Kyle Larson wins at Sonoma; third 2021 victory

Kyle Larson made it through two late-race restarts to win his third race of 2021 and his second consecutive race when he took the checkered flag at Sonoma Raceway.

Larson had the fastest car by far throughout the entire race. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. were able to keep Larson in their sights but were never able to give him a challenge.

Larson started first at Sonoma for the fourth straight time at the Northern California road course. The previous three had resulted in a best finish of 10th. But those races came with Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson has been the fastest driver in the Cup Series over the last two months, and he showed it with his first road course win.

That first road course win could have come at Circuit of the Americas two weeks ago. But the race was called because of heavy rain with fewer than 20 laps to go. That gave Elliott the win. Had the race gone the scheduled distance, Elliott would have been forced to make a final pit stop and Larson would have inherited the lead. 

Elliott would finish second while Truex followed in third place. 

It’s the fourth consecutive race where Hendrick cars have finished in the top two spots. The team went 1-2-3-4 at Dover, Elliott and Larson went 1-2 at COTA and Larson and Elliott went 1-2 a week ago at the Coca-Cola 600. 

Hendrick is clearly the fastest team in the Cup Series, though it’s worth noting that Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske aren’t too far behind. Drivers from those organizations have been right behind the Hendrick guys in those four races. While Hendrick may have an edge now, it’s not something that seems impossible to overcome.

The win is also the 270th in the history of Hendrick Motorsports. The team broke Petty Enterprises’ all-time win record when Larson won the 600. 

While Larson and Elliott went 1-2, it was not a fun day for Alex Bowman and William Byron. Both Hendrick drivers had damaged cars and Byron’s damage was significant enough to force him to retire from the race.

Byron finished 35th out of 37 cars. It was his first finish outside the top 11 since the second race of the season. Sunday’s race at Sonoma was the 16th race of 36. 

Ross Chastain was part of the wreck and still got a top 10. Chastain made contact with Corey LaJoie and his car was spun around in Turn 11 when the caution flag flew.

But Chastain kept his position on the track from when the yellow came out because he accelerated through the paved infield area to keep up. NASCAR apparently has no scoring protections against the maneuver that Chastain pulled. So props to him for getting away with it. Instead of sending Chastain to the back of the field, NASCAR let him keep his spot in the top 10. He finished seventh. 

Denny Hamlin finished eighth on Sunday and now has his points lead less than a full race for the first time since March. 

Larson cut Hamlin’s lead to 57 points from 76 points. Larson scored the maximum 60 points on Sunday — 10 each for winning the first two stages and 40 for winning the race — while Hamlin scored just 31.

The regular-season winner gets 10 extra points for the playoffs. A year ago, it was almost unfathomable to imagine that Larson would be the best performing driver in the Cup Series at this point, but it’s the current reality.

Larson was completely out of NASCAR at this time in 2020 after he said the N-word during a virtual race broadcast on NASCAR’s website in April 2020. That public use of the slur got him fired from Chip Ganassi Racing and led to Larson tearing up dirt tracks across the county as NASCAR raced on without him.

But Larson’s undeniable talent meant that he wouldn’t be without a ride for long. Hendrick needed a replacement for Jimmie Johnson and Larson was the best driver without a ride. And Hendrick had the infrastructure to put him in a car without a bunch of sponsorship money.

The combination of Hendrick and Larson has immediately paid off on the track. The team has carried over its late 2020 success into 2021 and catapulted Larson to heights he’s never seen in his NASCAR career. 

He said after the race that he would be contributing money to his charitable program with each lap he completes in the Cup Series. 

“With each lap completed, the wins and stuff, the money gets bigger,” Larson said. “It definitely in the back of my mind adds a little bit more pressure to want to go out there and complete every lap and win these races.

“Cool that I’m able to raise that money, work together with some great organizations, too, through it. Definitely need to keep stacking that money up there. We have a goal of getting to $500,000. Hopefully we can raise some more money throughout the year with running up front, doing good, but also fans can donate as well.”