Breaking It Down: What Happened To Elliott, Larson In Sonoma?
In racing, it takes more than speed to win at the highest level. Unfortunately for Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, the only thing they had in Sunday’s Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway was speed.
Between misadventures and misfortunes, the two star drivers saw their chances of vying for victory vanish throughout the afternoon. Instead, they were forced to settle for 9th and 15th respectively, despite some of the fastest cars in the field.
Going into the race, Elliott and Larson looked set to have a perfect weekend. Hendrick’s teammates started side by side in the front row, with Larson securing pole for just the fourth time in his successful Cup Series career.
Adding to their prestige, the duo also topped the leaderboard in the only training session of the weekend. Between their well-established prowess on the road courses and their undeniably fast race cars, it seemed the safest bet in the sport was to bet on the two hot-shoes ahead of Sunday.
As soon as the green flag fell, the two sprinted away from the field as planned. With the way they managed to stand out from the competition while remaining tightly bonded to each other, the race was shaping up to be a two-man show.
That is, until the end of the first stage.
With the reality that a driver will not be overtaken during a green flag pit stop on road circuits coupled with the lure of stage points, teams must choose points or track position each time a step break is approaching.
This naturally shakes the marching order beyond recognition. In the case of Elliott and Larson, the end of the first stage is when the dominant duo split up. As Elliott pulled up under the green just before pit road closed, Larson opted to stay out, take the stage win and then pit cautiously.
With the two strategies separate, Elliott took the lead while Larson found himself mired in the pack in 24th on the restart.
After Larson led the first 26 laps of the race, Elliott picked up where his teammate left off as he would continue to lead the next 25 laps of the race in authoritative fashion. As Larson raced up the pitch, all indicators pointed to an impending thriller between teammates to decide the winner of Leg Three.
That is, until everything went terribly wrong.
Both drivers opted to pit before the second leg break to prepare for a solid position on the track to start the final leg. However, trouble first hit Elliott during his green-flag pitstop, his rear tire iron failing to fully tighten the lug nut.
The crew realized their mistake in no time and frantically called for Elliott to step back into his pit. Unfortunately for Elliott, he failed to reverse the nose of the car into the pit, earning him a penalty which he had to satisfy by restarting the race from the back of the field.
As for Larson, the only difference between his pit crew and Elliott’s was that Elliott’s crew realized their mistake. Larson had worked his way into the top five when on the next set of pit stops, his front tire changer sent Larson out with a loose wheel.
Moments later, Larson’s right front tire was seen bouncing on millions of TV screens across the country as he brought his three-tire car back down pit road.
With this, the deficit has become insurmountable.
There was simply no way to overcome such major setbacks as late in the race. Not only that, but Larson’s crew chief and two pit crew members must now serve a four-race suspension.
With the No.5 team already looking like a shell of themselves from last year, the error is a blow as they try to gain momentum and regain their rhythm.
Despite the setbacks, Larson and Elliott still had dominant speed and salvaged what they could on the day. Although 9th and 15th places are respectable, both riders went home knowing they were fast enough to take the win.
Two wheel nuts. That’s all it took to take the best cars in the hero realm to zero. It’s this slim margin of error that makes racing so exciting, yet heartbreaking at times.
Even if there is no change in races, there is always another race. Clearly the No.5 and No.9 camps can put their talented drivers in fast cars, but the question remains whether their pit crews will manage to return to championship form.
Ultimately, racing is a team sport. With Larson and Elliott being the last two Cup Series champions, expectations are high.
Even though Elliott still reigns atop the points standings, both superstars have struggled to win races this year. In a series where wins trump everything else, speed just won’t be enough to take Hendrick Motorsports to its third straight Cup championship.
While there’s no reason to press the panic button just yet, the margin for error will only shrink come playoff time when everything matters most.
Will the Hendrick side rise to the occasion or will they ruin their championship hopes? While there’s no way to tell right now, it’s abundantly clear what needs improvement if Hendrick has any hope of lifting the Cup in Phoenix at the end of the year.