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Bold strategy helps power Larson to Sonoma win
Toyota/Save Mart 350
Kyle Larson during his celebratory burnout after winning the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. JESSICA McANELLY/Jessie’s Fast Photos

SONOMA — Combining a bold pit strategy with his extraordinary driving skills, Kyle Larson capped a tumultuous week with a thrilling come-from-behind victory in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at picturesque Sonoma Raceway.

It was the 26th career Cup win for the 31-year-old Elk Grove native, with five coming on road courses including a previous victory at Sonoma in 2021.

“I had an awesome car today. What a great race,” said Larson, taking the traditional winner’s

Toyota/Save Mart 350
Elk Grove native Kyle Larson celebrates his thrilling comeback win at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday by drinking the customary red wine.
drink of red wine in victory lane. “I like being on offense, and our strategy was very offense-driven today. That made it fun, because you are passing cars instead of trying to fend people off, and I think it helped me avoid mistakes.”

A rash of accidents and mechanical failures in the race's opening half, which resulted in eight separate caution periods of 22 laps run under yellow flag conditions, quickly dissolved the 110-lap event into a race planner’s nightmare. As a result of all the chaos, when the green flag came out on lap 60 to start the third and final stage of the race, the front runners were all using varying strategies, depending on when they elected to make their opening pit stop.

Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports team manager Cliff Daniels decided to roll the dice and kept his driver out on the track for as long as possible before finally entering pit lane for the first of his two planned stops on lap 52. Larson would re-emerge on the track well down in the 28th position, but the daring decision would pay dividends in the final half of the race.

“After many of the teams switched strategies and decided to pit earlier than expected due to the cautions, I knew they were going to have to pit early again in their final window, and the only way we were going to beat that strategy was to be on the offense later in the race,” explained Daniels. “At that point, we were a long-run car and had to commit to long runs before our last stop in order to have fresh tires late in the race.”

After his first pit stop, Larson used his new rubber to begin a slow and steady climb back up through the field, and as the leaders started to peel off for their final pit stops, Larson suddenly moved into the race lead on lap 72.

Larson would wait to make his second and final stop on lap 81, but this time he returned from the pits in the sixth position, just eight seconds behind race leader Chris Buescher.

Toyota/Save Mart 350
Kyle Larson celebrates with his team after winning the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
"I didn't know what we were doing as far as strategy. I was just out there banging laps away," admitted Larson, following the race. "I don't know, we study all the strategy, but it's like doing homework: I don't really know what I'm looking at. I just trust they have it figured out, and I try to concentrate on keeping the car on the track and not getting passed by people.”

Again on fresher tires than the other front runners, Larson quickly moved up into third behind four-time Sonoma winner Martin Truex Jr., who had somehow survived a spin-out on lap 7 and a multi-car pile-up in Turn 11 of lap 31 to put himself in contention.

After a prolonged battle, Truex would finally slide past the fading Buescher at the beginning of lap 101 only to be quickly swallowed up by the hard-charging Larson before he could even complete the lap.

“I knew we would have better tires than the others for at least eight or nine laps, but I didn’t know if that advantage would go away at some point,” Larson said. “They did start to equal out, but I had enough grip left to get around them.”

As Larson cruised to the checkered flag, Truex saw his runner-up finish evaporate when he ran out of fuel within a few hundred yards of the finish line. With Truex helplessly sputtering to a near halt with the finish line in sight, Michael McDowell, who had come back from an encounter with a tire barrier early part of the race, Buescher, Chase Elliott, and Ross Chasten all zoomed by him to round out the top five.

Meanwhile, a disappointed Truex, who was attempting to snap a 41-race winless streak, finally managed to limp the finish line in the 27th position,

“I'm not sure why we didn't try to save a little fuel at the end, because I was not going to catch or pass him,” lamented Truex, questioning his team’s late-race strategy. “It's a shame that we went around the last corner and went from second to wherever we finished. We were going to have a good day, but came up just one corner short."

The victory was Larson’s third win of the season, and it moved him to the top of the NACAR Cup standings by 26 points (561 to 535) over Denny Hamlin, after Hamlin departed the race on the second lap with a blown engine to finish dead last in the 38th position.

Toyota/Save Mart 350
Kyle Larson navigates the familiar course at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday.

It was a far different situation from where Larson began the week after NASCAR stripped him of all his points due to his failure to compete in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Speedway on Memorial Day.

Larson was trying to become only the sixth driver to race in both the Indy 500 and at Charlotte on the same day, but a long rain delay at Indy made it impossible for him to get to Charlotte in time before that race was called early due to rain. His failure to log any seat time at Charlotte triggered a NASCAR regulation requiring a driver to compete in every race on the schedule to be eligible for the season title. The ruling left Larson and his team in championship limbo until NASCAR finally relented and granted him a waiver on Tuesday, reinstating his eligibility for the championship playoffs.

After the race, Larson talked about the distraction that resulted from NASCAR’s delayed ruling before finally granting him a waiver.

“Literally, my mind never wavered,” quipped Larson. “We were always focused on executing and winning races. My mindset did not change at all and remained focused on winning every single race.”

Next Up

The NASCAR Cup Series next heads to Iowa Speedway for the first time in track history on Sunday, June 16. NASCAR began using the track in 2006 for lower-level series and then some national series events in 2009 while IndyCar has made the track an annual stop in 2007, racing there every year except 2021.