Truex Jr. surges to fourth career Sonoma Raceway victory
SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. shows up at Sonoma Raceway each year brimming with the confidence only acquired by repeated success on a track.
Last summer, team owner Joe Gibbs admits he didn't give Truex a car capable of demonstrating his driver's mastery of this hilly road course.
One year and innumerable Toyota improvements later, Truex roared right back to Victory Lane in wine country.
Truex won at Sonoma for the fourth time in his NASCAR Cup Series career Sunday, passing Chase Elliott for the lead after a final-stage restart and holding off Kyle Busch.
The 42-year-old Truex confidently drove his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to another victory at the track where he also won in 2013, 2018 and 2019. Only Jeff Gordon has more victories (five) at Sonoma than Truex, who earned the 33rd win of his Cup career and his second in the last six races after winning at Dover.
Truex went winless in 2022, and the subpar Toyota cars and setups took most of the blame. Gibbs particularly remembers last year's trip to Sonoma as “one of the worst races we’ve had in our race team” in terms of setup and performance.
Truex finished 26th in Northern California last year, but the experience didn't budge his confidence.
“I knew I can navigate around this track,” Truex said. “Maybe I'm not the best driver at this track. I don't know. Maybe somebody else could go a tenth of a second faster in my car than I do. I doubt they could, but it's possible. But they're not going to be a second off like we were last year. When you're that far off, it's like, ‘Yeah, that was dumb. What were we even thinking (with that setup)?’ ... But I never thought we couldn't win again.”
Elliott finished fifth in his return from a one-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Hamlin at Charlotte. Elliott, who has missed seven races this season, twice held the lead in the final stage before Truex blew past him on fresher tires.
Truex has seven top-10 finishes in his last nine races, reflecting Toyota's improvement for 2023.
“You come to Sonoma with Martin Truex, and you expect to win," crew chief James Small said. “Thankfully, today we gave him a car, and he was able to do that. ... We have a better understanding of the car on road courses now. Everything just makes more sense. We don’t seem so stupid anymore. It’s nice from our end that we can start using logic."
Joey Logano was third behind Busch, with Chris Buescher in fourth. Elliott had his third top-five finish of the year, but is still winless.
Truex and Busch, who was 2.979 seconds behind in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, had the 11th 1-2 finish of their long Cup careers. They spent the previous four seasons as teammates at JGR, and Truex also held off Busch to win at Sonoma in 2019.
“Not too bad,” said Busch, who won last week's Cup race outside St. Louis. “Just wish we had a little bit more. I was just trying to keep him honest there at the end. ... It's good for us, because (Toyota is) so good on road courses. They've done the work. We did a good job keeping it competitive.”
Truex appeared to be cruising toward victory before pole-sitter Denny Hamlin spun after he made contact with the wall with 19 laps to go. Hamlin's car slid sideways across the start-finish line.
Elliott led coming out of the caution with 15 laps left, but Truex surged up on fresher tires and reclaimed the lead for good.
“I really think he’s confident when he comes here,” Gibbs said. “It really feels like he’s got a real feel with Sonoma. From time to time, drivers have a real confidence about some tracks, and he’s like that here.”
Truex first took the lead in the second stage. The race was caution-free until the 49th lap, when Busch took the lead by not pitting. Truex came out 10th, but first among the cars with fresh tires — and he tore through the field and reclaimed the lead with 42 laps to go.
Tyler Reddick started second in his bid to win for the fourth time in the Cup Series’ last six road course races, but the Northern California-born driver steadily slipped down the standings. He got back up to second in the final stage before his pit stop, but he blew a tire with 14 laps left.
Defending champion Daniel Suárez also struggled to make headway after starting in ninth, ultimately finishing 22nd. A year ago in Sonoma, Suárez became the first Mexican-born Cup driver to win a race.
Michael McDowell was in position to contend in the final stage, but he lost seven positions with a slow pit stop. He ultimately finished seventh, and he wasn't sure exactly what went wrong for his crew.
“That’s all it takes in the Cup Series,” McDowell said. “(Truex) was the car to beat all day, but I think we had the second-best car out here. If I’d rolled out of pit road first or second, I think we could’ve had a shot at it.”
After a one-week break, the Cup Series begins its 10-race sprint to the playoffs June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway.
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