Races that are dominated by pit strategy are like chess games as drivers and crew chiefs strategize to create the best pit plans. Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, the first road course race of the year for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, was no exception to this. In a race that saw varying pit philosophies, Martin Truex Jr. came out on top.
Northern California resident Kyle Larson won the pole and started on the front row alongside Truex. Chris Cook, running his first Cup race since 2012, , was ordered to the rear for unapproved adjustments. In preparation for the race, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suárez, Erik Jones, and William Byron participated in Saturday’s Carneros 200 K&N Pro Series West event at the track. Almirola had the best finish of the five Cup drivers as he finished second behind K&N West regular Will Rodgers, followed by Byron (third), Suárez (fourth), Jones (sixth), and Bowman (twenty-fourth following an engine failure).
Larson led the race for the first three laps before Truex passed him. On lap three, Jones collided with Michael McDowell in turn seven, but continued on; after starting twentieth, he had fallen to twenty-sixth by lap 10. A lap later, A.J. Allmendinger passed Larson for second as the pole sitter began sliding, dropping to fifth by lap 11 when Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick also overtook him.
With three laps left in the 25-lap stage, Truex – along with Harvick – pitted to surrender the lead to Allmendinger. Cody Ware began reporting engine and power problems, prompting him to pit. His car eventually stopped before the esses, though he was able to re-fire the motor and complete the stage. At the front, Allmendinger recorded his first stage win of 2018; behind him were Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Elliott, Larson, Ryan Newman, Almirola, Suárez, Chris Buescher, and Kasey Kahne. As they had pitted before the end of Stage #1, Truex and Harvick stayed out, while Allmendinger led the field off pit road.
Stage #2 began on lap 30 with Truex and Harvick on the front row. After four laps, Allmendinger’s race abruptly came to an end when he missed a shift and blew his engine; Allmendinger, who excels at the road courses, was ultimately classified in thirty-eighth. It is his fourth finish worse than thirty-fifth at Sonoma in the last five races. Moments later, Jamie McMurray also fell victim to mechanical problems of his own after his #1 car suffered from an oil pump failure. Both incidents resulted in the first race-related caution of the day. The two were not the only drivers suffering from car issues, as Ware had more engine problems, forcing him to go to the garage before returning to the track; by the end of the stage, he was 18 laps down.
The restart took place on lap 37 as Truex led Harvick. Harvick, the defending race winner, closed on Truex and passed him for first on lap 42, eventually building an advantage over the #78. On lap 45, Darrell Wallace Jr. spun in turn 11, but recovered and continued. On lap 48, with two laps before the stage’s conclusion, the leaders pitted to shuffle Denny Hamlin into the lead. Hamlin took the green-checkered flag on lap 50 to win the stage, ahead of Elliott, Johnson, Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Almirola, Bowman, McDowell, Buescher, and Newman.
The green flag for Stage #3 waved on lap 55 with Harvick in first. Elliott, who won the race off pit road as Harvick and others stayed out, quickly gained five spots after just two laps, and eventually cracked the top ten. By the 50-to-go mark, Elliott was in eighth. On lap 61, Blaney began experiencing signs of power steering problems, causing him to fall off the pace.
On lap 70, the first green flag stops of the stage commenced as Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Paul Menard arrived on pit road. Three laps later, Harvick relinquished the lead to Truex as he pitted. When Truex pitted on lap 81, Kurt Busch took over first for a lap, allowing Jones to briefly lead until the pit cycle ended with Harvick back in the lead. On their stops, Byron and Kahne received pass-through penalties for uncontrolled tires.
After stops ended with 27 laps remaining, Harvick led Clint Bowyer and Truex by one and six seconds, respectively. However, Truex began his charge to narrow the gap, which decreased by a second after a lap.
“At this point it’s all about clean race track,” Kahne’s former crew chief Travis Mack tweeted regarding the race situation. “Truex is running with no traffic. Harvick is having to fight thru traffic. Truex will come out behind Harvick but will have fresher tires. He will be running him down until the end of the race.”
Truex passed Bowyer for second on lap 88, with Larson pitting a lap later. Harvick’s advantage slowly diminished as the distance between him and Truex shrank to less than a second. With 20 laps left, Truex made his move in turn 11 to reclaim the lead. Meanwhile, Johnson, Stenhouse, Hamlin, and Kyle Busch all pitted, operating on a three-stop stage strategy. Stewart-Haas Racing team-mates Harvick and Bowyer did the same on lap 91. With this decision, Truex’s lead inflated to over 23 seconds over second-placed Elliott, meaning Harvick’s best chances of victory was a yellow flag.
“Harvick was faster than Truex,” Jeff Gluck wrote. “Only chance 78 had was to run a trick play and completely faked pitting under green, baiting Harvick to pit. Then Truex stayed out and used fresher tires to blow by Harvick. Now Harvick’s only chance is to catch a caution.”
With nine laps to go, Harvick took second from Elliott, but Truex still led by over 24 seconds. Harvick closed the gap to less than 18 seconds; had he been unable to, the advantage would have made Truex the first driver to win by over 20 seconds since Kurt Busch won the 2009 Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway by 25.68 seconds over Hamlin. Despite his progress, Harvick’s hopes of a caution were not realized as Truex pulled way to win his third race of the year and first at Sonoma since 2013.
Harvick was forced to settle for second, ahead of Bowyer, Elliott, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Jones, Almirola, Bowman, and Hamlin. Other finishes of note include Parker Kligerman, running his second-ever race with Gaunt Brothers Racing, in twenty-third; Trevor Bayne, running his first race since scaling back to a part-time schedule in May, in twenty-seventh; Cook in thirty-first, fellow road course ringer Tomy Drissi in thirty-second in his first Cup race since 2014.
The next race is the Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. Truex is the defending winner.
2018 Toyota/Save Mart 350 results
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