Napa Valley's wine country brought the rich and famous out to Sonoma Raceway for the NASCAR Cup Series. San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan gave the command to start engines, Food Network star Guy Fieri drove the pace car while 23XI Racing co-owner Michael Jordan came to watch from the pit box.
NASCAR's championship contenders responded in a race that saw the cream rise to the top. Long gone are the days of 10 winners in the first 11 races. Since then, it's been a handful of drivers emerging as favorites to battle in the Championship 4 come Phoenix Raceway in November.
Kyle Larson leads the way, posting back-to-back wins Sunday for the first time in an eight-year Cup career. He's swept every stage since Memorial Day Weekend, racking up a perfect 130 points while scoring his first ever road course victory. The fact that it came just 90 minutes from where he grew up in Elk Grove, just outside Sacramento, was icing on the cake.
Just how good has Larson been?
"I didn't really have to run 100%," he said to get the win. "I could run 95%, just limit my mistakes a little bit better."
Teammate and reigning NASCAR champion Chase Elliott was runner-up, making it the fourth straight race HMS swept the top two spots. After a bumpy start, Elliott now looks title worthy again with four straight podium finishes the past month.
Martin Truex Jr., the third-place finisher Sunday, has three wins to tie Larson for the most this season. All of them occurred with the handling package they'll use at Phoenix in the finale.
"They're [Hendrick] really strong and we definitely have some work to do to catch them," Truex said after snapping a three-race slump of runs outside the top 20. "That being said, there's always a chance … we have some time to get with it and hopefully make some gains. Luckily for us, we have some good tracks in the Playoffs."
Then there's Joey Logano, running fourth for Team Penske and the highest-placed Ford driver in the standings. With three Championship 4 appearances the last five years, including the 2018 title, he's sitting in prime position to make a run.
"Everything goes through cycles," Logano said. "We've just got to make sure we're on the top end of the cycle when the playoffs come around."
Add in fifth-place Kyle Busch, posting his fourth top-5 finish in six races, and you'll see why Sonoma was a who's who of heavyweight contenders breaking away from the pack. All these men except for Larson are Cup champions already, while virtually everyone thinks Larson has the best car right now.
Which one of the five gets left out come November? That's another story altogether. But it's clear there's some separation happening in a season that started with such parity back in the spring.
Green: Chad Knaus. Knaus' name isn't mentioned enough with Hendrick's recent dominance atop the leaderboard. The seven-time Cup champion came off the pit box to become the Vice President of Competition of all four teams this year. What resulted? The first 1-2-3-4 finish in team history last month and the most consecutive wins for the company since 2014.
"When you take someone of his depth and his experience in racing," said Hendrick GM Jeff Andrews, "[Mix it with] the youth on the front side of our company… I can't say enough about the role Chad's taken on, what he's been doing."
Yellow: Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. These two drivers combined to win a NASCAR-best 16 of 36 races in 2020. Well, 16 races into this year they're still winless. Both are safely in the playoffs, but shouldn't expect to advance unless they find a way to get up front.
Red: Aric Almirola. The amount of bad luck is just comical for the No. 10 team at this point. Not known for his strength on road courses, Almirola had quietly put together a top-15 effort before (surprise, surprise) he was an innocent victim in a late-race wreck. The 27th-place finish was his sixth straight outside the top 20 for a driver that's a whopping 186 points behind the playoff cutline.
Speeding Ticket: Noah Gragson. Gragson remains the biggest head-scratcher in any of NASCAR's top three divisions. One of the sport's controversial personalities has real talent and is often whispered about for a 2022 Cup promotion. Yet he couldn't make it more than a lap in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Mid-Ohio after losing visibility and slamming the dirt. Sitting winless this year, he's just 15 points above the playoff cutline and faces real risk of missing the postseason with top-level equipment.
Front Row Motorsports was in position to put two cars inside the top 10 Sunday. Anthony Alfredo was in position for his best career finish until Christopher Bell spun in front of him.
That left Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell the only hope for the two-car team. He was moments away from a top 10 of his own until Daniel Suarez punted the No. 34 on the final turn.