Saturday's motor sports: Hendrick train rolls into Sonoma seeking 4th straight win
The Hendrick Motorsports train rolls into Sonoma Raceway on a three-race winning streak that pushed it past Petty Enterprises as NASCAR’s winningest organization.
Think the juggernaut will be stopped Sunday at NASCAR’s first visit to California in nearly two years?
It’s going to be tough.
Sure, Martin Truex Jr. is the two-time defending race winner dating to 2019, the final time before the pandemic that NASCAR stopped at the picturesque rolling road course in wine country. In the time since, though, reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott has become king of the road and the four Hendrick cars have hit a different dimension.
“I think we all look at them as being a really strong team and having really strong race cars consistently,” Truex said. “I think across the board they’ve been strong, all their teams, all their drivers at different tracks have been strong and winning races.”
Truex is the last non-Hendrick driver to win a race, nearly a month ago at Darlington Raceway. Since then it has been all Hendrick Motorsports, starting with an Alex Bowman 1-2-3-4 sweep at Dover. Elliott then got the win at Circuit of the Americas in Texas over teammate Kyle Larson when the race was called for rain, and Larson last Sunday beat Elliott at Charlotte to give Rick Hendrick his 269th Cup win – one more than Richard Petty-owned cars.
Out in wine country, Elliott will be seeking his first career victory at Sonoma. But six of his 12 career wins are on road courses, including five of the last six stops. Those six wins tie him for third on NASCAR’s all-time road course win list with Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace.
Sonoma was not good to him in four previous visits, with a fourth-place finish in 2018 Elliott’s best result. He led the first three laps of his career at Sonoma in 2019 but dropped out of the race 30 laps short of the finish with an engine issue.
“Sonoma is a place that I haven’t done a very good job in the past,” Elliott said. “It’s been a pretty big challenge for me. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been there, so it’s been a while. When we were there in 2019, I felt like we were doing a great job and in a good position before we had our mechanical issue, so I’m looking forward to getting back and having another shot at it.”
A.J. Allmendinger rallied from a penalty, benefitted from a late caution and used a sweeping three-wide pass for the lead to win the Xfinity Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Saturday’s victory was Allmendinger’s second of the season and came on what Kaulig Racing considers its home track. Team owner Matt Kaulig is from Akron, roughly 90 minutes away, and he jumped off the pit wall to hug Allmendinger after the win.
Kaulig then sought out Justin Haley and kissed him on the cheek in appreciation of the 1-2 finish for the race team.
“This is Matt Kaulig’s Super Bowl,” a breathless Allmendinger said.
Kaulig was joined on the pit stand Saturday by Indianapolis 500-winning team owner Michael Shank, another Ohio native who has a long relationship with Allmendinger. Shank has used Allmendinger as his endurance driver in sports car racing for 15 years, and Allmendinger anchored Shank’s breakthrough 24 Hours of Daytona victory in 2012.
“We’re at Matt Kaulig’s home race, we’ve got three Ohio sponsors on the car, we got Mike Shank here – Indianapolis 500-winning team – and he came here to see me,” Allmendinger said. “It’s just such a big deal. I always want to win, but here I put a lot more pressure on myself.”
Allmendinger had to rally after a pit-road penalty dropped him to 19th near the end of the second stage. He had worked his way up to third but still trailed reigning Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric by 13.2 seconds when he got a lucky break with seven laps remaining.
Jeb Burton spun and got his car stuck in gravel to bring out a caution and bunch the field back up. Cindric chose to restart on the outside with Ty Gibbs on his inside, and Allmendinger lined up in third one row back.
Allmendinger dove inside on the restart with four laps remaining and easily cleared both Cindric and Gibbs in a three-wide pass.
“I was going to fight until the checkered flag flew. I knew I had the best car,” Allmendinger said. “I was shocked that Cindric took the outside. I barreled it in there when I saw a gap and I came out on the other side clean.”
Cindric was bounced around like a pinball, knocked off course and fell to 26th. One more caution set up a two-lap overtime shootout and Cindric rallied to a 14th-place finish.
“K.” he tweeted after the race.
Gibbs finished third and also wasn’t pleased, tweeting: “I want a redo.”
They both fared better than Noah Gragson, who wrecked out of the race entering the very first turn seconds after the green flag flew. He said he’d spend the rest of the afternoon at his merchandise hauler meeting fans instead of battling for his first win of the season.
“It’s been a rough start to the year so far, I don’t really know what to do anymore,” Gragson said. “I’ve been trying everything. Hopefully it will turn eventually.”
Charles Leclerc won his second consecutive pole position, again under the red flag because a crash stopped qualifying, to earn the top starting spot for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix at Baku.
Leclerc set a time of 1 minute, 41.218 seconds early in Saturday’s third session. Championship leader Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were just starting their late flying laps when Yuki Tsunoda hit the wall and then Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz crashed right behind Tsunoda.
It brought an immediate end to the session and put Leclerc on pole for the second consecutive grand prix.
It was Leclerc who crashed his Ferrari to end qualifying at the Monaco Grand Prix two weeks ago, and even though he retained his starting position at his home track, repairs to his car were not completed in time and he did not race.
“It feels good, it feels better than Monaco, though it still doesn’t feel as good as a pole position should feel, just because of the red flag,” Leclerc said. “We definitely did not expect this type of performance so it’s looking good for the future.”
Leclerc arrived in Baku expecting to fight McLaren or be “even a little behind” rather than a challenger to title contenders Hamilton and Verstappen. He’s sixth in the standings and already 65 points behind leader Verstappen after his bizarre Monaco weekend.
But for the second consecutive race, Verstappen and Hamilton didn’t get a chance to challenge Leclerc. Tsunoda’s crash brought out the fourth red flag of the qualifying session and stopped their charge.
“To be honest, we didn’t expect to be as competitive as were this weekend until now,” Leclerc said.
Hamilton was .232 off the pace in second – a rebound after Mercedes had struggled to match Red Bull and Ferrari in practice. Verstappen took third, .113 back. Both could only speculate if they could have taken the pole from Leclerc.
“I can’t say that I would definitely have been quicker than Charles, but there was definitely time left on the table,” Hamilton said.
Verstappen called the session “stupid qualifying” and rued his lack of a slipstream on the long straight.
Red Bull and Mercedes have spent the week bickering over what Hamilton has called Red Bull’s “bendy” rear wing – it flexes at speed to reduce drag – and then Red Bull accused Mercedes of having its own questionable front wing.
Ferrari sidestepped the debate entirely and won the pole.
Mercedes’ lack of pace Friday had sparked speculation that even reaching the final qualifying shootout would be a challenge. In the end, Hamilton was shocked at how much his car had improved, but teammate Valtteri Bottas only qualified 10th. The Finn has less than half of Hamilton’s points after five races and has yet to beat Hamilton this season.
“We definitely weren’t expecting that because we’ve been struggling all weekend. You can definitely see it. We continue to have difficult discussions in the background and challenging one another and just never taking no for an answer,” Hamilton said of the turnaround.
“We’ve moved around and made so many changes over these two days, just chasing your tail has been so difficult. We really worked overnight and between the sessions and I’m really proud of everyone for keeping positive and to be up there and to be so close to these guys is a great start.”
Pierre Gasly of Red Bull’s sister team AlphaTauri was a surprise fourth, two thousandths of a second behind Verstappen. No such luck for Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Pérez. The Mexican driver was fastest across the three practice sessions and was expected to challenge for pole but instead was a disappointing seventh.
Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi both went off at the same corner in the first qualifying session before setting a time, and Daniel Ricciardo crashed in the second session. The Australian is in his first season with McLaren but has finished behind teammate Lando Norris in four of five races so far this year.