Martin Truex Jr. holds off Kyle Busch in solid win at Sonoma

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 23: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, poses with the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 23, 2019 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 23: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, leads Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 23, 2019 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

SONOMA, Calif. – Dominant in defense of last year’s victory in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, Martin Truex Jr. held off Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, to win Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event at Sonoma Raceway.

With three-lap fresher tires after the final set of green-flag pit stops at the 2.52-mile road course—which for the first time since 1997 featured use of the carousel connecting Turns 4 and 7—Busch closed an 8.269-second gap to slightly more than a second over the last 24 laps.

But the driver of the No. 18 Toyota could get no closer, given that Truex’s No. 19 Camry had better drive off the corners at the 12-turn course and was able to keep Busch at bay. Truex led three times for 59 of the 90 laps, including the final 24.

“I just dug down deep and tried to be smooth and hit my marks,” said Truex, who won for the fourth time this season—all in the last eight races—the third time at Sonoma (including two straight, and with three different car owners) and the 23rd time in his career. “Luckily I began with a big enough gap where I could get away and not feel too much pressure.

“It was definitely a battle going on, as far as the race there at the end for us on tires. It felt terrible the last 20 laps. The last 10 it just felt like it was on ice—just no grip anywhere. I’m really proud of all these guys and everyone on this team and everyone back at JGR.

“What a season we’ve turned this into. This is great, man, unbelievable. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”

Joe Gibbs Racing has won 10 of the first 16 races this season. Truex, who moved from now-defunct Furniture Row Racing to JGR this year, has now posted at least four victories in four straight seasons, including the current one.

And with Matt DiBenedetto running a career-best fourth and Stage 2 winner Denny Hamlin driving from 26th to fifth in the final stage of the race after pitting during the second break, Toyota placed four drivers in the top five. The only interloper was third-place Ryan Blaney in a Team Penske Ford.

With four laps left, Busch had trimmed Truex’s advantage to 1.542 seconds, but Truex ultimately expanded the edge to 1.861 seconds at the finish.

“Yeah, any time I had to lean on the left rear, I just didn’t have the drive that I needed,” Busch said. “Actually tried to hold on to it, trying to save it. I knew that was going to be our problem—that had been our problem all day long. You get closer, you’re like, ‘Okay, I can get him, I better go, pounce on him fast, so then he doesn’t have the time to pick up the pace.’

“But it didn’t work. He was obviously saving a lot. I knew he was going to be saving a lot, have enough to be able to most likely hold us off. I was right. I still tried everything I could to get there and ran real hard…. Sucks to finish second to a teammate, but it’s good for the company. Overall Martin is really, really good here. I’m just pumped that I actually ran good here.”

Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman claimed the sixth and seventh spots. Erik Jones, who started from the rear of the field after his team made repairs to the left rear quarter of his car post-qualifying, was eighth in the fourth JGR Toyota.

Aric Almirola and polesitter Kyle Larson completed the top 10. The winner of three straight poles at Sonoma, Larson posted his best finish at the road course.

The race ran caution-free, except for the two stage breaks. Front-row starter William Byron grabbed the lead from Larson on the first lap and won the stage wire-to-wire, but he lost track position while pitting under caution during the stage break and finished 19th.

Next 10 races will decide who makes the Playoffs

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Martin Truex Jr.’s Sonoma spectacular will honorably earn most of the headlines coming out of the weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ first road course race of the season.

He joins NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon as the only drivers in Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway history to win back-to-back races. And equally as important to the 2017 series champion, the victory was No. 4 on the season tying him with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch for most in the series.

Busch now trails defending series champion Joey Logano by a single point in the championship standings. And while Truex is ranked fifth in points – 100 behind Logano – he would move to second place if the Playoff rankings (based on victories) were reset today.

But it was another group of competitors in Sunday’s field that find themselves immersed in a race-by-race high-stakes battle to stay among the Playoff Top 16 as the series moves to Chicagoland Speedway for this week’s Camping World 400 (Sunday, June 30 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Hendrick Motorsports William Byron, who finished 19th at Sonoma, is currently ranked 14th in the Monster Energy Series driver standings with a 29-point gap over his Hendrick teammate, 17th place Jimmie Johnson, who fell just outside the championship cut-off despite a 12th-place run at Sonoma. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, who finished 10th at Sonoma, moved into 15th in the series driver standings and trails Byron by 11 points.

Roush-Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman, who finished seventh at Sonoma, moved into the 16th and final Playoff transfer position. He has the slimmest of slim 1-point advantage over Johnson, who was 12th at Sonoma and is 17th in the standings. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones, who finished eighth on Sunday, is ranked 18th in the series driver standings, only five points behind Newman in the cutoff position with 10 races left to settle the Playoff field.

There has been substantial movement between 15th and 18th place in the standings in just the last seven weeks. Newman, Johnson and Jones, for example, have changed points positions six times in the last seven races. Larson has moved four times.

Ten races remain to set the 16-driver Playoff field – naturally creating a sort of Playoff “Chase” within the playoff push. And it’s go-time.

Byron, the second-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, scored only a pair of top-10 finishes at the 10 tracks ultimately setting this year’s Playoff field. He was sixth at Pocono and eighth at Watkins Glen in his maiden Cup season (2018). However, he does have a pair of past NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series wins at both Daytona and Indianapolis – important venues in this next 10-race group.

Larson has fared very well at the upcoming venues – scoring 20 of his career 48 top-five finishes at one of these next 10 tracks. And he has a career best three wins at Michigan.

Judging by statistics, Newman should feel very optimistic about this stretch of the schedule too. He certainly was enthused by his work at Sonoma. His seventh-place finish was his best showing since a seventh in 2008 at the famed road course – 11 years ago.

“We had good strategy and good pit stops, good everything,” Newman said. “We just didn’t quite have the speed to be able to get up there and pass those guys that were in front today.”

He’s equally as hopeful about the next summer months – having earned half of his career 18 victory total at tracks in this next 10-race stretch of venues. And the winning has been diverse. He’s won at six of the tracks – three times at New Hampshire, twice at Michigan and once at Daytona, Indianapolis, Chicago and Pocono.

Of course with 83 trophies and seven series championships in his wheelhouse, Johnson cannot be counted out to qualify for the Playoffs either. He is hoping to break a two-year-plus winless streak and surely likes his chances. He’s a former multi-time winner at Daytona, New Hampshire, Pocono, Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis. He has a win at Michigan too. This week’s venue in Chicago, plus Kentucky (July 14) and Watkins Glen, N.Y. (Aug. 4) are the only tracks on the entire schedule where he’s yet to celebrate in winner’s circle.

Jones would be understandably enthusiastic about his summer slate. He scored his first career Cup win last July in the Daytona summer night race. And 11 of his career 18 top-five finishes have come at tracks in the calendar’s next 10-race stretch. He was runner-up at Bristol, Tenn. in the summer of 2017, leading 260 laps and he was runner-up at Indianapolis’s Brickyard 400 just last year. His four top-fives this season is already nearly half his career best season total (nine) set last year.

“It was good,” Jones said following his eighth place effort on Sunday at Sonoma. “We passed a lot of cars. I am just happy we were able to come out of here with a solid day.

“Wish we could have gotten some more stage points, but it was nice to get a good finish.”

And, he added. “We just needed track position. I think we were probably a few spots better than that, but it’s still good. It’s nice to get back on track. Hopefully this is good momentum for next week in Chicago.”

Holly Cain – NASCAR Wire Service

Ross Chastain earns redemption in thrilling Gateway finish

MADISON, Ill. – A week after having their NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series win stripped due to a post-race technical inspection failure at Iowa Speedway, Ross Chastain and his Niece Motorsports rebutted the disqualification with a thrilling victory in Saturday night’s CarShield 200 presented by CK Power at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

While a contender for the win throughout the event’s third stage, it was a gutsy fuel only call by crew chief Phil Gould on Lap 133 that allowed Chastain to gain the track position ahead of former leader Christian Eckes.

But when the caution flag flew with 13 laps remaining for Harrison Burton, Chastain’s nearly one-second lead had been evaporated and put Eckes, Stewart Friesen and Todd Gilliland all with fresher tires in the footprints of Chastain’s No. 45 CarShield Chevrolet Silverado.

When the green flag waved with seven laps remaining, despite spinning his tires, Chastain was able to fend off a charge from Eckes and eventually pulled away from his challengers to earn his second Gander Trucks win of the season.

On the last lap, Gilliland battled his Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate Eckes for second, but Eckes saw an impressive performance end up in the Turn 2 wall after contact with Friesen for the second consecutive season at Gateway.

Chastain finished 0.704 seconds ahead of Gilliland and picked up a $50,000 bonus in the final race of the Gander Outdoors Trip Truck Challenge.

“These Niece guys went home, and we were mad, felt like we had one taken from us,” said a jubilant Chastain. “Phil Gould, Lonnie Rush they believed in me. I didn’t want to take tires and then it was up to me to freakin hold them off, I don’t know how.

“I’m going to take that money home and they’re not taking it from us this time.”

Chastain admitted he was nervous when the final caution waved as he knew it would face hungry challengers on the restart.

“Of course, scared to death, that’s the last thing I wanted to see,” Chastain said of the Lap 146 caution. “Buzzed my tires like crazy on the restart and got to thank Todd (Gilliland) for pushing me and not wrecking me. Execution on these guys. We didn’t have the fastest truck today, but we executed, and we believed in each other. Man, that feels really good.”

Eckes who led twice for a race-high 57 laps was forced to settle for 14th in his second Gander Trucks start of the season.

“I made a mistake down in (Turns) 3 and 4 and we lost some track position and the 4 (Gilliland) got by me and I was looking to make the crossover move and got wrecked by the No. 52 (Friesen) again. Man, it’s unfortunate, these SiriusXM guys work too hard for this. We had a great run tonight, I felt like we honestly had the best truck there at the end, I need to work on myself a little bit as far as the aero aspect of it and move on to Pocono.”

Friesen finished third, ahead of Toyota Racing Development driver Chandler Smith and Iowa winner Brett Moffit to complete the top-five.

Points leader Grant Enfinger finished sixth after dominating the first two stages, Sheldon Creed, Ben Rhodes, Matt Crafton and Myatt Snider filling in for the suspended Johnny Sauter comprised the top-10.

With his second Gander Trucks win in his 153rd series start, Chastain becomes Playoff eligible once he enters the top-20 in the championship driver standings. With five races remaining in the regular season, Chastain sits 26th overall.

Next up the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series stops at Chicagoland (Ill.) Speedway for the running of the Overton’s 225 on Jun. 28.

 Chris Knight – NASCAR Wire Service