The Toyota/Save Mart 350 marks a return to Sonoma Raceway and wine country for NASCAR, another sign the COVID-19 pandemic is receding. The third of seven road courses on the schedule puts Kyle Larson on the pole for the fourth straight time on this 2.52-mile, 12-turn facility north of San Francisco.
For Larson, whose hometown of Elk Grove is just 90 minutes east, Sonoma offers an opportunity to rewrite recent history. His previous three poles here have resulted in finishes of 26th, 14th and 10th, a disastrous position differential of -47.
Despite 73 career laps led, none of Larson's eight wins have occurred on this track type. He's come close, only to fall victim to incidents like this Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL wreck in 2018 when wheeling a car capable of winning.
The question is whether Larson can put a long history of missed opportunities behind him after Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 performance. It's the first time in seven career tries he's led more than 200 laps and still gone on to win the race.
A victory here would be a huge step, showcasing Larson's diversity the dirt track legend has beyond 1.5-mile intermediates. Doing it at his hometown track would be icing on the cake as Larson morphs into a true championship contender.
Larson isn't the only title favorite looking to right the ship on road courses. Martin Truex Jr. used to be the primary foil for Chase Elliott, who's won five of the last six on this track type. Instead, the former Sonoma and Watkins Glen International winner has had rough luck on right-turn tracks, posting 2021 finishes of 12th on Daytona International Speedway's road course and 35th at Circuit of the Americas down in Texas. COTA was especially brutal, a rough wreck in the rain where Cole Custer punted his No. 19 Toyota up in the air.
Points leader Denny Hamlin is another driver looking to right the ship. The runner-up at Sonoma in 2016 has led laps here in four straight starts. Can the points leader by a country mile become the final driver in the Big 3 of Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske to win this season?
All these drivers will need to deal with Elliott, whose lone derailment on road courses lately was the weird rain shower caution at Daytona in February. He'll be motivated to keep rolling at Sonoma, the lone right-turn track on the schedule where he hasn't won.
Should Elliott falter, along with the other main title contenders, Sonoma and its short sprint provides the opportunity for an upset. Eleven races remain for just five playoff spots as the pressure rises for those winless drivers in contention. Kurt Busch, in particular, is someone outside playoff position who's won at Sonoma during his long career.
The bigger question is how short stages will change pit strategy in an event known for long green-flag runs. (The 2019 edition was run with only two cautions for stage breaks). Preplanned yellows reduce the variety of strategy calls, killing off the drama in a race that's known to produce a few surprises. Could another dull race put pressure on NASCAR to remove stages altogether at this track type?
Toyota/Save Mart 350
Date: Sunday, June 6
Time: 4p.m. ET
Track: Sonoma Raceway (Sonoma, Calif.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Rick Hendrick made history Sunday at Charlotte with his 269th career Cup Series victory as a car owner, bypassing Petty Enterprises for the most ever. It’s the third straight win for an organization that has put it all together in recent weeks, including the first 1-2-3-4 finish in HMS history last month at Dover International Speedway.
Take a look back at HMS history here, a long road for an organization that nearly shut down during its first year of competition in 1984. Since then? There have been 37 years of at least one victory from this team along with a record-setting 13 Cup championships: seven for Jimmie Johnson, four for Jeff Gordon and one each for Terry Labonte and Chase Elliott.
Who's at the Back: David Starr
Starr ran Charlotte for perpetually underfunded MBM Motorsports, the 11th Cup start of his long career in the sport. Unfortunately, the 53-year-old known as one of NASCAR’s nice guys spent the night frustrating drivers, stuck in everyone else’s way as he was several seconds off the leader’s speed. Finishing a whopping 31 laps behind, Starr raised new questions about lapped traffic for a back portion of the Cup garage struggling to keep pace.
Hendrick Motorsports GM Jeff Andrews apologized to Chip Ganassi Racing for their engine problems last weekend in Charlotte.Andrews claimed issues to the "front drive system" have been fixed that sent both Ross Chastain and Kurt Busch behind the wall. Notably, none of the four Hendrick teams themselves experienced any issues at CMS; instead, all ran inside the top five.
Daytona International Speedway and Martinsville Speedway are among the tracks announcing full fan capacity for future NASCAR events. The changes have come fast and furious, signaling a return toward normalcy for the sport as COVID-19 cases continue to decrease across the country.
While NASCAR hasn’t announced the full 2022 schedule, Phoenix Raceway will return as the site of the championship finale. The midweek announcement means the one-mile oval out in Arizona will host the Championship 4 in the sport’s top three series a third straight year. Homestead-Miami Speedway was the only other track that hosted the finale under NASCAR’s playoff format, doing so from 2004-19.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Of the last six Coca-Cola 600s where the race winner has led over 300 of the 400 laps.
Margin of victory forKyle Larson at Charlotte, the largest in the Cup Series this season. Will poor competition at CMS spur interest in renewing driver bonuses for winning crown jewel events?
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Clearly, Chase Elliott is hard to bet against with his recent track record. You have one of two choices with your roster: build around Elliott's high price, knowing you sacrifice some talent further down, or go with two top-tier drivers in his place.
Martin Truex Jr. stands out among those options. His 19th-place starting spot assures some position differential; the 2019 winner of this race is due for some good luck on road courses. Teammate Denny Hamlin, starting fourth, is also a decent bet to stay there. The fifth-place finisher here in 2019 has the consistency of four straight top-10 performances to put you at ease.
For Matt DiBenedetto, the time to fix a broken season is now. Fifty-five points behind Chris Buescher for the final playoff spot, this road course ace needs to recapture the magic of 2019. That's when he finished fourth at Sonoma with now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, jump-starting a NASCAR career that led to his current ride with the Wood Brothers. A 17th-place starting spot for Sunday could lead to good position differential.
Kurt Busch may be in win-or-bust mode after his Charlotte engine issues. Sonoma could be the place he sneaks ahead of the field, a track where he's posted nine straight top-15 finishes and a victory (2011). Road courses put skill back in the driver's hands, a plus for Busch who is driving for a team that's a step behind on speed on other track types.
Daniel Suarez has been 15th, 16th and 17th in his three Sonoma starts. That's the definition of consistency and with the way his Trackhouse Racing team is performing? I wouldn't bet against him.
Scott Heckert is the true road ringer in the field, the former sports car driver running a limited schedule for Live Fast Motorsports. His 28th-place finish at Austin wasn't great, but that would produce a plus-seven position differential based on his 35th-place starting spot at Sonoma. You could do much worse.
What Vegas Thinks
Chase Elliott is an overwhelming favorite, posting 9/4 odds according to vegasinsider.com. He leads the way over Martin Truex Jr. (5/1), Kyle Larson (6/1), and Kyle Busch (10/1).
Think Matt DiBenedetto can conquer the world? Make him your longshot pick at a juicy 66/1.
What I Think
It seems like Chase Elliott is set to romp on a road course once again. Hendrick Motorshports is just too good lately. If the reigning Cup champion falters? I'd go with Martin Truex Jr. to right the ship.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.