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Sonoma takeaways: So close, yet so far for JGR in Sonoma

Kyle Larson makes it two wins in a row, as he hangs onto his lead in overtime to emerge victorious at Sonoma.

Following Kyle Larson’s dominant victory in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, Kyle Busch put his Joe Gibbs Racing team at “about a seven” compared to Larson’s perfect 10.

Following another dominant victory by Larson on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, Busch put it in a different way that still sounded largely the same.

“We’re number two, right? I feel like that’s where we’re at,” Busch said after finishing fifth on the road course.

The result was his fourth top-five finish in the past six races. JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. also had a solid outing, finishing two spots ahead of him in third.

Neither of them had an answer for Larson.

While a run of late cautions gave brief doubt to the outcome, Sunday’s race was always his to lose. He didn’t.

With that, Hendrick Motorsports has won four races in a row after Busch and Truex opened May with back-to-back wins for JGR (Busch at Kansas, Truex at Darlington).

"(Larson) was on his own level and (Chase Elliott) and (Truex) seem to be equal,” Busch said. “We were a little off (Truex). I don’t know why. We were just overall too loose all day.”

Truex said his only hope of beating Larson was if the race ended on a long green-flag run, but even with that, he still didn’t know if that would have given him a shot. The cautions put the kibosh on that.

But while Truex knows there’s a gap between Hendrick and JGR, he’s optimistic it can be closed.

“(Hendrick is) definitely really strong, and we definitely have some work to do to catch them,” he said. “That being said, there’s always a chance. We’ve got a great team and great cars and we have some time to get with it and hopefully make some gains.

“When the playoffs start, a lot of weird things can happen and you have to take what you can get. Luckily for us, we have some good tracks in the playoffs, which is always good. They’re definitely strong and we definitely need to keep working on it.”

Ganassi rebound

For the first time all season, Chip Ganassi Racing had both of its cars inside the top 10 at day’s end.

Kurt Busch’s sixth-place finish was his first top 10 since placing eighth at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February.

Ross Chastain placed seventh, a nice follow-up from his fourth-place showing in the wet two weeks ago at another road course, Circuit of the Americas.

The results were sorely needed after a brutal Coca-Cola 600, where mechanical problems relegated Chastain and Busch to 37th and 38th-place finishes, respectively.

Those issues prompted Hendrick Motorsports general manager Jeff Andrews to apologize to CGR last Friday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. The two organizations have a technical alliance together.

While both CGR drivers finished toward the front Sunday, one had a smoother time than the other.

Busch scored points in both stages. Chastain had to recover from an incident on Lap 77 that nearly ended his run.

Entering the hairpin at Turn 11, Chastain made a late move inside of Corey LaJoie and had contact with him. The ensuing stack-up behind Chastain turned him around and left both Kevin Harvick and William Byron with considerable front end damage to their cars.

Byron’s damage was enough to eliminate him from the race. Chastain drove through the Turn 11 parking lot to return to the track. However, he was not penalized for cutting the course and took the subsequent restart in ninth place.

Better than it could’ve been

Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, and Bubba Wallace all got out of Sonoma with top-15 finishes after facing an array of obstacles.

Suarez finished 12th despite being penalized on pit road just before and just after the end of Stage 1.

He tried to enter pit road before it was closed with two laps left in the stage, but failed to beat the red lights. Then on a stop under caution at Lap 22, one of his crew members went over the wall too soon.

Strategy and a solid car enabled him to ultimately recover and challenge for a top 10. However, his afternoon ended with a last-lap incident. Contact between him and Michael McDowell in Turn 11 sent the latter spinning out of a top 10 finish (McDowell crossed the line in 28th).

The incident appeared to prompt this Twitter exchange between Suarez’s team, Trackhouse Racing, and McDowell’s team, Front Row Motorsports.

Meanwhile, Dillon finished 13th despite alternator issues that necessitated several battery changes during the race.

“We lost the alternator as soon as the race started,” he said. “It just started to lose voltage. The guys did a great job changing batteries and we were able to get sixth-place stage points that first stage. We just had to grind it out, battle it out. We kept losing track position, but we fought hard all day.”

Wallace, like Suarez, also drew a couple of penalties on pit road before salvaging a 14th-place finish.

Pitting before the end of Stage 1, Wallace was penalized for speeding on exit. Then shortly after pitting before the end of Stage 2, he suffered a flat left rear tire and was forced to nurse his car around the track to get to pit road. It was closed at this point, leading to another penalty.

The episode put Wallace one lap down, but he earned the free pass off the caution at Lap 78 and drove back into the top 15.

Afterward, Wallace credited a recent trip to Sonoma, in which he ran laps in a TA2 car with road course instructor Chris Cook, for giving him more confidence.

“I had a lot of fun,” said Wallace. “I was able to bring it over today. I just felt comfortable. We’ve still got some room to go.

“We’ve still got to figure out what we need in our Toyota Camry to make me a little bit better, but when they are telling me that I’m better than 10 cars on a road course, it’s a pretty damn good day.”

In his sights

Sonoma takeaways

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 07: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, leads Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 07, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Getty Images

As we saw last year with Kevin Harvick’s failure to make the Championship 4, playoff points do not make you bulletproof.

But you still want to have as many as you can.

With 10 races to go in the regular season, Kyle Larson has a series-leading 26 playoff points following his win Sunday at Sonoma.

But his stellar performance over the last month has put him in contention for the regular season championship - and the 15 playoff points that go with it.

Larson had a win slip away from him in May at Kansas Speedway and finished 19th. He still scored 37 points that race, thanks to earning 19 stage points. That put him ninth in regular season points, 144 points behind winless leader Denny Hamlin.

In the five races since, Larson has gained 97 points on Hamlin to pull within 47 of him. During that span, Larson’s earned seven stage wins and has finished no worse than sixth in a stage (Circuit of the Americas, Stage 2).

In the last two races, Larson has scored maximum points: 70 in last week’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, 60 on Sunday at Sonoma. His points nearly doubled Hamlin’s in both races, with Hamlin scoring 36 and 31 points, respectively.

In Sunday’s post-race press conference, Larson admitted he’d thought Hamlin had sewn up the regular season title.

But now?

“We’ve had a few really good weeks where we’ve won stages, won the race these last couple weeks,” he said. “We’ve taken huge chunks out of it.

“It’s definitely a goal of mine to get those 15 bonus playoff points if you can win it. We’ve just got to keep finishing the races, gaining a lot of stage points, and finishing up front. Not making things bad, just trying to be smooth and finish the best we can.”

It’s something to keep an eye on when the Cup Series returns to points-paying action June 20 at Nashville Superspeedway on NBCSN.