Drivers leave Sonoma thinking about what could have been

SONOMA, Calif. — Throughout pit road, the thought of what might have been was rife after Martin Truex Jr. earned his second Cup win of the season Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

Even if everything went well for the competitors, it would still have been difficult to beat Truex and his team Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex led 51 of 110 laps and won by almost three seconds.

For Michael McDowell, it was a slow pit stop that cost him seven places and ended any chance of winning.

McDowell was third when the warning came on lap 93 for the Denny Hamlin crash. McDowell left pit road 10th. With three cars not in the pits, McDowell left 13th.

“We had good saves all day, (but) the money save just didn’t go the way we needed it to,” McDowell said after his seventh-place finish. “That’s all it takes in the Cup Series. We had a fast car today. We tried our luck. If we had come out of pit road in second or third place, we would have a chance of winning the race. I’m not saying we would have – because (Truex) was the car to beat all day – but I felt like we had the second best car.

A win would have put McDowell in the playoffs. Instead, he’s 19th in points but still has 10 races – including the Chicago street race, road events at Watkins Glen and Indianapolis and the regular season finale at Daytona – to earn a win before the start of the playoffs.

Kyle Busch was looking for what would have been a fourth win of the season on Sunday and more playoff points, but he had to settle for second place and a stage win.

“I just wish we had a little more,” said Busch, whose second-place finish on Sunday followed his win the previous week at WWT Raceway. “I tried to keep Martin Truex, Jr. honest. I felt like I could beat him a little on one round, then I was wrong and he beat me some more on the next round. We traded a little , but he managed to pull away late.

Kyle Larson had one of the best cars this weekend, but his race turned when the warning was waved on lap 51 for an errant tire that was in the middle of pit road. The caution came amid a green-flag pit cycle. He still had to stop before the warning. After that he started 18th and spent the rest of the race trying to get back into the top 10. He finished eighth.

“We fought hard to get back to (ninth),” Larson said of his position before Hamlin’s crash brought caution to the fore. “Again, there were people who stayed out. It just didn’t work out, but our race car was really good, I was happy with that.

Larson recalled Saturday’s qualifying session when he failed to qualify for the final moto and started Sunday’s race 16th.

“I think if I had qualified better,” he said, “it would have been a different result, maybe.”

Ross Chastain was one of those who benefited from this warning on lap 51. He had not raced higher than 12th at that point. Chastain was on pit road when the warning came out. This allowed him to start fourth. Stage two ended two laps after the restart and he placed third. Chastain was sixth when Hamlin wrecked and restarted eighth after pit stops.

“It’s definitely not the speed we wanted or the balance, we were just too loose,” Chastain said.

But after three consecutive finishes outside the top 20, Chastain scored a top 10.

“Everyone is sticking bumper to bumper at the end of Turn 11,” Chastain said of the race’s end. “That was all we had to hang on to in 10th.”

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