By Cole Cusumano
NASCAR brought a new meaning to California dreamin’ in its first return to Sonoma Raceway in 716 days. Stars like Michael Jordan and Guy Fieri came out to witness the action, and fans were reminded of what they’ve been missing at the winding 2.52-mile track that hails in comparison to the surface streets of Napa Valley.
The sunshine-filled, breezy, near-perfect weather served as a stark contrast to the most recent event held on a road course. However, the competition aspect was more of the same — with a welcomed embrace.
Hendrick Motorsports once again pulled off an onslaught, leading all but 17 laps en route to the team’s fourth consecutive victory and Kyle Larson’s second-straight. The hometown crowd roared with jubilation after the Northern California native scored his first win in Sonoma, adding to the most dominant stretch of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
“It’s good to come out West,” Larson told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “It was cool to be here today with I guess the largest crowd (a sellout of over 15,000) that California has seen at a sporting event since the pandemic started. I got to come hang out with a lot of my friends before the race. We just relaxed, enjoyed some awesome weather, and to cap it off with a win at my home track, it’s really cool.”
While no one was doubting Larson and HMS, it did come as a moderate surprise, given all the uncertainty surrounding the Toyota / Save Mart 350. Absence of practice was the main cause of concern, as NASCAR made the switch to run the low-downforce package and no one had raced at the 11-turn track since 2019.
In what ended up being a physical and gritty event in the closing laps, began as a strategist’s dream with all the varying decisions early on. To the untrained eye, it may have seemed like there was hardly a difference in competition with the tweaked rules package, but that wasn’t the case.
“The tire fall-off was a lot greater, so the pace would fall off more,” fifth-place finisher Kyle Busch told NEWS FROM THE PITS after his fifth-place finish. “I don’t know if the racing was any different. The carousel was definitely a handful getting in there and being loose or tight or washing out and trying to keep it out of the dirt.”
There was a fair amount of parity in the opening two stages, but as each segment and the event itself wound down, the accustomed frontrunners rose to the top. Hendrick Motorsports made history yet again by finishing 1-2 for the fourth consecutive week — something that hasn’t been done since 1956 — and Joey Logano solidified his impeccable road racing status in 2021 by becoming the only driver to place top-five in each event thus far.
The 2018 Champion credited his newfound success to road course aces like Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger, after competing with them early in his career and watching film to master their art.
“Watching them and how they make passes, I feel like I’m to the point where I have confidence sending it in there and making a clean, but aggressive, pass,” Logano told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I like to think we’re getting pretty decent at [road courses]. I wouldn’t say we’re clicking, because we didn’t win, but I think we’re in the ballpark and we’re making small gains. The Hendrick cars are just so much better, no matter where you’re at.
“We gotta keep our heads down and keep digging, but we know that our 750 [horsepower] stuff is in the ballpark and that’s nice to know.”
At this point in time it feels like the world against Larson and Hendrick Motorsports. Once Jimmie Johnson retired, many wondered if it would be the Busch or Chase Elliott era, but they were quick to forget the 28-year-old.
Larson was touted as a generational talent when he began his full-time Cup career in 2014. As the driver of the No. 5 enters his prime, there’s no telling what he can achieve. With 10 races remaining in the regular season, the three-time winner in 2021 owned the fact he is the Championship favorite, but expressed concerns in sustaining his scorching pace.
While Hendrick Motorsports is showing no signs of slowing down, momentum could very well be snatched with the All-Star Race exhibition coming up next week. Whether this will serve as an opportunity for the field to catch up remains to be seen, but Larson’s biggest worry this weekend will be handing over his Sonoma trophy to Guy Fieri — who he made a bet with over dinner the night prior that if he won, he’d give him the hardware.