By DALE BOSOWSKI
Special to the Bulletin
SONOMA — Martin Truex Jr. (#19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota/Joe Gibbs Racing) combined a flawless driving performance with the perfect pit strategy to capture the checkered flag in the 31st Annual running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup race at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday.
“What a season we turned this into,” exclaimed Truex, who now has four wins this season. “This team is unbelievable. Hopefully, we can keep this going.”
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the track, this year’s race 2.52-mile layout incorporated the long sweeping downhill “Carousel” between Turns 4 and 7 for the first time in 20 years. Despite being unfamiliar with the new configuration the race went caution free for the second consecutive year.
For the third straight year Kyle Larson (#42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet/Chip Ganassi Racing) lead the field 38 car field to the green flag to start the 90 lap event. Unfortunately, the Elk Grove native would slowly sink back down the field and was never a serious contender ultimately finishing 10th.
William Byron (#24 Hertz Chevrolet/Hendrick Motorsports), who started alongside of Larson in the front row, quickly assumed the lead and would never look back as he easily rolled to the win of Stage One at the 20 lap mark.
Truex and his teammate Kyle Busch (#18 M&M’s Hazelnut Toyota) were running in the top five, but both elected to forfeit stage points for the long term strategy to win the race by pitting on lap 18.
The move paid off when Truex took over the lead at the beginning of the second stage while Busch moved up to third behind Chase Elliott (#9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet/Hendrick Motorsports). The trio would all pit three laps before the end of Stage Two on lap 40 giving the second leg of the race to Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Toyota/Joe Gibbs Racing).
The early pit stop put Truex back into the lead to start the final 50 lap stage of the race just ahead of Ryan Blaney (#12 PPG Ford/Team Penske), Elliott and Busch.
Busch would make quick work of Elliott, who would retire a few laps later with a blown engine, before making quick work of Blaney a short time later to take over second place on lap 51.
Truex ducked into the pits for his third and final pit stop of the race on lap 64 while Busch elected to stay out five laps longer before making his last stop. As a result of the diverse strategies Busch would emerge 8 seconds back of Truex, but with fresher tires setting up a fox versus the hound chase between the two teammates over the final 20 laps.
By lap 75 Busch had cut the lead to three seconds and by lap 80 it was down to just half of that, but Truex was able to maintain that gap over Busch to the checkered flag over the final laps, despite having to maneuver through some lapped traffic, to claim the 23rd victory of his career.
“I dug down deep, tried to be smooth and made sure I hit my marks. It felt terrible at the end with no grip anywhere. Those last 10 laps felt like I was driving on ice,” explained Truex. “Luckily, I had a big enough gap on Kyle over those final laps 20 laps to settle in and outlast him without too much pressure.”
Despite moving to within one point (643-642) of Joey Logano in the season points standings, Busch was frustrated with the result.
“I knew when I was catching him that he was saving a lot and that it would probably be enough to hold us off and I was right, but I tried everything I could,” said Busch. “It sucks losing to your teammate, but I guess it is good for the company.”
Blaney crossed the finish line in third while Matt DiBenedetto (#95 Procure Toyota//Leavine Family Racing) posted a career best fourth and Hamlin rounded out the top five.
Truex now has three victories with three different teams at Sonoma. When asked what his secret was he replied, “C’mon, man. I can’t tell you that!”
The NASCAR Monster Cup Series next heads to Chicagoland Speedway for the Camping World 400 on June 30th.
Noah Gragson, age 20 of Las Vegas, jumped the start of Saturday’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race, but clawed his way back into contention to earn the victory. Gragson actually crossed the finish line under a checkered-yellow behind Ryan Preece only to be declared the winner after a post-race penalty dropped Preece to 20th. Daniel Hemric and Monster Energy Cup regular Austin Dillon rounded out the K&N podium.
Former three-time NASCR Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, age 72, was honored before Sunday’s main event. Waltrip was calling his final race for FOX after 19 seasons in the broadcast booth.