Racing: Another win for NASCAR’s busiest driver

Published 8:05 am Monday, June 10, 2024

By JENNA FRYER AP Auto Racing Writer

SONOMA, Calif.   — The Indianapolis 500 is over and the worried wait to see if Kyle Larson’s participation in that event would cost him a shot at winning a NASCAR championship has been resolved.

So it’s life back to the usual for NASCAR’s busiest driver.

That means a lot more races and, of course, more winning.

Larson celebrated NASCAR approving his participation in the playoffs with his third Cup victory of the season — a Sunday win at his home track. The victory for Larson, who grew up 80 miles away from Sonoma Raceway in Elk Grove, was his second on the rolling road course in picturesque wine country. It is the fifth win on a road course for NASCAR’s 2021 Cup champion and moved him to the top of the current series standings.

It was a welcome reward after a grueling month of May in which Larson became the fifth driver to attempt to run the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. Rain at both events made his attempt at “The Double” a bust and put him in danger of not being granted a waiver to remain eligible for the NASCAR playoffs.

It took until Tuesday of this week for NASCAR to grant Larson the waiver. Then he took his first two consecutive days off in months to lay by the pool in the California sun, do some wine tasting in familiar territory, and then win at Sonoma.

“My life is so hectic that I never feel like I get a normal week for myself. It gets a little bit more hectic now that I am just NASCAR racing and sprint car racing,” Larson said. “It was really nice for me to get to come here this week and just get to do nothing for one day, and then go be a normal tourist on Thursday. It’s just a very relaxing week.”

It ends Tuesday when Larson races in Nebraska at Eagle Raceway in the $55,555-to-win Bikini Zone Eagle Nationals. Then it is on to Iowa Speedway for NASCAR, and if he can pull it off, he’d like to run a sprint car at nearby Knoxville next Friday and Saturday nights.

That’s the kind of schedule Larson prefers and tried to pull off last month. But the Indy 500 was delayed four hours by rain, which forced Larson to miss the start of the Coca-Cola 600. By the time he arrived in North Carolina, the race had been stopped for rain there, never resumed and Larson never turned a lap.

Because of that, it took NASCAR a week of internal debate to decide if one of its biggest stars would be given the pass required to remain eligible for playoff participation. Larson said he never stressed about the looming decision.

“Are we still talking about waivers?” he asked after the race. “Literally, my mind never wavered. It was always focused on executing and winning the regular season points title.”

His win at Sonoma only showed how foolish NASCAR would have looked had it ruled against the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Jeff Gordon, the vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, said Larson and the No. 5 team were never rattled during the wait for a waiver.

“I didn’t see it affecting the majority of the team,” said Gordon, who added Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels allowed the Hendrick executives to handle communications with NASCAR. “As far as how it trickled down the team, I didn’t see where they were really (bothered). They seem to be business as usual. I think the best medicine in any of those situations is getting back to the racetrack.

“Especially when they got here, home track for Kyle, a track they enjoy racing at, I think that put a lot of that to rest.”

Larson led 19 of the 110 laps and passed defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps remaining to uphold the win in his No. 5 Chevrolet. It is his 20th win since joining Hendrick in 2021 which ranks third in the organization behind Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Truex was going to finish second in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing but ran out of gas before he reached the finish line. He was scored 27th as a pair of tow trucks followed him to the finish.

That gave second to Michael McDowell in a Ford for Front Row Motorsports. Chris Buescher was third in a Ford for RFK Racing and Chase Elliott of Hendrick was fourth. He was followed by Ross Chastain of Trackhouse, who had last-lap contact with Kyle Busch that dropped Busch from fifth to 12th.

HAMLIN OUT EARLYDenny Hamlin, the Cup Series points leader at the start of the race, had his day come to an abrupt end just two laps into the event when his Toyota engine failed, sending him to a last-place finish at Sonoma for the second consecutive year.

Hamlin said he had zero warning the engine was about to blow. He started 25th and was 29th when his engine failed.

“No. Nothing. It’s just the gearing is a little weird for the track,” Hamlin said. “It’s a lot of high-end RPM stuff, but the same as everyone else and I’m just not really sure. They’ll look at it and figure it out, but certainly not ideal.”

Hamlin, who was scored with a 38th-place finish, has finished outside the top 30 at Sonoma for three consecutive years.

It wasn’t much better for Ty Gibbs, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, who hit the wall 16 laps into the race and finished just one spot better than Hamlin in 37th.

“I just made a mistake and took us out of this day,” Gibbs said.

UP NEXTNASCAR takes the Cup Series to Iowa Speedway for the first time in track history. NASCAR began using the track in 2006 for lower level series and then some national series events in 2009, but never Cup. NASCAR stopped using the track after the 2019 season. IndyCar made the track an annual stop in 2007 and has been there every year since except 2021.