What matters at Sonoma: Different pit strategies on tap for maximizing day


What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and how can different strategies result in big points bounties? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway (4 p.m. ET on FS1).

Different strategies for “maximizing the day” at Sonoma

A scroll down the finishing order two weeks ago from Circuit of the Americas would note an interesting top 10. Despite the rain-shortened event, those among the highest-finishing quarter of the field were either established strategy-forward teams or teams with drivers like A.J. Allmendinger (with road racing origins stemming from his open-wheel upbringing) or Chase Briscoe (a two-time Xfinity Series road race winner who ranked eighth in median lap time at COTA) with varying road course bona fides.

Ideally, a team has both driver and strategy going for it, but that’s not always the case. When the driver isn’t a ringer on road courses, green-flag pit strategy can serve as the equalizer. In a crew chief’s control, good strategy can target stage finishes and/or the overall race finish. “Maximizing the day,” as it’s known, is a goal bringing forth options — and in extremes, wildly different races depending on a team’s playoff standing — in the stage-racing era.

In the 2019 race at Sonoma, the track’s most recent event, a tilt free of natural cautions saw a field split on vying for the win or low-hanging stage points:

  • Six teams secured wins (and playoff spots) prior to the Sonoma race. Four of them pitted under green in advance of the first stage finish, inheriting better track position on the ensuing restart. Joey Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon (now paired with Ryan Blaney) and Denny Hamlin with Chris Gabehart were the lone holdouts.
  • Three of the same six teams pitted in advance of the second stage finish, inheriting better track position on the restart opening the final stage. Brad Keselowski (with Paul Wolfe) joined Logano and Hamlin in staying out; Hamlin won the stage.
  • Only eight of 20 possible stage-point positions were comprised of prior race winners, but prior race winners earned three of the top five positions at the end of the race, including winner Martin Truex Jr.
  • On behalf of Ryan Newman, Scott Graves pitted the No. 6 car under green three laps prior to both stage conclusions. Newman began the final stage in seventh place and ultimately finished in the same spot. The strategy was atypical of Graves’ season; they were the only two green-flag pit cycles (of eight total that year) running near the ends of stages in which he didn’t keep Newman out in an effort to earn stage points.
  • William Byron (with Chad Knaus as crew chief) finished 19th but collected the race’s fifth-biggest points total, thanks to stage finishes of first and third. Kyle Larson (with Chad Johnston) finished 10th, but earned the fourth-biggest total, with stage finishes of fourth and sixth.

There are 11 teams that have already won races in 2021, meaning we may see more teams on a win-or-bust strategy, as stage points outside of the first-place offering are inconsequential to those already qualified for the playoffs. For those without wins, especially teams near the playoff cutoff, a strategy optimizing stage performance could fetch a points bounty better than one focused around the race result.

There’s no choose rule. Maybe there should be?

The carousel, reintroduced in 2019, tacks on an additional 0.53-miles to Sonoma’s lap length, creating more room for passing, more opportunity for mistakes, more wear on tires and, perhaps most importantly, dramatically altering the restart dynamic.

Traditionally, Sonoma saw retention rates across its inside and outside restart grooves close to equal, allowing driving talent and car speed to win out on short runs. But in the race two years ago, the inside groove saw a retention advantage of around 38 percentage points:

The inside groove is crucial to winning position in turn 3A (a right-hander), before the sharp right-hand entrance to the carousel at turn 4. Previously, those back-to-back right-handers didn’t exist, offering relief to those restarting from the outside groove.

Without that relief, it’s skewed the balance, creating the kind of gap between the two grooves that necessitated the choose rule on oval tracks.

How will Truex attack Sonoma without Cole Pearn?

From 2016-19, Martin Truex Jr. had a car ranked as the fastest or second fastest in the Cup Series race at Sonoma. From those races, he earned two wins.

Across different horsepower packages, tire combinations, course shapes, and teams, Truex was the common denominator, but Cole Pearn was on the pit box for each outing, in charge of both setup and strategy. Today’s race will be Truex’s first at Sonoma with James Small as crew chief.

Though it’s a tiny sample size — four races — Truex and Small have yet to win a road course race together since pairing in 2020. They finished 12th and 35th this season at Daytona and COTA, respectively ranking third and 16th in median lap time. It’s likely not a product of Pearn’s absence — Small worked closely with Pearn while at Furniture Row Racing and engineer Jeff Curtis was part of Truex’s 2018 Sonoma win, so winning information was certainly shared — but it begs the question of how Small will approach the race.

For as aggressive as Small has been this year, he has Truex’s unwavering trust.

“I have a lot of confidence in him,” Truex said this week. “We’ve been a little hit or miss here lately but having three wins in the bank is good. And I think we’ve probably gotten a little bit aggressive and that’s part of the reason why we won some races, I think. It’s also part of the reason why we’ve been a little bit inconsistent.”

After their Phoenix win, Small indicated the need for playoff points (something they lacked relative to other title contenders last season) to create a postseason safety net. Depending on their running whereabouts near the ends of stages, engineering a strategy for the stage win — maximizing “the day” as opposed to the finish — would be more pragmatic than aggressive, but if that’s the tactic he selects, it would buck the most likely path taken by teams that have already won races in 2021.

Texas Truck race results: Carson Hocevar scores first series win

Texas Truck race results
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Carson Hocevar was in front after the leaders crashed in overtime and scored his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series victory Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Texas Truck race results

Rookie Nick Sanchez, who led 168 of the 172-lap race, dueled reigning series champion Zane Smith on the last lap when Sanchez’s truck hit Smith’s. As Sanchez tried to regain control of his vehicle, he was hit from behind by Hocevar. That contact sent Sanchez into Smith. Christian Eckes also was collected.

Hocevar’s first win came in his 59th series start.

Chase Purdy placed second. Stewart Friesen finished third. Ty Majeski was fourth. Jake Garcia completed the top five.


Richmond Xfinity results, driver points


RICHMOND, Va. — Chandler Smith won a stage, led a race-high 83 laps and rallied late to score his first career Xfinity win Saturday at Richmond Raceway.

MORE: Richmond Xfinity results

MORE: Xfinity points after Richmond race

John Hunter Nemechek placed second. The rest of the top five featured Josh Berry, Kaz Grala and Cole Custer. Austin Hill, who had won three of the first six races of the season, placed ninth.

Hill continues to lead the points. He has a 12-point advantage on Riley Herbst and an 18-point lead on Nemechek heading into the next series race in two weeks at Martinsville.

Chandler Smith scores first career Xfinity win with Richmond victory


RICHMOND, Va. — Chandler Smith held off John Hunter Nemechek to win his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series race Saturday at Richmond Raceway.

The 20-year-old Smith took the lead with 12 laps to go and withstood a restart with six laps to go to earn the victory for Kaulig Racing.

MORE: Richmond race results, driver points

His victory came about a month after being passed for the lead with two laps to go at Las Vegas and finishing third day.

“It obviously wasn’t in God’s works for me that and I was fine with that, I was good with that,” said Smith, who will make his Cup debut Sunday. “I knew there was something bigger and better that He was playing it out for me and I just had to be faithful and keep on trucking. Here’s proof of it.”

Nemechek was second. Josh Berry placed third and was followed by Kaz Grala and Cole Custer.

Justin Allgaier finished 13th to win the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

“Today was weird because of how we finished,” Allgaier said. “Given the same circumstances a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, 13th wasn’t going to win the Dash 4 Cash but today it did.”

Stage 1 winner: Chandler Smith

Stage 2 winner: Josh Berry

Who had a good race: A caution caught Justin Allgaier a lap down, ending his chances for a top-five finish but he was able to bounce back and win the Dash 4 Cash for a fifth time. … Derek Kraus finished 10th in his Xfinity debut. … Chris Hacker placed 14th in his Xfinity debut.

Who had a bad race: Riley Herbst had his career-long streak of top-10 finishes snapped after nine races. He placed 23rd after he was hit and spun late in the race.

Notable: This is the second time in the last four races that there has been a first-time series winner. Sammy Smith scored his first series win last month at Phoenix.

Next: The series is off until April 15 at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

Daniel Suarez, Ross Chastain move on from COTA incident


RICHMOND, Va. — Daniel Suarez says he’s been trying to “work on myself” after conflicts with teammate Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman last weekend at COTA but noted that if NASCAR doesn’t make adjustments with restarts on road courses, he’ll change his driving style.

NASCAR fined Suarez $50,000 on Wednesday for hitting another vehicle on pit road after the race. Suarez hit Chastain’s car at pit entrance and hit the back of Bowman’s car while they were both on pit road.

MORE: Cup starting lineup at Richmond 

“I’ve been trying to work on myself mostly during the week, trying to clear my mind and reset,” Suarez said Saturday at Richmond Raceway. “My team, we’re good. I think the issue wasn’t really with one driver. I feel like it’s more as an industry, how we are allowing to have those kind of bump-and-run restarts at the end of the races at road courses.

“I don’t think that’s right.”

Suarez restarted fifth in the second overtime restart. Alex Bowman, with Ross Chastain and Chase Briscoe aligned behind, charged and got beside Suarez as they approached Turn 1.

As Bowman slowed to make the tight turn, he was hit from behind and that sent him into Suarez, who clipped the left rear of Martin Truex Jr.’s car. Truex spun in front of Suarez and blocked his path, allowing the rest of the field to go by. Suarez finished 27th.

Chastain said he and Suarez have moved on from last week’s incident after talking this week.

“Every household on this earth has their moments of arguments and we had ours,” Chastain said Saturday.

“We’re family. We’re in the same house, right. It’s in our name. It’s Trackhouse. No matter what, we all think we have to put that behind and know that moving forward we’re brothers. … We’re brothers at Trackhouse and we’re going to be stronger together.”

Suarez is among the number of drivers who have raised concerns about the rough driving in the series. The Next Gen car is more durable and can take more hits — as evident in the Clash at the Coliseum to start the year when drivers barreled into the back of cars in the corners to slow down.

Add the emphasis of winning, less respect for one another and the result is the type of racing on display at the end of the race at Circuit of the Americas, as drivers charged down a long straightaway before braking hard for a tight turn and making contact with one another.

So, what can be done?

“I don’t have the answers to that,” Suarez said. “All I know is that NASCAR is working toward trying to make a better solution for some of these restarts. It doesn’t look right. This sport looks embarrassing.

“That’s not real. Just go into the corner and bump three cars to push people out of that way, that’s not real. We know that. That’s how some people got top fives and top 10s last week and some of the guys that were fast, like myself, finished 27th.

“If NASCAR does something about it, that’s amazing. If they don’t I’ll just join the party.”