Kyle Larson held off two of the sport’s top road course racers – Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. – to win the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in a thrilling overtime finish Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.
Larson, who started on the pole, dominated the action in the NASCAR Cup Series race in his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy Camaro, winning the first two stages and leading a race-best 57 laps on the iconic 2.52-mile, 12-turn road course to take his third victory of the year, ninth win of his career and first-ever victory at Sonoma.
In the closing laps, Larson had to outduel defending series champion and recent road course master Elliott, three-time Sonoma winner Truex Jr. and Team Penske’s Joey Logano to take the checkered flag. Larson finished .614-of a second in front of Elliott at the checkered flag.
“It was not easy,” said Larson of his first career road course victory in the Cup Series. “Any road course isn’t easy, just trying to keep it on track is tough; especially when you’ve got two of the best behind you on the last restart, Chase (Elliott) and Martin (Truex, Jr.). I felt like I did a good job at the one before and stretched it out a little bit and didn’t want to give him another try at it, but he kept the pressure on. Martin was strong too, but what a car. This HendrickCars.com Chevy, thank you Mr. Hendrick. The is unbelievable. I thought I would be okay today, but I just didn’t know how I would race. I don’t think of us really do with no practice. But our car was really good there and I can’t say enough about it.”
The fans at the track started celebrating a little early before California Governor Gavin Newsom’s expected June 15th statewide reopening.
NASCAR rolled into Sonoma Raceway much to the delight of fans for the first time since 2019 since the 2020 scheduled event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sonoma Raceway reached its allowed capacity for the race weekend, although the grandstands seemed sparsely filled compared to past years.
“We’re thrilled to be able to welcome thousands of race fans back to Sonoma Raceway for the Toyota/Save Mart 350,” said raceway executive vice president and general manager Jill Gregory. “While we are operating at a reduced capacity for this year’s event, we’re still looking forward to hosting the first-class event that race fans here have come to expect. We also realize some fans will be disappointed, but the responsibility of putting on an event that is safe for our fans and local citizens is a top priority.
“We also appreciate the collaborative effort with officials of Sonoma County and the local health department to allow our fans to attend this event and get NASCAR back to the North Bay. We expect it to be the largest attendance for a sports event in Northern California since the pandemic shutdown 15 months ago. We can’t wait to welcome even more fans here next year.”
California is expected to reopen on June 15 without any capacity limits or physical distancing requirements for events or businesses, according to state officials. Marin County last week moved into the Yellow Tier 4 as the number of COVID cases in the area and across the state continue to fall. The state is expected to end its tier system for counties on June 15.
Masks and social distancing were still required for fans at Sonoma Raceway, but the racing on the track was much closer.
Prior to the green flag, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, serving as the race’s Grand Marshal, welcomed the large Bay Area contingent of fans back to live sports before saying the most famous words in motorsports: “Drivers, start your engines.”
Pastor Rondall Legggett of the First Missionary Baptist Church in Marin City offered the invocation before the race.
Elliott, who had won five of the last six road course races including the most recent one at Circuit of The Americas in Texas two weeks ago, started second in his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy and finished there after leading 13 laps of the race. He said even though it was the best he’s run here, it just wasn’t good enough to get the trophy.
“Congratulations to Kyle (Larson) and Cliff (Daniels, crew chief), and everybody on the No. 5 team. They’ve been doing an amazing job,” Elliott said. “I’m really proud of our NAPA group, though. I feel like we were a lot better there at the end than we were at the beginning; and definitely the best I’ve ever been here, I feel like, at Sonoma, in particular. I’m pleased with that. I wish we could have gotten another spot, but we’ll try again.”
Truex, who was trying for the Sonoma three-peat and his fourth career win here in his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after winning in Wine Country in 2018 and 2019, said Larson definitely had the car to beat.
“Our only hope was for it really to go green the rest of the race there in that third stage once we both pitted and we were one-two,” Truex Jr. said. “(Kyle Larson) drove by me and he was just super-fast for 10 laps. Our only chance was if the race would have gone green from there and I still don’t even know. He was really fast for 15 laps then obviously once we started getting all those cautions, we were toast. Definitely not what we needed.”
Larson, a native of Elk Grove, won the Coca-Cola 600 last Sunday in Charlotte, N.C., and said he spent the last week relaxing with family and friends in the Bay Area, and winning in Sonoma in front of his friends was a great way to finish off his trip.
“(Winning here) means a lot,” said Larson, who said he spent quite a bit of time at Sonoma Raceway as a youngster watching races and dreaming of one day becoming a professional race car driver.
“Northern California will always be home to me, even if I live way out on the East Coast now,” Larson continued. “Thanks to all the fans for coming out. I know there’s a lot of Sprint Car fans in the stands and around this race track. I got to see a lot of my friends here today. I’ve got my family here. This is unbelievable.
“And to get back-to-back wins in the Cup Series is something I’ve always dreamed of doing and to get it done feels great. To win last week on Memorial Day weekend, four in a row now, if you count my dirt racing too. And we’ve got a big week of racing coming up. I look forward to all that and just look forward to keeping the streak going.”