Martin Truex Jr. gambled with risky pit strategy to win over a hard-charging Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer by 10.513 seconds. He earned his 18th career victory in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Truex earned his third career top spot honors at road courses, which puts him second among active drivers (Kyle Busch has four wins). This was his second consecutive road course win and second career win at Sonoma.
If stage cautions did not count, this race would have had the fewest caution flags with only one yellow flag for an on-track incident when the No. 47 car of A.J. Allmendinger stalled at the top of Turn 2. This caused the majority of the race, especially throughout the final stage, to focus primarily on pit strategy. Harvick and Bowyer started to charge through the field with fresher tires but ran out of laps and time to battle for the lead.
“I really feel like I treat everyone the same as I did that day,” Truex said after reflecting back on his 2013 win in Sonoma with Michael Waltrip Racing.
“Our guys understand what it takes, what kind of cars we need to build and what kind of approach we need to take to be prepared,” he continued, talking about his team’s performance. “It’s a little stressful when you’re in those situations because you never know what’s going to happen, but it all worked out, and pretty cool to get the win here today after last year. We thought a lot about that race last year, losing it, and it hurt. We left here and thought about it for a long time. To be able to come here and get it back was nice.
“I was just hoping for no cautions because we had a big lead. It’s funny when you get in those situations, this place is so tricky and so technical. But I still ran as hard as I thought I needed to.”
Cole Pearn, crew chief of the No. 78 5-Hour Energy Toyota, reacted to the growing bond of his team with Truex.
“Yeah, a caution could have came out and we would’ve been snookered the other way,” Pearn said as he chuckled about their situation. “We got a good relationship and we get along real well. When it comes to these races to call strategy, you call what you can at the time.”
Harvick led a total of 35 laps and came close to becoming the second Cup driver to win consecutive races at Sonoma. Jeff Gordon accomplished this feat with three consecutive wins in 1998-2000.
“I think everyone did a good job. Truex just had a better car,” Harvick said after finishing in the runner-up position. “At the beginning of the race, we could outrun him just a little bit. In the second stage, we started to struggle with the brakes on our car. Just a few things added up that didn’t work out for us today.”
Bowyer almost won back to back races after his victory at the rain-shortened event in Michigan but ended in the third position.
“We never got a restart to put on a show, so that was unfortunate,” Clint said after an impressive charge from his 19th place starting position. “You work your ass off and it’s hard to showcase that. Especially when you’re racing up there against my teammate Kevin and Martin. You don’t see mistakes out of those guys.”
Chase Elliott earned his first career top-five finish at a road course with a fourth-place effort. Kyle Busch finished in the fifth position. Kurt Busch, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman and Stage 2 winner Denny Hamlin completed the top 10.
Stage 1 at Sonoma Raceway
Kyle Larson started on the pole and led the opening two laps. Heading up to Turn 2, Martin Truex Jr. got by to lead the majority of the first stage. Toward the closing laps of the first stage, roughly 15 drivers came to pit road for service early. Frontrunners, Truex and Kevin Harvick, were two that elected to come to pit road. A.J. Allmendinger inherited the lead and led the final four laps of the first stage.
A.J. Allmendinger earned his first stage win at Sonoma by electing to stay out as many leaders headed to pit road before it closed. That strategy will get them to the front of the pack as everyone else who stayed out must come to pit road for tires and fuel. However, he shared with the media his thoughts about his competition.
“We have a good short run car, but we need more to get ahead of [Kevin] Harvick and [Martin] Truex,” said Allmendinger.
Kasey Kahne and Gray Gaulding were caught speeding on pit road and had to restart the second stage at the end of the field. Only one car was off the lead lap and was the free pass for this first caution, the No. 52 of Cody Ware.
Turn of Events for Stage 2
As the green flag flew, the field went racing for only a few laps. Coming out of Turn 11, Allmendinger shifted from second to first, missing third gear and, as a result, lost the motor. Over the radio, all you could hear was a shaky voice.
“Guys, that was me.”
Allmendinger is one of few drivers who can look at Sonoma and Watkins Glen International as his best shots to qualify for the Playoffs. The No. 47 team had a short day and now sets its sights on the second road course on the schedule.
Jamie McMurray, after finishing both practice sessions and qualifying in the fourth position, mentioned over the radio during the caution that he hit the rev limiter and suddenly lost power and oil pressure. He went behind the wall as the Chip Ganassi Racing crew went to work on his Chevrolet.
With six laps to go in the second stage, Darrell Wallace Jr. tried to make a pass on Justin Marks but locked up the rear tires and lost control, spinning through Turn 11. No caution flag was waved as he was able to continue racing.
Similar to the first stage, some drivers began making their way to pit road during the closing laps. In the end, Denny Hamlin took over the race lead and won the second stage ahead of Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson.
Nerves Build During Final Stage
When pit stops cycled through, Harvick and Truex took over the lead once again. Bowyer fought his way up to third, followed by brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch. Drivers started going off track more often when getting more aggressive, such as Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney. Blaney eventually started smoking, and shortly after, reported to his team that he lost power steering.
Cody Ware took his No. 52 Chevrolet behind the wall. Cole Whitt in the No. 72 TriStar Motorsports Chevrolet hit the wall while racing on the track, and dropped out of the race due to the heavy damage from the incident, but no caution was thrown for the crash as he was able to drive safely to pit road. He was evaluated and released from the infield care center.
All the drivers began to exercise their pit strategies. The entire field pitted on separate laps ranging from Lap 65 to 80. About a fourth of the field rolled the dice with planning for one pit stop during the final stage, while the rest of the field prepared for two stops during this stage. At one point after the last pit stop cycle, Truex grabbed the race lead by over a 30-second gap. Truex led the last 19 laps to seal the victory for his team.
“The last 10 laps of the race were easy,” Truex joked in the press interviews after the race.
Five Cup Series drivers raced in yesterday’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race. Alex Bowman, who lost a motor after 10 laps in yesterday’s race, finished in the ninth position this afternoon. Aric Almirola, William Byron and Daniel Suarez all finished in the top five, but Erik Jones topped the double-duty drivers in today’s race with a seventh-place finish.
The next race on the schedule for the Cup Series is at Chicagoland Speedway on July 1.
Sonoma MENCS unofficial race results 6-24-18