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Before teaming up with Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Larson's road course record read like a guy who didn't know how to race them. Sonoma Raceway was the best example: three straight poles, from 2018-2020, and not a single top-five finish to show for it.

How quickly things have changed for him at HMS.

Larson used a combination of speed and strategy to cruise to his second Sonoma victory in four starts since taking over the HMS No. 5 car in 2021. Running down and passing Martin Truex Jr. down the stretch of the Toyota/Save Mart 350, Larson had the freshest tires and the best handling around this tricky 1.99-mile track when it mattered most.

He didn't panic when pushed back to 22nd in the midst of pit stop strategy. Instead, patience paid off as a race littered with yellow flags came together nicely for Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels in the final stage. The way in which they timed their stops left the No. 5 car with ground to make up but fresher tires and an ability to run the drivers ahead of him down with ease.

"Once it kind of cycled through that way and we had the clean track," Daniels said. "The way the field had spread out by that point and we kind of cycled through, I knew that with new tires and a lot of grip that Kyle was going to be really fast."

It's the third victory for Larson this season, tying teammate William Byron and Denny Hamlin for the most among all drivers. (Keep in mind Larson has one less start after failing to make Charlotte after the Indy 500). He also earned enough points to jump back into the championship lead by 14 over Hamlin, leaving him pole position for the regular-season title and whopping 15-point playoff bonus.

It's a right-turn revolution for Larson no one could have imagined four years ago. None of his NASCAR wins had come on this track type, posting just one career Cup top-five finish (way back in 2014) before joining up with HMS.

Now, Larson is suddenly the sport's best road course racer. He's won five times on them since the start of the 2021 season, more than anyone else, while totaling up nine top-five finishes.

The chemistry between Larson and Daniels is key to him gaining confidence at these tracks. Their bond remains as strong, if not stronger, than their initial 10-win championship season back in '21.

"I think we've had enough seat time together," Daniels said, "To know that as long as we can stay together, stay connected, to overcome whatever may or may not be going our way, that we can typically fight through to have a good result."

Their relationship keeps Larson grounded in this type of race the same way he remained calm through NASCAR's multi-week debate on whether to hand him a playoff waiver. To win so soon after Tuesday's decision to grant one was icing on the cake for a driver who's done it all the past month: sprint car victories, a top-five Indy 500 qualifying run and two Cup wins on very different tracks.

"It was really, really nice for me to get to come here this week [Sonoma] and get to just do nothing for one day and then just go be a normal tourist on Thursday," Larson explained. "It was just a very relaxing week."

Expect the good vibes to continue the next few days after he flew home with another trophy.

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Green: Ross Chastain. Trackhouse Racing may have gotten beat on the strategy game, but this car was the fastest they've brought to the track in months. A fifth for Chastain was his best finish since Las Vegas in March, his fourth straight top 15 and padded some breathing room for him on the playoff bubble (+73).

Yellow: Michael McDowell. Runner-up was, indeed, the first loser for McDowell, bumped to second when Truex ran out of gas down the stretch. It's the best finish for him since winning the Indianapolis road course last summer but also one spot short of that automatic bid he's going to need to make the playoffs.

Red: Australian road course ringers. There were high hopes from Down Under as Will Brown and Cam Waters, both stars in Supercars racing over there, tried their luck at the Cup Series.

Turns out they didn't have any. Brown fought a mechanical issue, finishing the race three laps down in 31st while Waters limped to the garage after suspension damage from a midrace crash.

Both, though, were undeterred in their efforts to be the next Shane van Gisbergen crossover into NASCAR.

"Whenever it fits into my schedule," Waters said, "I'd love to do a few more [races]."

Speeding Ticket: Joe Gibbs Racing. Could the day have gone any worse for JGR? Hamlin's engine broke just two laps into the race, causing the earliest Cup exit of his career. (Could the fact it was start No. 666 that had something to do with it?)

Moments later, Ty Gibbs joined him after a hard crash into the Turn 1 wall. Truex was then the best option to salvage things for this four-car operation. He charged from the back after an early spin, taking the lead only to lose it to Larson late.

Stuck in second on the white flag lap, the final insult was Truex running out of gas mere feet from the finish line. That left Christopher Bell (ninth) as the only JGR driver to technically finish the race.

"It stinks …" Truex said walking back to the garage. "Just one of them years, you know?"


Early on with the Next Gen, there were clear and obvious concerns about driver safety. But those have faded into the background as this chassis has found itself capable of withstanding damage like no other.

Take this crash involving Austin Cindric. Early on in the race, last week's winner almost flipped after spinning and sliding through the dirt.

In the past? That car would find itself towed back to the garage. Instead, Cindric fought back and was in contention for a top-15 finish at one point before another late-race incident left him 22nd. And he wasn't alone: Despite a surprising eight caution flags, just one driver (Waters) failed to finish the race because of a wreck and 27 drivers still ended the race on the lead lap.