Truex sputters, Bells leads way for JGR in “tough day” at Sonoma

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

Kyle Larson and Chevrolet triumphed in the Toyota / Save Mart 350, after the Northern California-born driver from Hendrick Motorsports got to indulge in his second helping of wine from victory lane, while bowties claimed four of the top-six positions at Sonoma Raceway.

For title sponsor of the 110-lap event and opposing manufacturer, a stiff glass of something a little stronger was likely in order, following 218.9 miles of pure attrition at the second-longest tenured road course in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Tyler Reddick carried the banner for Toyota in placing eighth, leading a race-high 35 laps and winning the first stage. Finishing right behind him in ninth was Christopher Bell, who led the charge for Joe Gibbs Racing, in what wound up being a struggle-filled afternoon for the powerhouse in Wine Country.

Taking the green flag from 15th, Bell only ran as high as seventh before taking the checkered-flag from the backend of the top-10 with no stage points earned. And yet, even coming off an engine issue in the closing laps at Gateway the weekend prior, the two-time winner this season has now racked up three consecutive top-10 finishes.

While Bell was never truly a factor, four-time Sonoma winner Martin Truex Jr. had a legitimate chance to go back-to-back at the 1.99-mile track – until disaster struck.

Coming off his worst finish of the season (34th), which caused the former champ to slip to fourth in the standings, Truex was in need of a strong finish. Things didn’t start off the best, after he qualified 21st and got turned from 18th less than 10 laps into the race.

Having to climb from the tailend of the field, Truex managed to work his way up to third by the end of the second stage, courtesy of masterful strategy calls by crew chief James Small and constant execution by the No. 19 team on pit road.

With 10 to go, Truex went from leading the race for one lap, to settling for second after getting passed by Larson on fresher tires, to inching his way across the finish line to a 27th-place day as the last car on the lead lap after running out of gas in the final corner.

Truex recently maintained the second-spot in the standings for seven consecutive races, along with the second-best average finish in the series. He now has four-straight finishes of 12th or worse (24.5 average in that span) and has fallen to fifth in the standings, still winless.

“It was a tough day,” Truex said. “Got spun out early and had to work hard to get some track position back. Our car was pretty good out front. Thought we were going to have a shot to win there and just couldn’t quite get by the 17 (Chris Buescher) quick enough. I finally cleared him; I made a mistake and the 5 (Larson) was right there to pounce, and then obviously ran out of gas so it didn’t matter. 

“I’m not sure why we didn’t try to save a little at the end. I was clearly not going to catch the 5 or pass him. It’s a shame that we went around the last corner and went from second to wherever we finished. It sucks, but it was a tough day, and we had a good car. We battled and did a good job. We were going to have a good day, but just one corner short.”

Where Bell and Truex may have served as the only bright (yet tragic) spots for Joe Gibbs Racing in Sonoma, a foreshadowing of what was to come could’ve been picked up on before Stage One ended on Lap 25.

In a race that spawned eight cautions – the most at the NorCal track since 2021 – JGR was responsible for the first-two.

Like every other team in the garage, the No. 11 team made the 2,700-plus-mile trek from North Carolina to Sonoma Raceway in California. The only difference is Denny Hamlin’s day came to an end before he could complete three laps.

That’s right. After racing just four miles, the engine expired on Hamlin’s FedEx-sponsored Toyota Camry XSE, thus bringing an end to the team’s five-race top-five streak.

In finishing last, Hamlin also lost the points lead to Larson, who tied him and HMS teammate William Byron for most wins in the series with three. He actually slipped back to third, after Chase Elliott rattled off a fourth-place finish for his 16th consecutive top-20 finish.

“It’s just the gearing is a little weird for the track,” Hamlin said. “It’s a lot of high-end RPM stuff, but (it’s) the same as everyone else. I’m just not really sure (what happened). They’ll look at it and figure it out, but certainly not ideal.”

Lastly, finishing right ahead of Hamlin in 37th was Ty Gibbs.

Gibbs started 10th, but made an error in judgment before turning his 16th lap of the race. First, the second-year driver clipped a concrete barrier in Turn 11 with the right front of his Camry, then he clobbered the passenger’s side into another blockade in Turn 1, destroying his car.

“Yeah, I hit the (Turn 11) inside wall with our He Gets Us Camry,” Gibbs said.”I was finding grip down there and was making up time, and then got too close and clipped the wall and hurt the right front. We needed to make some adjustments to be a little bit tighter, I think, in the sweeping sections – but I just made a mistake and took us out of this day.”

As the Cup Series heads to Iowa Speedway for the first time, things won’t get any easier for Joe Gibbs Racing. For the time being, Hendrick Motorsports has reclaimed the crown as the top team in 2024, but another Toyota win could be right around the corner with the uncertainty surrounding the short track in the Hawkeye State.

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