New layout or old, Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn have Sonoma Raceway and the strategy required to win there all figured out.
Sunday afternoon, Truex drove to victory lane for second straight year on the California Wine Country road course, notching his fourth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win of the year. The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota controlled much of the race, Truex taking over the top spot for the final time with 23 laps to go and managing both a healthy gap on Kyle Busch and an insurmountable gap on the rest of the field.
Truex took the checkered 1.8 seconds ahead of JGR teammate Busch and nearly 34 seconds ahead of third-place Ryan Blaney. Fourth-place Matt DiBenedetto, who earned a career-best Cup Series finish, was over 37 seconds behind Truex.
“Just dug down deep and tried to be smooth and hit my marks,” said Truex, who led a race-high 59 laps. “Luckily, I was able to have a big enough gap where I could settle in, not feel too much pressure; but it was definitely difficult. That was the longest run of the race there at the end for us on tires, and it felt terrible the last 20 laps. Last 10 it was just like on ice — no grip anywhere.
“Just really proud of all these guys. Everybody on this Bass Pro Shops Camry, everybody at TRD, everybody back at JGR, all the fans, Auto Owners — everybody who makes this thing possible. What a season we’ve turned this into. This group — man, they’re unbelievable. Hopefully, we can keep this going.”
Pearn’s strategy was to pit before the end of each stage and then cycle to the lead for the start of the next one. Truex took the race lead three times in the Toyota/Save Mart 350,and each came as the result of being at the front because of Pearn’s strategy.
Last year, Pearn snookered Kevin Harvick’s team on strategy by faking his call of Truex coming down pit road. Harvick pitted early, Truex took the lead; and then when Harvick had to pit again, it was Truex capitalizing.
“A little more nervous as it went there,” Pearn said of the final laps. “Early on in the run, I was kind of like, ‘Oh man, maybe we pitted too early’ … and Kyle came out of the pits really strong on those early laps. But Martin did a great job managing the car, and as the run went on, we started to level off to each other.”
William Byron took the lead from pole-sitter Kyle Larson, and led the first 21 laps on his way to winning Stage 1 as Truex, Kyle Busch, Blaney, and others made their pit stops before the pits closed. Chase Elliott led three laps before Truex quickly took the race lead when Stage 2 started.
Truex kept control for the majority of Stage 2 before again being among those on the strategy of heading down pit road before the end of the stage. Denny Hamlin led four laps and picked up the Stage 2 win, but when he came down pit road for a stop under caution, Truex took over the lead.
Pearn stuck to his strategy for the end of the race. Truex pitted for the final time with 27 laps to go but this time it was Busch who stayed out to lead three laps before giving up the top spot to pit with 24 laps to go.
When the field cycled through, Truex led Busch by over eight seconds with 23 laps to go. Busch cut down the gap to just under two seconds, but that was all he had for his teammate. Behind Truex, Busch, Blaney and DiBenedetto was Denny Hamlin rounding out the top five.
“Anytime I had to lean on the left rear, I just didn’t have the drive that I needed,” said Busch. “I was trying to hold on to it, trying to save it — I knew that was going to be our problem; that had been our problem all day long. But I got close there, and you’re like, ‘Okay, I can get him, I better go and pounce on him fast, so then he doesn’t have the time to pick up the pace.’
“But it didn’t work. He was obviously saving a lot. I knew he was going to be saving a lot, have enough to be able to most likely hold us off. I was right. I still tried everything I could to get there and ran real hard.
“Our M&M’s Hazelnut Spread Camry was fast. Real proud of Adam [Stevens, crew chief] and the boys. We came here a little better this year than we have in years past, so that felt nice. Sucks to finish second to a teammate, but it’s good for the company. Overall, Martin is really, really good here. So I’m just pumped that I actually ran good here.”
Completing the top 10 were Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, and Kyle Larson.
Stage 1 winner Byron finished 21st. The Chad Knaus led team went for stage points throughout the day and after losing the lead never cycled back to toward the front of the field.
Joey Logano was strong early but finished 23rd as his No. 22 Team Penske Ford team battled electrical issues.
Another Hendrick Motorsports driver, Elliott, retired from the race with just under 30 laps to go and finished 37th. He was running third and had a solid day going before the engine expired in his Chevrolet.
Just five drivers led the race, and there were only two cautions for the stage breaks.