NASCAR Barometer: Kyle Larson Wins Caution Filled Sonoma

NASCAR Barometer: Kyle Larson Wins Caution Filled Sonoma

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 took a while to get going after eight caution flags slowed the running in the first half. The racing flowed after the final return to green conditions on lap 60, though. In the end, it was the No. 5 team's pit strategy through the final green-flag laps put Kyle Larson in position to strike with some of the freshest tires in the field. That strike came with less than 10 laps remaining as he pulled off the pass for the win, getting by Martin Truex Jr. and then Chris Buescher, to take over the lead. After that, he stretched his legs and the lead all the way to the finish to claim his third win of the season and second at Sonoma Raceway. It was Larson's 26th career victory and gave him a boost to the top of the points after Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing failed to get the most out of the day.

The chance for a surprise carries onward from last week's road course visit straight into Iowa Speedway this week. It will be the first time the NASCAR Cup Series tackles the short D-shaped oval and the first time any of NASCAR's major series visited the venue since 2019. To make things even more interesting, the surface has also been repaved since those last visits, which will make this coming week's race another tough to predict contest.

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson - Larson started Sunday's race at Sonoma inside the top five and held station there throughout the race, scoring stage points in the first segment, and winning for the third time this season. The victory equals teammate William Byron and Denny Hamlin's 2024 win totals and it was his second at the track. The victory came at a good time since NASCAR granted him a playoff waiver after he missed racing at Charlotte due to his run in the Indy 500. Larson and the team have had no questions surrounding their playoff eligibility following that decision, and Sunday's victory shows they will be one of the favorites to make it all the way to Phoenix. Their roll will continue this week at Iowa, a place Larson has said he is excited to compete at after racing in the Knoxville Nationals less than 30 miles from Iowa Speedway. 

Tyler Reddick - Reddick's strength on road courses showed again last week at Sonoma. The 23XI driver put his car on the front row and then dueled Joey Logano for the lead in the early miles. The No. 45 eventually took the lead once Logano pitted, and Reddick won first the stage, which was his third stage win of the season. It was another afternoon of progress for he and the team as they build their package for the playoffs. The coming week's trip to Iowa Speedway will be the first for Reddick since 2019. From six Xfinity Series races at that track, Reddick has three top-10 finishes. He said this week's approach will be like it is a completely new track, though. While Reddick has that on-track experience at Iowa, the different car and pavement mean there will be plenty for these championship contenders to figure out.

Chris Buescher - Buescher drove to the front of the field in the second segment of Sunday's race to claim his second stage win of the season and first on a road course. Buescher has been improving in recent road course events, scoring his best Sonoma finishes in the last two races before Sunday's visit, and backed up that trend with a third-place finish. The result was particularly rewarding considering Buescher did not have the best qualifying effort and started the race 26th. Despite starting deep in the field, he led 32 laps, added a stage win to his tally, and landed his third top-five finish of the season. With Sunday's finish, Buescher remains in the playoff positions in the championship standings with a 24-point cushion to Bubba Wallace in the 16th and final playoff spot. He and the team remain close to a race victory that would guarantee that playoff entry, though.

Michael McDowell - McDowell overcame heavy adversity to claim his best result of the season with a runner-up finish at Sonoma. The Front Row Motorsports driver started outside of the top 10 but worked his way into the stage points in the first segment. The second stage wasn't as straight forward. He was involved in a multi-car crash that sent him spinning into the barriers, but he was able to continue. By not giving up and continuing to leverage his speed, McDowell worked his way all the way back to the top five and claimed his first top-five of the year and his third top-10 in the last five races. Through those efforts, McDowell now sits 20th in points but still has a long way to go to get into the playoff positions. This week's trip to Iowa will be McDowell's first to the track since the 2014 Xfinity Series race at the venue.

Chase Elliott - Sunday's road course stop was another chance for Elliott to extend the quiet gains he has been making in the championship standings. He broke his winless streak at Texas and has been quietly climbing in the points ever since. Leaving Sonoma with his sixth top-10 of the season, Elliott now sits second in points behind teammate Kyle Larson. Quiet and confident is a good trajectory for the No. 9 team. If they can keep this momentum going, they could enter the playoffs as one of the top contenders given their experience. The coming week's race at Iowa should be another week of success for them, too. Elliott raced four Xfinity Series events at the track and finished inside the top 10 each time with a best finish of second in 2015. This week's new track may present some challenges to the field, but the No. 9 squad should be well positioned to excel. 

DOWNGRADE

Denny Hamlin - Hamlin barely had a chance to get going Sunday before his engine failed. He barely made it to the start of the third lap when smoke began billowing from the exhaust pipes. He coasted to a halt and was the first car to exit the race. The rare engine failure ended his five-race streak of top-five finishes, so he will have to regain his momentum this week at Iowa. The track may be one where he has been at his strongest, though. Checking in at under a mile, the Iowa oval is a short track and, including the Clash, Hamlin has four victories on tracks measuring a mile or less in length this season. His championship hopes are still intact with three points-paying victories, and the No. 11 crew has plenty of time to assess and remedy whatever caused the mechanical failure Sunday at Sonoma.

Ty Gibbs - Right-front contact with the inside wall during the first stage damaged the No. 54 machine, taking Gibbs out of the race in the early going. The result was his second outside of the top 30 this season, but he remains inside the playoff positions in the standings. Sonoma will feel like a missed opportunity considering he was running near the top 10 and is one of the more confident drivers on the road courses. Instead, the quest for his first series victory continues. Unlike several drivers this week, Gibbs has experience at Iowa Speedway from his time in the ARCA Series. He won at the track in 2021 and will have a good idea of what he needs in the car to be successful in this week's return. Despite his mistake at Sonoma, Gibbs continues to look like a playoff contender. He will need to avoid further mistakes, and potentially grab that first win, to make it official, though.

Joey Logano - Logano put Ford on top in qualifying at Sonoma, and led the manufacturer's first laps at the track for some time. He did an impressive job holding off Tyler Reddick in the opening miles before pitting early in the window. That strategy move was designed to set him up for the race win, but it put him back in the pack in traffic. Then it all came undone when Chase Briscoe spun and made contact with Logano on the ensuing restart. Briscoe's spinning car clipped Logano's as he trued to squeeze by and sent the No. 22 to pit road for repairs leaving Logano with a damaged car to deal with for the rest of the afternoon. The day of promise ended with a disappointing 21st-place finish, his second since Darlington, and put him out of the playoff positions in the standings. Logano now heads to Iowa still winless on the season and with a 16-point deficit to Bubba Wallace in the 16th and final playoff spot.

Martin Truex Jr. - Poor qualifying and an off-track excursion early put Truex back in the pack and into heavy traffic early Sunday. That lack of track position proved detrimental when shortly into the second stage, Josh Berry collided with Erik Jones and slid into Truex, who was an innocent bystander in the melee. Truex was able to soldier on through all of the adversity, but his day was not what it could have been after running out of fuel on the final lap. Truex finished last on the lead lap in 27th position, which was his third finish outside of the top 20 from the last four races. Truex still holds a confident position in the standings due to his points tally, but he and the team know that position isn't safe until they get a win. Iowa will be a new challenge for Truex and the team, and they must put the recent weeks' challenges behind then as quickly as possible.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Todd Gilliland - The announcement that Gilliland would extend his stay with Front Row Motorsports was a positive precursor to his success in Sunday's race. Gilliland held steady after qualifying 14th to be one of the few drivers that scored stage points in both segments of Sunday's race. His effort continued right through to the finish when he landed in 10th position to grab his second top-10 of the season. His first was at Talladega, and that success kicked off a string of top-20 finishes that have moved him to 21st in points. Gilliland has found consistency and it is paying off for fantasy players selecting him deeper down the roster. That trend may continues this week, too. Gilliland is one of the drivers that has on-track experience at Iowa Speedway. He started two CRAFTSMAN Truck Series races on the short oval with a best finish of 10th in 2019. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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