The Top Five: Breaking down the Sonoma race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway…

1. Trick Play

Rodney Childers climbed down from the pit box with his headset still on, bent down to tie his shoes and tapped the button on his radio.

“I kind of let everybody down,” he told driver Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team.

“All good,” Harvick replied. “Always want to win, but that stuff happens.”

“That stuff” was getting duped by an unusual case of trickery that likely cost Harvick the race on Sunday.

Here’s how it went down.

The No. 4 was the fastest car — as has been the case so often this season — with Martin Truex Jr. as the second best.

With that in mind, Truex crew chief Cole Pearn pulled off an Oscar-worthy performance to try and lure Harvick into the pits. He told Truex to pit and had the crew jump on the wall like a pit stop was about to happen, then called Truex off.

It didn’t work the first time. So then Pearn tried it again — he told Truex to pit, then reversed the call before Truex came down pit road. Truex had no idea what was going on (there was no code language or anything), but just knew to trust his crew chief.

This time, Pearn’s ploy worked. Childers — who was scanning the No. 78 team’s radio — took the bait and called Harvick to the pits earlier than originally planned, which opened the door for Truex to then stay out longer.

In turn, that gave Truex an advantage late in the race with fresher tires, which he used to easily pass Harvick.

“We’re in California — they went to acting school this week,” Truex said with a grin. “They were in L.A. for a couple days on the off weekend learning how to do screenplays and such.”

Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone said he was aware of what Pearn was trying to do and termed it as a “flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” call when it appeared the No. 4 car was going to win out if the race went green.

“Obviously the first time we called it, it didn’t work,” Garone said. “So it was really cool that we were able to call it the second time. What a great move by Cole.”

Pearn downplayed the move and said it was just a product of road-course racing. where a fake-out has a longer window of opportunity to work. Childers echoed that sentiment, saying road courses are the best place to try a move because “you’ve got time to react.”

Unfortunately for Childers, he did react — even though he had been determined not to let another team influence his strategy.

I’ve been preaching for two days to not worry about what everybody else was doing,” he said. “… We could have just turned the scanners off altogether and just ran our race. Probably would have been better off.”

Harvick, though, gave Childers his full support. He walked over to the crew chief and patted him on the back afterward, and the two spent several minutes speaking to one another.

“He shouldn’t beat himself up over a pit call,” Harvick said.

2. Fair game?

Was Pearn’s fake-out a cheap move? Childers didn’t think so at all and instead tipped his hat to the No. 78 team, even going to victory lane to offer his congratulations. As we’ve seen several times this season, the No. 4 team shares a mutual respect with both the Nos. 18 and 78 teams, which make up the big three contenders of the season (they’ve won 12 of the 16 races so far).

“That’s really why I like racing those guys the most — the 18 and the 78,” Childers said. “Those guys are really good at what they do. They make all of us better. And we make them better every week. It’s awesome what they did and I have to congratulate them for that.”

It’s refreshing that although the top three teams keep running up front together each week, there’s no bad blood between them. Sure, a bitter rivalry would be fun — very fun, actually. But it’s also cool to see the mutual respect and sportsmanship that exists.

After all, Pearn noted, they’re just playing a game.

“We have a great relationship,” Pearn said of Childers. “I respect him a lot, and I feel like he does the same. Him and Martin worked together back at MWR, so they’re good friends. I always try and congratulate them when they win, and he always does it when we win.

“There’s plenty of days where they’re going to be up. Kevin Harvick is an awesome race car driver, and I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I think it’s pretty cool to be able to race them like we do.”

3. Unusually calm

There were the fewest “natural” cautions (yellow flags other than stage breaks or competition cautions) in track history on Sunday. The only yellow flag other than the end of Stages 1 and 2 was for AJ Allmendinger’s car on the track after he blew an engine.

So what’s up with that?

For one thing, drivers say the field has gotten more skilled at road racing. Truex pointed to the Xfinity and Truck Series running more road courses, which means the younger drivers have a chance to get used to that type of racing by the time they reach Cup. Meanwhile, the Cup guys have raised their game as well.

But another reason is stage racing. It’s had a profound impact on road courses because the races turn into more of a strategy play than a straight-up, head-to-head battle. When the field gets spread out while using various strategies, there’s less chance for a wreck and no one is pushing the issue.

Still, that doesn’t mean NASCAR needs to change anything or suddenly get rid of stages at road courses. It’s much better to have a consistent race format for each week of the season than get into the business of tweaking it at certain venues in the name of entertainment.

That might produce some Formula One-type races at times —where strategy seems to prevail over all else — but it’s not like it happens every week.

4. ‘Dinger’s Despair

We all know there are pretty much two shots for Allmendinger to make the playoffs each season: Sonoma and Watkins Glen. And while Allmendinger has a decent track record at the Glen, Sonoma has been a nightmare.

Something always seems to either break on the car or Allmendinger loses his cool when faced with mid-race adversity. That’s why the talented road racer has more career finishes of 35th or worse at Sonoma (five) than top-10 finishes (two).

In that sense, his team’s strategy Sunday was puzzling. With Allmendinger in agreement, the 47 team had its driver stay on track for stage points while the other leaders pitted late in Stage 1. Allmendinger ended up winning the stage and got 10 stage points — but for what?

The driver entered the race 23rd in points. He’s not racing for points; he’s racing for wins.

After that decision — with all his track position lost and now tasked with trying to come through the field — Allmendinger made a mistake, missed a shift and blew his engine.

Race over.

The whole sequence just didn’t make sense, and it turned into another deeply disappointing day for the ‘Dinger.

5. Points Positions

In this unusual NASCAR season — perhaps historically so, with the fewest winners through 16 races since 1978 — one item in the Top Five will be a weekly look at the point standings.

After all, this playoff field is shaping up to have the most drivers getting their playoff spots on points since the start of the Win-And-In Era.

With Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon outside the top 16 in the standings, that moves the cutoff position to 15th in points — which is currently Alex Bowman. He’s safe by 17 points over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and by 25 points over Paul Menard.

Erik Jones has a 13-point lead over Bowman (and thus a 30-point cushion to Stenhouse). After that, the cutoff isn’t really close because Chase Elliott is another 35 points ahead of Jones and therefore 65 points inside the cutoff.

The winless drivers who would make the playoffs right now are Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson, Elliott, Jones and Bowman.

A NASCAR fan guide to the IndyCar championship race

Guess what race is on Sunday right after the Chicagoland race on the same channel (NBCSN)?

Yep, it’s the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale — a race which will decide the championship from among six eligible drivers.

I’m here at Sonoma and am going to be blowing your timelines up about the race, so you might as well watch with me. If you haven’t followed IndyCar much this year or are just a casual fan, here’s a quick guide to the race to get you caught up:

What’s at stake?

Sonoma Raceway is the 17th and final race of the IndyCar season, and six drivers can still win the title. They are the four Team Penske drivers — rising star Josef Newgarden, defending series champ Simon Pagenaud and veterans Will Power and Helio Castroneves — plus four-time series champion Scott Dixon and 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

Who has the advantage?

Before answering that, let’s take a look at the current driver point standings.

  1. Josef Newgarden  –Leader–
  2. Scott Dixon -4
  3. Helio Castroneves -23
  4. Simon Pagenaud -35
  5. Will Power -69
  6. Alexander Rossi -85

Those have been updated after Saturday’s qualifying session, because IndyCar awards one bonus point to the pole winner — and Newgarden put down a monster, track-record lap to start from P1.

Still, it’s tough to say who has the edge right now. In Friday’s two practice sessions, Newgarden had the quickest overall time. But in Saturday’s practice, Pagenaud, Dixon and Power all went even faster.

Plus, top five drivers in the point standings were also the top five drivers in final practice (just in a different order). Since they were only separated by 0.44 second, it really could be anyone’s race among the contenders.

So how does the championship race work?

Sonoma is a double points event — one of only two on the schedule, along with the Indy 500. That twist could play a massive role in the outcome of the championship, because the points are soooo close.

At a typical IndyCar race, first place is worth 50 points and second place gets 40. But at Sonoma, it’s 100 for first place and only 80 for second — a 20-point gap between first and second!

That means Newgarden, Dixon and likely Castroneves (depending on bonus points) are all in situations where a Sonoma victory will mean the championship (which has happened the last two years).

And really, Pagenaud isn’t in a bad spot, either (though he could use some help from his competition finishing off the podium). Power and Rossi are much bigger longshots at this point, even if they win.

How did they get to this point?

Newgarden has a series-leading four wins and eight podium finishes this season, but his lead is only four points thanks to a gaffe in the most recent race at Watkins Glen.

After entering the Glen with a 31-point lead over Dixon — thanks to winning three of four races — Newgarden locked up his tires in the pits while avoiding teammate Will Power and slid into the guardrail. That cost him 28 points of his lead, which was whittled to just four.

Dixon has just one win but has made finished on the podium seven times — second in the series. And he’s going up against the entire Penske team, which has been the most consistent this season.

What are they saying?

— Newgarden, who was totally fired up after his track-record lap to get the pole — his first since 2015 — is going into the race with a nothing-to-lose attitude.

“If I drop the ball and totally ball it up this weekend, I’m still going to be pretty happy with this year,” the 26-year-old American said. “That’s not to say I’m going to settle for that or that I’m looking to settle for something like that.

“But the only way I think you can approach this and get the most out of it and try and treat it like any other weekend. The moment you think, ‘Hey, this is championship week — you mess it up, you’re not the champion,’ then I think that can put you in a wrong place mentally.”

— Power, who qualified second, has a fast car but needs some help to pull off his second championship.

“It’s absolutely possible,” he said. “I mean, if Scott and Josef have a bad day, I can be right there. Yeah, see how it all plays out.”

— Pagenaud, who won this race en route to the championship last season, is feeling confident after qualifying third.

“Quite satisfied,” he said after his lap. “Overall it’s awesome for Team Penske, 1-2-3-4 once again here. A testament to the team doing such a good job. Nothing’s lost. Tomorrow is a long race. Lots of tire wear. I’m hoping for a really strong showing.”

— Speculation about Castrovenes’ future has been swirling lately, but it would certainly be nice for him to pull off an improbable title at age 42. He’s in a virtual win-and-clinch situation since there it’s a double points race.

“We wanted this championship as bad as anybody,” he said after qualifying fourth. “We do have a chance. We’re going to obviously try to execute. That’s our goal.”

— Dixon, the best driver of his generation, knows he has his work cut out for him. But it’s not like anyone can dismiss his chances.

“Sixth position, you can definitely make lots happen from there,” he said. “I think in ’15 we started ninth when we won that race. Definitely you’d want to be a little further up. But that’s the way it goes.”

One reason not to hate Cup drivers in the lower series

When Kevin Harvick announced he was running the K&N West Series race at Sonoma, I thought it was pretty lame.

Seriously though — what was the point? It’s not like he needed road course laps under his belt like Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez or Ryan Blaney (who were also in the race). And it would have been an upset if Harvick didn’t win. So why take away from young, up-and-coming drivers’ opportunity to showcase their talent?

As it turned out, Harvick didn’t take away from them at all — it actually put a much bigger spotlight on one of the K&N drivers.

Harvick should be applauded for how he’s used his victory to essentially raise the profile of 22-year-old Will Rodgers, who was Harvick’s K&N teammate and finished second in the race.

A Maui-born driver who moved to California as a kid, Rodgers won the pole and led the first 26 laps before finishing second. He is fourth in K&N West points after Saturday’s race.

But let’s say Rodgers had won and Harvick wasn’t in the race. He wouldn’t be making an appearance on Harvick’s Sirius/XM Radio show tonight, wouldn’t have gotten to sit on the No. 4 team’s pit box on Sunday and wouldn’t have made relationships like this:


So even though Rodgers was denied his first career win, the publicity and connections gained through racing with Harvick might have been a victory in itself. After the race, Harvick business manager Josh Jones even offered to point Rodgers in the right direction with sponsorship.

Rodgers came to the Sonoma tweetup on Sunday morning and said despite finishing second, he was honestly feeling pretty good about how everything unfolded. After all, if that outcome ended up being his big break, it’ll be the biggest non-win he’ll ever get.

DraftKings Fantasy NASCAR picks: Sonoma

I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission. Disclosure No. 2: I might be America’s worst daily fantasy player.

Last race’s results: Played $4 Brake Pad single entry game; finished 50th of 1,500, won $20.

Season results: $30 wagered, $37 won in 11 contests.

This week’s contest: $8 MEGA Beast (with $50,000 to the winner!).

Sonoma picks:

— Kurt Busch ($9,800). He’s had six straight finishes of 12th or better at Sonoma, including four top-five finishes and a win. He starts 17th, so the chance for points gained through position differential — which is going to be huge for fantasy players at Sonoma, given the low number of laps — is very strong.

— Jimmie Johnson ($9,600). Even if Chad Knaus’ setup notes got stolen, Johnson is still excellent at Sonoma (seven top-10s in the last eight races) and the team will probably be on top of the complicated pit strategy. Plus, Johnson starts 24th — a major opportunity for place differential.

— Joey Logano ($9,000). The fact he starts 22nd is very attractive for fantasy players, particularly because this is a strategy race with the stages — and Logano crew chief Todd Gordon is always looking for outside-the-box ways to put his driver in a good spot. Logano has also finished fifth and third the last two races here.

— Kasey Kahne ($8,000). Another play with the position differential opportunity. Kahne starts 21st but has four straight top-10 finishes at Sonoma. Those points could be quite valuable if he can have another good run.

Matt Kenseth ($7,500). Sonoma is one of Kenseth’s worst tracks and he’s never had a top-five finish here in 17 starts. But he’s starting 38th, and the prospect of even a top-20 finish would provide major points from position differential.

— Michael McDowell ($6,100). The fact he starts 16th is slightly concerning, because there’s a low ceiling for points differential even if he gets a top-10. But the road racing ace comes at a very low price and seems like a better option than Boris Said at $5,100, which was the other option I was considering here.

Carl Edwards at Sonoma: ‘I haven’t considered coming back’

Carl Edwards has only become happier and more content in the months since his decision to step away from NASCAR, he told a small group of reporters Saturday — and has no intention of returning to a race car anytime soon.

Edwards, at Sonoma Raceway to give away a pickup truck on behalf of sponsor Stanley Tools, said he’s enjoying life away from racing. Despite his name being floated for open rides such as Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88, Edwards said he isn’t interested.

“I’ve been talking to a bunch of people and weighing my options — no, just kidding,” he said with a laugh. “No, not at all. I haven’t talked to anyone and I haven’t even considered coming back. Not right now.

“I think it’s pretty clear if I really want to do something, then I would do it. But like I said in January, I would talk to Coach (Joe Gibbs) first — and I haven’t had any conversations about that.”

The only communication he’s had with Gibbs was to write a recent thank-you note reiterating his appreciation to both drive for the team and being allowed to step away when the time was right. Edwards watched Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement news conference and related to the aspect of walking away “on his terms,” Edwards said, calling his own situation a “blessing.”

But Edwards said he hasn’t paid attention to NASCAR news with his name in the rumor mill, nor has he watched the races.

“I don’t watch much TV,” he said.

So what has Edwards been up to? Well, a lot.

He was in Maui this week doing some surfing and exploring the island with artist Dale Zarrella, among others. Edwards has also learned to sail — both in the Virgin Islands and Florida — as well as continuing to fly medical patients through a Cessna program. Edwards and Toyota also set a land speed record for an SUV, going 230 mph in May.

He spent the last month planting crops at his Missouri farm and now plans to travel during the summer — since he didn’t have much of a chance to do that during his racing career.

If he ever returns to a car, it might not be in NASCAR. He mentioned speaking to Global Rallycross driver Steve Arpin about trying one of those cars at some point.

“When I’m ready to drive again, that would be fun to just go do a (GRC) test or something like that,” Edwards said. “I like sliding cars around sideways and (having) tons of horsepower.”

That actually describes what NASCAR drivers do at Sonoma, which made the trip bittersweet for Edwards. This was his third trip to a racetrack this season — he also attended the Phoenix test in January to help successor Daniel Suarez and showed up on Friday of the Atlanta weekend in March for the same reason — but Sonoma was “the toughest one for me.”

“I definitely miss parts of it,” he said. “I would love to be getting in a car to go qualify today. But it’s just like anything — there’s things that are good and things that are bad, but the good for me far outweighs the bad. Just super appreciative to go do the things I’m doing now and enjoying life.”

Edwards said there wasn’t much else to say about himself. So he looked at the reporters, each of whom he’d greeted by name with a handshake and a warm smile, and turned the tables.

“How’s everything going for you guys?” he asked.