NASCAR: The big winner at Sonoma wasn’t Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Kyle Larson dominated a NASCAR Cup Series race for the second weekend in a row, but he wasn’t the biggest winner on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

For the first time in his career, Kyle Larson secured back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series victories, winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway two Sundays ago and the Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway this past Sunday.

The driver of the #5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports dominated both races to secure his second and third victories of the 2021 season and the eighth and ninth victories of his Cup Series career.

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Larson led 327 of the Coca-Cola 600’s 400 laps around the four-turn, 1.5-mile (2.414-kilometer) oval in Concord, North Carolina before leading 57 of the Toyota Save Mart 350’s 92 laps around the 12-turn, 2.52-mile (4.056-kilometer) natural terrain road course in Sonoma, California.

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Larson secured his first victory of the 2021 season back in early March at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but given the nature of the playoff format, he technically didn’t secure his playoff berth until he won for a second time at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

With 26 races on the regular season schedule, there can technically be more than 16 different winners in the regular season. So the “win and in” concept of the 16-driver playoffs, while it has worked out that way since the current format was introduced in 2014, isn’t guaranteed to be true.

But two wins automatically lock a driver into the playoffs, provided that the driver ranks inside the top 30 in the point standings. The 16 playoff berths go to the regular season points champion and the next 15 drivers who rank highest in wins, and no more than 13 drivers can win multiple regular season races.

So while Larson was the winner on Sunday afternoon for the second consecutive weekend, he wasn’t the biggest winner in terms of the long-term picture.

Sure, he won the first two stages and the race itself, netting himself seven playoff points and arguably solidifying himself as the championship favorite. He now has a series-high 26 playoff points thanks to his series-high three wins (tied with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr.) and series-high 11 stage wins, six more than any other driver.

He would earn 10 more playoff points if he finishes the regular season in second place in the point standings, which is where he now sits.

But the big winner was really the 28th place finisher: Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell.

Given how the 2021 season started, with seven different winners in the first seven races and 11 different winners in the first 14 events, 16 or more different regular season race winners appeared to be a reasonable possibility.

But now Larson, who already had a win under his belt at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, has won two races in a row, and we have still seen just 11 different winners through 16 races.

There are just 10 races remaining in the regular season now, and seeing more than five new winners emerge in these 10 races, even though there are three road course races and one superspeedway race among these 10 races, seems quite unlikely.

And that plays to McDowell’s benefit.

When it comes to qualifying for the playoffs, points serve as the tiebreaker among the one-race winners if there are, in fact, more than 16 different race winners in the regular season.

McDowell, who won the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, is the only one of these 11 race winners so far this season who drives for a team other than the powerhouse organizations of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske, and he sits in the worst position in the point standings among them.

So if there is any driver who loves and is going to continue to love seeing repeat winners throughout the remainder of the regular season, it is McDowell.

Every single race that passes without a new winner, McDowell inches closer to his first official Cup Series playoff berth, and the number of bullets he needs to dodge to make that happen shrinks.

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The next points-paying race on the 2021 schedule is scheduled to take place on Sunday, June 20. This race, the Ally 400, is set to be the first ever Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway, and it is set to be broadcast live on NBC Sports Network beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.