Martin Truex Jr. wins at Sonoma
Martin Truex Jr. held off a late charge from Kyle Busch to win his second consecutive Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma International Raceway on Sunday.
It was the second consecutive year that Truex had won the race. More importantly, it was his fourth win of the season, all coming in the last eight days.
"What a season we've turned this into," said Truex. "Man, it's unbelievable. Hopefully, we can keep it going."
Kyle Larson started on the pole, but was passed by William Byron heading into the first corner. Byron led the entire first stage of the three-stage race, but fell behind on questionable pit strategy.
With three laps remaining in the first stage, many of the front-runners stopped early for fuel and fresh tires. Byron elected to stay on the track to collect stage points.
He was never able to get to the front again, settling for 19th.
Chase Elliott, who had run second for most of the first stage, was one of the drivers who pitted early. Elliott started the second stage in front, but was passed by Truex on the restart.
Truex led for much of the rest of the race, falling behind only on pit stops.
Elliott followed Truex for several more laps before he was finally passed by Busch.
The remainder of the race was a two-man show. With the duo only giving up the first two places briefly during pit stops.
Truex pitted three laps before Busch on his final pit stop of the day and opened up an 8.269-second gap.
With fresher tires, Busch closed late in the race, turning that gap into slightly more than a second in the final 24 laps of the race. But he could get no closer as Truex held on for the win.
"I just dug down deep and tried to be smooth and hit my marks," Truex said. "Luckily, I began with a big enough gap where I could get away and not feel too much pressure. The last 10 it just felt like it was on ice — just no grip anywhere. I'm really proud of all these guys and everyone on this team and everyone back at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing)."
Truex is the new kid on the block at JGR. He moved from the Furniture Row Racing Team, which shut their doors at the end of last season, to JGR in the offseason.
The season started slowly for Truex, but he has been on a tear in recent weeks. He has now won at least four races in each of the last four seasons.
His No. 19 Toyota Camry had better drive off the corners all day than Busch's No. 18 Camry.
Busch also drives for JGR.
"He was obviously saving a lot," Busch said of Truex. "I still tried everything I could to get there and ran real hard. It sucks to finish second to a teammate, but it's good for the company. Overall, Martin is really, really good here. I'm just pumped that I actually ran good here."
Busch struggled in practice on Friday, running off the track in turn four on multiple occasions. However, he ran better on Saturday during qualifying and was near the front the entire race on Sunday.
It was the 50th anniversary of Sonoma Raceway, which celebrated the event by reintroducing the carousel, a sweeping corner that connects the fourth and seventh corner on the 2.52-mile course.
The famous turn had not been used for NASCAR races since 1997.
Despite the added corner, the race ran caution free except for the cautions at the end of the first and second stage.
Matt DiBenedetto, who runs the No. 95 car for Leavine Family Racing, ran a career-best fourth.
"I'm just so lucky to be doing this," DiBenedetto said after the race. "My path to get here has been so out of the ordinary and old-school, and I'm so thankful. I can't tell you how many people took a chance on me to have this opportunity."
DiBenedetto also talked about NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, who on Sunday called his last race as an analyst for FOX Sports. DiBenedetto, who is 27, and from California, had a retro design on his Toyota to honor one of Waltrip's earliest cars.
"DW, this one's for you, brother," DiBenedetto said. "I'm glad we got you a good finish. You've done so much for me. You're the best."
Stage two winner Denny Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 car for JGR, drove all the way from 26th to fifth in the final stage after pitting during the break, putting Toyotas in four of the top four places.
The only non-Toyota driver to finish in the top five was Ryan Blaney, who drives the No. 12 car Ford for Penske Racing.
"Kind of smooth day for us," Blaney said. "Qualified decent. The way the stages are, you can either choose to finish the stage out, get stage points, but you have to restart way in the middle of the pack, or pit early. That's kind of the strategy we wanted to do."
Sacrificing stage points by pitting early proved beneficial for all of the top three drivers.
"You hate giving up stage points, but you just get yourself ahead of all the mess," said Blaney, who finished more than 30 seconds behind Truex. "You can kind of get in your own rhythm, do your own thing, not have to worry about someone behind you and in front of you all the time. Those top two guys were just gone. All the Gibbs cars looked pretty good. They got something figured out."
Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman finished sixth and seventh, while Erik Jones, the fourth JGR driver, finished in eighth.
Jones started in the rear of the field after his team repaired the left rear quarter of his car after a qualifying accident damaged the car.
Aric Almirola and Larson finished ninth and 10th, respectively.
Larson has won three consecutive poles at Sonoma, but this was his best finish on the road course.
Larson was the highest finishing Chevy driver in the field.
Rounding out the top 15 were Clint Bowyer, Ford, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman and Daniel Hemric, all driving Chevrolets.
Hemric, who drives for Richard Childress Racing, is a rookie of the year contender.
With four laps to go, Busch trailed Truex by less than five car lengths, but he was unable to get any closer as Truex actually stretched his lead over the last couple of laps.
Lapped traffic played a part in the race with Busch closing partially because of lapped cars holding Truex up, but late in the race, Truex was able to get past a lapped car in the carousel, while Busch was unable to get past until turn seven.
Busch was unable to get close again as Truex took control of the race.
JGR has won 10 of the 16 races as a team so far this year. Penske Fords have won five of the remaining races with Brad Keselowski winning three and Joey Logano two.
Neither driver was competitive Sunday with Keselowski finishing 18th and Logano 23rd.
The only Chevy win of the year was by Elliott.
Elliott, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports, was a contender until his engine expired with 30 laps remaining in the 90-lap race. He finished 37th in the 38-man field.
"We lost oil pressure, but there is no oil leaking, so it must have been a belt, I guess," Elliott said. "Obviously, when that happens, you're not getting oil, so things are going to not work. I've been with Hendrick Motorsports for a number of years now, running their engines, and I think this is the second time we ever broke one. So, I'll take those odds all day long."