than maybe he’s letting on, too, of some of the concerns when Monday came around. I kept telling him not to worry, but I was worried, too.”

Sunday Larson let the rest of the field, and NASCAR, know will be a definite contender for this year’s Playoffs. And with Hamlin’s issues, he leaves back atop the Championship standings.

“I think the best medicine in any of those situations is getting back to the racetrack,” Gordon said. “Especially when they got here, home track for Kyle, and I think a track that they enjoy racing at, and a lot of the competitors do”

“I think that put a lot of that to rest.”

NASCAR heads to Iowa Speedway where the NASCAR Cup series will make its debut next Sunday night.


Photos: NASCAR at Sonoma Raceway Sunday June 9, 2024

Greg Engle