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Kyle Larson Prepared for Strong Sunday at Sonoma Raceway

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson (No. 5) start fifth for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo: Aaron Brink | The Podium Finish)

SONOMA, Calif. — Throughout Kyle Larson‘s tenure with Hendrick Motorsports, he has become a formidable road course warrior. Larson’s success on the winding, serpentine tracks of the NASCAR Cup Series started off with a win at Sonoma Raceway in 2021.

In the 31-year-old’s nine prior starts at the 1.99-mile road course, Larson’s excelled in qualifying with an average start of 3.7, increasing slightly to 3.8 when considering Saturday’s qualifying session. Although Larson’s average finish is 14.3, it drops to 8.0 when considering solely his starts with the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports efforts since 2021.

Before Larson took to the track to qualify fifth for Sunday’s 110-lap race, he was appreciative to have the waiver discussions conclude earlier this week.

“Yeah, I mean obviously there’s definitely relief on my end, even though I really wasn’t paying a ton of attention to it, to the waiver,” Larson said. “At least now, knowing that I do, personally, get to race for a championship feels good. Yeah, I mean, I know there was a lot that went into it on NASCAR’s end; a lot of discussion and just wanting it to be right. I think we all, probably even them, figured we would get the waiver.

“I think they were just trying to make sure they had all their ducks in a row first. Yeah, I’m appreciative of it, for sure. Look forward to getting through this weekend and hopefully, after this press conference, not have to talk about waivers again. It feels good and just thankful that nobody has to deal with the drama going forward.”

Larson clarified his stance on the matter of the waiver to remain Playoff eligible as a driver. Even with his mild mannered nature, he considered the big picture before his individual situation in his No. 5 Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.

“Yeah, I cared. But the thing that I cared most about was the owner’s championship, at least in that moment, because that’s what pays the bills,” he explained. “So that’s kind of where I was coming from there.

“I was a little less stressed out about it than I think what everybody would imagine you to be. But yeah, I’m just happy that if I do win the championship now, I can have my name on the record books.”

Along with remaining eligible for the Playoffs with his 17 Playoff points against points leader Denny Hamlin’s 18, Larson is back home in Northern California. With his hometown of Elk Grove being about 84 miles to the East of the famed road course, it was more than a return to home turf and some daytime relaxation, in a matter of speaking.

“I always love coming here to Sonoma Raceway,” he said. “Home track or not, it’s just a great area. Really just kind of spend this week as a vacation and then there happens to be a race on the weekend. Yeah, we came out here Wednesday morning. It’s really been the first – like Wednesday and Thursday were the first two days off I’ve had off in I don’t even know how long. So, I was happy to lay by the pool all day on Wednesday and do some day drinking.. haven’t gotten to do that in awhile.

“Brought William Byron out here too and got to go do some wine tasting; took him on his first wine tour on Thursday. Got to have dinner with David and Matteo Abreu. So, it was just a fun couple of days.”

In terms of the manners of racing, the freshly repaved Sonoma Raceway was more of the same from Larson’s perspective even with the lap times being over a second faster than the previous track record that he set in 2019 of 74.598 seconds.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson makes his way through the famed esses of Sonoma Raceway on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Photo: Aaron Brink | The Podium Finish)

“Got to get on track (Friday); see what the new surface felt like,” Larson recalled. “It’s weird.. you’re going out there seconds faster, but to me, it doesn’t feel any different. Like the way you drive it, even the lap times being faster, it doesn’t feel way faster to me. It still feels kind of like a slower road course. Yeah, that was interesting, but it should hopefully race good.”

Although Sonoma’s track surface may be fresh, Larson does not overlook the details, particularly when it comes to managing tires and keeping them as cool as possible. Track position will be a priority in terms of setting up for a strong running position ahead of each stage.

“Well, I think, yes – I think there’s still always tire management,” he said. “Maybe before it was more managing the heat and wear. Now, we’re probably just more – we’re doing it the same way. You’re not wearing the tire; you’re just managing the heat. To me, I don’t foresee a stint to look much different in how you approach your driving technique. I think you’re still going to try and slip the tire as little as possible.

“Yeah, it was tough to pass before.. the last couple of years of the Next Gen car. I think it will be just as tough now. I really don’t feel like the racing is going to look any different than it did before. Yeah, I don’t know… I think repaves – like we’re less sad, or at least I’m less sad, about a repave at a road course than I would be at an oval, just because road courses are already pretty tough to pass.”

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson (No. 5) leads Kyle Busch (No. 8) going into the Chute at Sonoma Raceway on Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Photo: Aaron Brink | The Podium Finish)

Admittedly, Larson may not know where things stand on his No. 5 team’s pit strategies. Still, with Cliff Daniels, Larson’s crew chief, in tune with his analytical perspectives on maximizing a race day, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion is not too worried.

Particularly, Larson has solid track position to start Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).

“I’m not sure on the strategy piece yet,” Larson said. “I haven’t talked to Cliff (Daniels) or the engineers about that. But I’m imagining, if it’s like a typical road course, you flip the stages.

“If you qualify well and are running upfront, you can flip the stages and still get pretty good stage points. Maybe not the stage win, but you can still get good points throughout the day.”

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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