Not long ago, Sonoma Raceway was owned by drivers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart who, between 1998-2006, won seven of the nine NASCAR Sprint Cup races at the 1.99-mile road course. Road-racing aces like Robby Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya were the real competition, not the typical oval-centric stock car crowd. And certainly not drivers with a short-track background like Martin Truex Jr., in the midst of a 218-race winless skid.
The last seven trips have proved different, though. And Sunday was no exception, as Truex became the seventh straight driver to notch his first career road course win in Sonoma, winning the Toyota-Save Mart 350, and in the process, collecting his first Cup win since June 2007.
Road racing in NASCAR is all a matter of pit strategy — whether or not it all plays out as planned, or even makes any sense, is a different story — but Truex’s No. 56 team played it like a fiddle (or in this case, a violin) in California’s wine country.
Having abandoned the lead on lap 69 under a caution period, Truex found his Chad Johnston-led team hanging onto the top 15 when the race restarted. But when Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards tangled with 28 laps remaining, the leaders, including Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch, pitted for fuel and tires. That handed the lead back to Truex when the field took the green flag with 24 laps to go.
What was assumed would be a frantic final two dozen laps resulted in a tame affair, as Truex sprinted away from Matt Kenseth and Juan Pablo Montoya, and cruised to a 8.133-second win, his second career Cup victory.
“I was a frigging mess,” Truex said of his emotional state on the cool-down lap. “I had to stop and start doing donuts because I couldn't think about what I was doing. I tried to cue the radio once and I couldn't even talk.
“You can't explain the feeling (of winning). When it's been that long and you worked so hard and you've been so close and so many things have just — when you think at times, ‘Man, is this ever going to happen again,’ it's just … you can't explain the feeling. It's pretty surreal. Unbelievable.”
Truex’s main challenger, Montoya, ran out of fuel on the white flag lap, dropping from the runner-up spot to 34th. Meanwhile, Gordon tore through the field, gaining 16 spots over the last green flag run, and finished second. Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Bowyer rounded out the top 5.
“After Bowyer won (at Sonoma) last year it's obvious that Michael Waltrip Racing has a really good road racing program, and I've raced with Martin here before and he gets around here pretty good,” Gordon said. “They had a good strategy and that can make or break you. And he does a nice job on the road courses. They had a good car.”
The win vaulted Truex from 13th to 10th in the championship standings and, more importantly, gave him an insurance policy were he forced to rely on a “wild card” to qualify for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. Currently, Kahne (12th) and Tony Stewart (15th) are drivers outside of the top 10 that have a race win to their credit.