Two previous recurring themes to the NASCAR Cup Series season returned Sunday at Sonoma: A first-time winner emerged, and pit crews left something to be desired. Consequently, Chase Elliott’s day went down the drain in the pits, Daniel Suarez went to Victory Lane, and Kyle Larson’s crew chief is going to NASCAR jail for a month.
Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson dominated early but to no avail
The Toyota/Save Mart 350 began as a Hendrick Motorsports intramural competition on Sunday at Sonoma. Kyle Larson led the first 26 laps, winning the first stage in the process. Chase Elliott then took over to lead the next 26 laps, but crew chief Alan Gustafson made the call to forego stage points and bring the car in for tires eight laps short of the second break.
The idea was to sacrifice places now to be in position by late in the 50-lap third stage to compete for Elliott’s eighth career win on a road course. Instead, the pit crew didn’t get the left-rear lug nut properly secured, a fact they caught on Elliott’s way out of the pit box. Elliott backed the No. 9 Chevy up 15 feet, and the team re-jacked the car and secured the wheel.
Unfortunately, Elliott should have backed up an additional 24 inches. Though all four tires were in the team’s box, the front of the car was hanging over the line while the crew tended to the wheel. The infraction sent Elliott to the back of the field on the restart, leaving him too little time to work his way back into contention on a day in which Daniel Suarez did everything right in the end.
It was Larson’s turn midway through the final stage when he lost a wheel on the track two laps after pitting. The defending Cup Series champion can count on losing crew chief Cliff Daniels and two team members for the next four races as the standard NASCAR penalty. By NBC Sports’ count, it will be the 10th time this season that NASCAR has had to impose the sanction on a team for the same issue.
The pit crew repeatedly undermined Chase Elliott last season
Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, who started the day on the front row at Sonoma, finished eighth and 15th, respectively. With no actual issues during the race other than the flub by his pit crew, Elliott should have booked a much better result, possibly even winning. Larson could make a similar case.
Then again, Elliott should be used to his team failing him. It happened time and time again last season as he attempted to defend his NASCAR Cup Series championship. He lost points and grid positions through no fault of his own way too often:
- Five loose lug nuts, back in the days of five lug nuts per wheel, at Nashville in June 2021 cost him 37 of his 38 race points plus a stage point applicable to the playoffs.
- The crew failed to put the proper sealed engine in the No. 9 Chevy at New Hampshire, triggering a 25-point penalty.
- A 10-point penalty at Watkins Glen after the pre-race inspection turned up an issue with the rear window air deflector. Elliott went to the back of the pack, and crew chief Alan Gustafson had to miss the race.
The loss of 72 points was a harsh setback, and he lost untold additional stage and finish points by having to start from the back five times in the regular season because of inspection failures or the need to make unapproved repairs before the start of the race.
Many teams are having issues in the pits or even just getting cars through inspection this season. But it’s supposed to be different at Hendrick Motorsports, with its star-studded lineup of drivers and crew chiefs, all financed by an owner willing to spend whatever it takes to win.