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June 10, 2024

Analysis: As Sonoma strategies swirl, Kyle Larson’s speed lets No. 5 team zig when others zag

Kyle Larson wasn’t really certain about Sunday’s race-winning strategy, the one that delivered his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to Sonoma Raceway’s wine-soaked Victory Lane for a second time.

“Yeah, I didn’t know what we were doing as far as strategy. I was just out there banging laps away,” Larson said in his post-checkered flag interview. “I don’t know, we study all the strategy, but it’s like doing homework. I don’t really know what I’m looking at.”

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Turns out, he didn’t need to. Larson cut through the unexpectedly topsy-turvy nature of the Toyota/Save Mart 350’s first half, blocked out the dizzying array of pit strategies that emerged and rose above a week’s worth of chatter about playoff eligibility and waivers and the like to focus on what he does: drive.

RELATED: Race results | Larson surges in Sonoma

His at-track support staff, led by a capable commandant in crew chief Cliff Daniels, dealt with all the strategy, subplots and zigzags around him. Larson did the rest.

“Because he drives the wheels off of it,” said Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon, noting Larson’s pace, tire management and wise decision-making on the track — no strategy-sleuthing necessary. Take it from Gordon, another multiple-time Sonoma winner with Northern California roots. “… I think it’s obviously extracting the most speed out of a car. You don’t have to know anything about a car to extract speed out of it. I think where it comes down to — where he probably is a little too humble in some of the things he says is that he’s a key element of what the car is doing to be able to give that communication information back to Cliff and the team to get more out of it.”

Daniels’ approach helped, especially when the opening two stages of Sunday’s 110-lap contest threw the field a breaking ball with extra curve. Four of the last five Sonoma races had been relatively incident-free with longer green-flag runs that set the strategy table, and several other road-course races in the Next Gen era have adhered to that script. The first half Sunday, however, was a higgledy-piggledy flurry of caution periods for off-track excursions and significant stack-ups.

Daniels could have reacted with alarm when the best intentions for pre-race plans went haywire. Instead, he met the shifting strategy challenges with an embrace.

“That was actually fun because it changed everything everybody had in their mindset for how to understand pace, falloff, all those things, that it just changed the factors that you had to solve for,” Daniels said. “People could do things differently. We were completely off script with the way that we called the race, but that was fun.”

Larson may have been unaware of just how convoluted the strategy shake-up got, but where Daniels and Co. netted out was a longer run to start the final stage, which left the No. 5 Chevy with Goodyear tires that were 13 laps fresher than two of his nearest competitors, Chris Buescher and Martin Truex Jr. That call from Daniels put Larson on offense for the final stretch, and he picked off both Buescher and Truex in one swoop to lead the final nine laps.

“Well, that’s all you really can do when you’re behind the wheel is just trust that they’ve got it figured out, and then as long as you keep the car on the race track, don’t get passed by people, usually whatever strategy I feel like you’re on is going to typically work out OK,” Larson said. “You may not win, but you’re still going to finish good.”

MORE: At-track photos: Sonoma | 2024 Cup Series winners

Winning for the third time this season helped Larson regain the Cup Series points lead, reaffirming his status as a top playoff contender for the second time in five days. The first was a more clerical designation, coming from NASCAR officials who confirmed his postseason eligibility with a waiver after he missed the Coca-Cola 600 when weather fouled the Indianapolis 500 rookie’s double-duty plans.

Sunday’s second affirmation was a bit more intangible, with Larson’s drive through the field serving as yet another validation of the team’s overall strength with the playoffs looming. He’s earned more points than anyone this season, with one fewer start. He also blockaded the seemingly wide-open door for Buescher and Truex, who both held promising hopes of scratching the win column for a playoff berth before their late Sunday fades.

Larson reached a pair of milestones with Sunday’s triumph, which marked the 20th win of his Hendrick Motorsports tenure that began in 2021. His 26th Cup Series win overall also inched him up NASCAR’s all-time win list, tying him with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Fred Lorenzen — both Hall of Famers.

The victory was a different experience than his most recent tally, a nail-biting win last month by a record 0.001 seconds that denied Buescher at Kansas Speedway. Sunday’s path was a bit more methodical, the drama reserved for his eventual rise back through the field on fresher rubber.

Asked which path to Victory Lane he favored, Larson was indifferent — just like he was with the swirling strategies.

“I just prefer winning,” Larson said. “However you have to do that, whatever.”