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.