Livescore Sunday, April 21

SONOMA, Calif. — Five thoughts after this weekend’s NASCAR events at Sonoma Raceway …

1. Big Takeaway

We shouldn’t be surprised. The Next Gen car, which just saw its cousin complete the 24 Hours of Le Mans, is a sports car disguised as a stock car. So on road courses, it’s quite good compared to its predecessor.

Is it too good? Well, that might be part of the equation at places like Sonoma — a natural road course compared to a place like the Roval or Indianapolis. But the car itself doesn’t account for the entire reason why Sonoma had a relatively uneventful race on Sunday.

It’s also the drivers themselves. When there were only two road races per season, there was little incentive for drivers to go hone their craft (which at the time required testing at a place like Virginia International Raceway or a trip to a racing school). But now, with six road courses on the schedule, drivers have little choice but to make sure they’re up to speed — and can improve during simulator sessions without having to leave the Charlotte area.

And when you put talented drivers in cars much more suited to road racing — and on flowing courses like Sonoma that don’t have insane corners — well, you get races like Sunday. Drivers aren’t making as many errors and, when they do, there’s less of a penalty.

“This track in particular is so technical and low-grip that you have to drive at 80 percent not to spin out by yourself,” Michael McDowell said. “So you’re not pushing 10 tenths and making huge mistakes; the mistakes you’re making are all low-speed. They cost you a little bit of time, but you’re not going to hit anything.”

Chris Buescher said the old car was so outdated, it led to a bigger penalty for the mistakes. The Next Gen limits that, so the race was more about long runs and F1-style strategy.

Sunday’s race had just one caution for an incident (Denny Hamlin crashed after hitting the wall). The other caution was for a tire sitting in the middle of pit road. Yes, there were a couple minor spins and some contact, but nothing like we used to see.

“There’s a lot less wheel hop with these cars,” A.J. Allmendinger said. “That’s why you (used to) see a lot of cars start spinning late in a run and we don’t have that now. And even though the lap times fall off (due to tire wear), you’re still able to drive the race car — whereas the old car or even the Xfinity car (on Saturday), it’s like the tires go off and you’re driving on ice and it’s easy to make a mistake.”

Sonoma’s racing hasn’t been particularly memorable for a few years now, despite track and NASCAR efforts to spice it up. First, officials brought back the “Carousel” layout for the 2019 race and used it again in 2021. That didn’t change much, so they reverted to the current layout last year.

Then NASCAR eliminated stage breaks for road courses this year and restored the aero package to mid-1990s levels. But Sunday’s race was dry enough to leave some wondering if taking away two guaranteed cautions was a mistake (an opinion we don’t share, for the record).

“I don’t know why we took the stage cautions away, if I’m being honest. I don’t really get it,” Joey Logano said. “Personally, I’d rather have the cautions as long as the restarts are at a track like this.

“At a track like COTA or even when we go to Chicago, restarts are gonna be a disaster. But when you look at Watkins Glen or Sonoma, we never had problems for years because the first couple of corners are flowing and you can straighten things out before you get into a heavy braking zone.”

Either way, the car isn’t going to change anytime soon. There isn’t much else that can be done on road courses, one would think. The racing seems to either be chaotic, like when everyone piles into Turn 1 at COTA and Indianapolis, or calm like at Sonoma, with relatively little middle ground.

As Chase Elliott put it: “I guess it’s just kind of how it’s going to be now.”

2. Main Character: Martin Truex Jr.

He could have walked away after last season and few would have questioned it. Martin Truex Jr. turns 43 this month, has won a championship and easily has enough wins to be a lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

And last year, when Truex went winless for the first time since 2014 while his plans remained in doubt until late June, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he decided he wanted to spend more time fishing than racing. He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself at all, even after deciding to return for another season.

But despite missing the playoffs, Truex not only came back but kept his team intact as a vote of confidence in his group. There was a belief that his crew, with origins in the Cole Pearn Era and now led by James Small, could find its speed again with relatively few tweaks.

That’s certainly proven to be the case in 2023 so far, as Truex looks right back in form. He now has two wins in points races, a victory in the Clash exhibition race and after Sunday moved into sole possession of second on Sonoma’s all-time wins list (just one behind Jeff Gordon, who won there five times).

Truex has also won three of the last five Sonoma races, which was easy to forget after his No. 19 team absolutely stunk at the Northern California track last year. Actually, Truex didn’t lead a single lap at any road course in 2022.

But that was one of the classic cases where it was the car, not the driver, and Truex said he never doubted his own ability in that moment.

“(Even if) I’m not the best driver at this track — maybe somebody else could go a tenth of a second faster in my car — (I’m) not going to be a second off like we were last year,” he said. “You don’t even question it. When you’re that far off, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that was dumb. What were we thinking?’”

But drivers in their 40s all go through the inevitable decline. So if you thought Truex was on the way down, you probably weren’t alone. Jimmie Johnson, who is on NASCAR’s Mt. Rushmore, quickly won three races coming off of a championship season — then never won again for the final three and a half years of his full-time career.

So how are we to know when a driver suddenly stops winning? We can’t say, but we do know this: Truex is still quite capable. In fact, he’s retained one of his calling cards: If he has a winning car, he’ll often crush the field in the process of rolling to a victory.

“We never gave up believing in each other,” Truex said. “We had to work harder, be smarter, make better decisions. You put better cars with that, the next thing you know, you’re winning races, leading laps again.

“I never thought we couldn’t win another race. Sometimes you think you may not win another race, but we know we are capable.”

3. Question of the Week

Between some massive penalties and the public display of illegal parts, officials are trying to send a strong message about not messing with the Next Gen car. But will it work? Can NASCAR truly change the culture in the garage?

That depends on who you ask.

“It definitely scares teams straight,” Brad Keselowski said. “It scares owners straight. It has an effect. Partners call their teams and say, ‘Look, guys, I don’t like this.’ It’s working. It might not work immediately, but it is working.”

The results aren’t obvious yet. Two of the random cars NASCAR took back to its R&D center for a full teardown recently — two teams who haven’t been running well, at that — turned out to have illegal parts. Erik Jones’ No. 43 team was penalized last week for a modification to the greenhouse area and Chase Briscoe’s No. 14 was slammed earlier this month by what NASCAR’s Brad Moran called “the biggest penalty in NASCAR history.”

The counterfeit part from Briscoe’s team was shown to reporters at Sonoma, and NASCAR said it was a clear fake. Though the 3D-printed duct looked similar to the real thing at first glance, inspectors were able to identify it before even using a template to confirm their suspicions — this thanks in part to what Moran said were small, built-in defects that help officials find fraudulent parts.

And as was the case with a penalty to Austin Dillon’s team last month, NASCAR has increased its transparency by going public with exactly what the infraction was. Drivers heartily endorsed the procedure, including Dillon (who said he “loved” the practice and wished NASCAR could go back in time to show more).

“It’s good they show that stuff,” Ryan Blaney said. “You’ve got to put it out there to the world because that’s how you police it more and more.”

But these illegal parts are being discovered at the R&D Center during a full teardown, which NASCAR only does for two cars a week (it requires completely disassembling the car, so there’s no way officials could conduct such a thorough inspection on even a quarter of the field each week). Many of these infractions cannot be detected at the track.

That begs the question: If even mid-pack teams are doing things like this, what must the top teams be doing to find speed?

“I guarantee you that you could take 15 (cars) after every single race and there would be something wrong with 14 of them,” Kyle Busch said. “It’s all the tricks and what you’re trying to do and what you can get away with, all of the time.”

But that doesn’t mean every team is breaking the rules, at least according to Ross Chastain. After seeing the rash of penalties to others, Chastain said he asked his team: “Should I be worried?”

The response, he said, was Trackhouse Racing puts together the cars to the best of their ability with the pieces given to them. Do they maximize everything to the thousandth of an inch? Of course, he said. But to modify a single-source supplier part or even create a copy?

“There will be 140 surprised people (at the Trackhouse shop) if something is ever caught on ours,” Chastain said. “That’s not to say something couldn’t be put on wrong, but no, I don’t think you should assume we’re all cheating.”

4. Trash and Treasure

Trash: Only one off-weekend.

Aside from Super Bowl Sunday between the season-opening Clash and the Daytona 500, next weekend marks the lone Cup Series dark date of 2023. That’s 37 races in 38 weeks, with a stretch of 20 straight to close the season.

Fans never want to hear drivers or teams complain about their heavy schedule or the grind, of course. That’s what they signed up for! They’re getting paid well! They get to travel!

But even for those who live to race, the relentlessness of the schedule is a lot. Even one more break in the calendar would be nice; until recently, Easter was always an off-weekend and the traditional summer off-weekend used to fall in mid-July.

And yet drivers are conflicted on how to approach their only chance for a break this year.

“As much as I would love to go on vacation, with Chicago coming up and what’s ahead on our schedule, you don’t want to get behind by taking the off-week off,” Tyler Reddick said. “But we only get one of them, right? I’d hate to feel like I got burnt out a month from now and go, ‘Dang, why didn’t I just completely unplug?’”

Reddick’s teammate Bubba Wallace is planning to vacation in Hawaii with his wife, Amanda, in an attempt to lay low and chill, but he found it challenging to truly disconnect even while on his honeymoon. Racing has a way of invading drivers’ minds, which Wallace has experienced while trying to take some days off during this season of jam-packed commitments.

“(Last week) I woke up at 2 a.m. looking at notes for (Sonoma) and getting worked up over small things,” he said. “We’re so wired and programmed to do that. I’m going to try and work on that more. It’s been stressful.”

Because of the demands on their time, some drivers don’t want to do a thing during the break. Ryan Blaney said he simply wants to stay put (“Haven’t been home for a weekend since the start of the year,” he said).

But Chastain has four flights booked in the first half of the week — including a trip to Indianapolis to run sports cars in preparation for the Indy road course race. That said, Chastain also plans to squeeze in a visit home to Florida.

“I’ll go eat some peach cobbler from my Meemaw and I’ll be good,” he said.

Treasure: Agree to disagree.

In the “trash” spot of this column last week, we noted not every wreck means it was intentional — this after Austin Dillon said Austin Cindric purposefully wrecked him at Gateway and should be suspended.

But let’s also acknowledge not everyone will agree on the circumstances that led to the wreck, and even with the help of SMT data, there are sometimes no clear answers.

That seemed to be the case with Dillon and Cindric, who said they had a 15-to-20-minute “agree to disagree” conversation about their wreck at Gateway last week. Dillon said he appreciated the talk, but still didn’t accept Cindric’s explanation of no intent.

“In the end, I do think I was turned,” Dillon said. “He intentionally turned me from his frustrations on a restart earlier. I feel like he carried that anger into the wreck.

“When you do things maliciously, stuff like that comes around. I’m not one who is going to go make it right (with payback), but I know when I get to a guy who has done me wrong, I’m going to have less patience than I would someone else.”

Fair enough, and Dillon said he accepted NASCAR’s decision not to penalize Cindric for the incident because officials “were in a tighter margin box” compared to the Chase Elliott/Denny Hamlin crash at Charlotte.

But Cindric, who first explained his side on social media last week, doubled down on his insistence there was no ill intent in the crash itself (for what it’s worth, that is how we also saw the incident).

“The contact we had on the green-flag run prior, it wasn’t at a point where I was going to take matters into my own hands, but it was certainly at a point where I was not willing to give someone an inch,” Cindric said. “I’ve been called many things and it doesn’t bother me. But when it’s (a question) of what I intended to do? I know that. I know what that is.

“When it’s an (outside opinion) on what I’m doing, it’s more of a judgment of my character because (wrecking someone on purpose) is a decision I would have had to make — and that’s not a decision I made.”

5. Five at No. 5

• Some Chase Elliott fans have been getting louder about blaming crew chief Alan Gustafson for the No. 9 team’s inconsistent speed this season, but their favorite driver certainly does not share that opinion. Elliott went out of his way to mount a strong defense of his crew chief during the Sonoma weekend.

“Look, A.G. is the man and I’ve been saying that for a long time,” Elliott said. “He brings a lot to the table that you guys and the public aren’t ever gonna see. And that’s because he’s just not someone who talks about it. He’s a guy who would rather work in silence and just make sure he’s doing his part and bringing his best effort to the racetrack, and I love that about him.

“He’s certainly had my back, I’ve always tried to have his and we’ve just always let each other do our jobs and try to have as much fun as we can while we’re doing it. He’s a huge piece of the puzzle and I’m grateful for our relationship and the time and the effort and the amount of work he puts in for our team, because I certainly notice it and I appreciate it. And I know the rest of our team does, too.”

• Speaking of Elliott, there are now just 10 races remaining for him to win his way into the playoffs after missing nearly half the season (first with a broken leg, then with a one-race suspension). But Elliott said being in a must-win situation is something he’s embracing instead of stressing about.

“(Ten) opportunities to go win, I think it’s very feasible — and kind of fun, too, at the same time,” he said. “Looking forward to the challenge.”

Can he do it? As a reminder, here are the remaining races before the playoffs begin: Nashville, Chicago street course, Atlanta, New Hampshire, Pocono, Richmond, Michigan, Indianapolis road course, Watkins Glen and Daytona. That’s three road courses, three intermediate-style tracks, two superspeedways, a one-mile flat track and a short track.

• Chastain was fortunate with the timing of a caution at Sonoma and turned it into a top-10 finish — his first since May 7 at Kansas. Though the Trackhouse driver recently tumbled from first to fifth in the standings, he said his team still has the speed to easily climb back into the points lead despite a string of disappointing results.

“As quick as we went to fifth, we can go right back to first, so I’m not worried,” said Chastain, who moved up to fourth after Sonoma. “It’s pretty cool to be in that position.”

• NASCAR announced a series of safety enhancements following the April 23 crash at Talladega which saw Ryan Preece’s car make a cockpit intrusion into Kyle Larson’s side door. The changes included allowing teams to cut slots into the frame rails, which crash tests showed will lessen their stiffness and create more crush zones when there’s a hard impact.

One thing we really liked, in addition to the speed of the changes (which must be implemented prior to the next superspeedway race at Atlanta): NASCAR went public with the crash test videos, including an in-car shot that demonstrated how the alterations would help the cockpit hold up in an incident of similar speed and angle in the future.

• After racing Elliott’s car for a week, Corey LaJoie said the biggest thing he learned was how much information he lacked compared to drivers at powerhouse teams. Though he said all the data could be “noisy” and feel overwhelming if you didn’t know what to prioritize, LaJoie compared it to having a dripping faucet for six years that suddenly becomes a firehose. Even though the hose was then shut off after his brief Hendrick Motorsports stint, LaJoie is hoping to get more driver notes, graphs and other “data I didn’t know existed” from Chevrolet.

“I left there thinking, ‘I can do this with the right group and the right motivated people as we acquire those things,’” he said.

(Photo: Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

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