Takeaways from Sonoma: Sticking to race strategy proved more important than stage points

From The Marbles

Welcome to our weekly post-race column of fire takes. Let’s see what’s in store this week after Sunday’s race at Sonoma.

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• Stages have made racing at road courses fairly straightforward. With two known caution periods throughout the race there isn’t as much variance in team strategies any longer. Every team plans to pit during or just before the two stage breaks.

[Truex wins at Sonoma]

And there wasn’t much variation among that strategy either in Sunday’s race at Sonoma. The cars at the front of the field pitted before the end of the the stages, choosing to sacrifice track position in the short-term to gain it back during the caution when others pitted. The cars who weren’t in the same zip code of the lead largely decided to stay out before the caution, gain the track position and the stage points in the short term and then start the fight back to the front after pitting during the caution.

The race’s two best cars, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, both pitted before the end of the stages. They didn’t get any stage points. Five drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Chris Buescher, Ryan Newman and Aric Almirola — got stage points at the end of both stages. Only Elliott (fourth) and Almirola (eighth) finished in the top 10.

The decision to eschew stage points was an easy one for Truex and Harvick. Since both drivers entered the race with wins and had the best cars throughout the course of the race, having a few stage points isn’t nearly as important as grabbing five playoff points for the victory. For drivers who didn’t have a chance of winning, the chance to grab stage points was an opportunity worth seizing.

The clear strategies were also impacted by a relatively caution-free race. The only non-stage break caution came five laps into stage two when AJ Allmendinger’s car stopped on track. The caution happened too early in the stage to jumble up pit strategies. Had there been a few more cautions on Sunday, who knows what the pit cycles would have looked like.

• Allmendinger’s team was one of the teams that appeared to fumble strategy at the end of stage one. Allmendinger qualified fifth and was running in the top five throughout the entire stage. He should have been one of the drivers choosing to pit before the stage concluded so he could race up front in stage two.

His team kept him out on the track through the duration of the stage. That resulted in a stage win for Allmendinger — and a playoff point if he makes the playoffs. But he first, you know, has to make the playoffs. And he’s nowhere close to making them, either with a win or via points.

Sunday’s race was one of Allmendinger’s two best chances for a win and the team should have played the race just like Truex and Harvick were. Did the poor strategy play a role in Allmendinger’s blown engine? He said he messed up the engine when he missed a shift trying to be patient in picking his way back through the field.

“I haven’t missed a shift in probably 10 years on a road course,” Allmendinger said. “The best gear boxes I have had since I’ve ever been here and I don’t know I just missed a shift. Just trying to be patient back there and set-up each move. The car was pretty good. I don’t know if it was race winning — we needed to work on the long run but believe me when it happened I was in a lot of disbelief and shock. I wasn’t ready for it and let everybody down on this race team.”

• Had Cody Ware’s car stopped on track earlier in the race, we think NASCAR would have called a caution. But since Ware’s car stopped in a turn 7 cut-through with three laps to go in the first stage, NASCAR decided to let the stage finish.

We’ve seen just how much NASCAR values green-flag finishes to stages, but letting a car sit alongside the race track for three laps to ensure a green-flag finish to a stage is a dangerous proposition. On Saturday night Truck Series race officials stopped the race with seven laps to go because Ben Rhodes’ truck was stopped on the access road to pit road.

Rhodes’ truck was deserving of a caution. But he was just as much out of the way as Ware’s car was and he wasn’t blocking pit lane. And by calling a caution for Rhodes’ truck when it did, NASCAR knew it was going to have another chance to restart the race.

There was no such chance to restart the stage if a caution was called for Ware’s car. And that’s a slippery slope. How many laps would NASCAR have let a car sit in that same spot if it happened on lap 13 and not lap 23? Certainly a caution would be called before it sat there for three laps starting on lap 13, right? It’s sometimes hard to figure out when safety trumps entertainment and vice versa.

• Sunday was Fox’s final Cup Series broadcast of the 2018 season. And it was not a good way to go out. The lack of race strategy comprehension was mindboggling at times even if the various strategies playing out were simpler than they used to be before stages were implemented.

A perfect example of the lack of comprehension was when Truex’s team pulled its race-winning bluff on Harvick’s. Instead of telling viewers how many seconds a driver loses on pit road to cars on track — roughly 40-42 seconds by our basic calculations — there was no way for viewers to have any idea if Truex’s move was going to work out without calculating that number themselves or waiting the eight laps until Truex stopped after Harvick.

Fox has kept Larry McReynolds around for important strategy moments like what was transpiring in the late laps on Sunday. And there was no attempt at providing viewers an explanation of what was happening on their TV screens.

The network also missed Daniel Suarez’s spin on the last lap. It wasn’t shown until the post-race coverage when Suarez was interviewed about the incident.

The broadcast also said that Ryan Blaney’s car didn’t have power steering and that he made multiple pit stops due to arm cramps because of the lack of power steering.

Play-by-play announcer Mike Joy apologized for what he termed was an overstatement even though there’s no indication Blaney complained of cramping at any point in the race.

NBC takes over the NASCAR schedule for the rest of the season starting with next week’s race at Chicago. NBC isn’t perfect, but its far less kitschy than Fox and far more informative. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his analyst debut, we’re excited to see if NBC’s coverage outpaces Fox’s yet again.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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