SONOMA, Calif. — Kyle Larson went from not being in the NASCAR playoffs to now being in position to be the favorite and points leader when they begin in 11 weeks.

Larson’s championship hopes got a rebirth Tuesday when NASCAR granted a waiver for him to remain playoff eligible despite not starting every race after he missed the Charlotte race on Memorial Day weekend when he was competing in the rain-delayed Indianapolis 500.

Five days after receiving the waiver news, he won the NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday at Sonoma Raceway and retook the series points lead in the process.

“My mind never wavered,” Larson said knowing he was using a pun. “It was always kind of focused on executing and winning the regular season points, whether that be on the owner’s side or whatever. My mindset has not changed at all.

“I race to win every single race, so yeah, I haven’t really thought any differently since missing Charlotte.”

The Hendrick driver earned his third win of the season and now has more playoff points — points that can help a driver advance in the playoffs if they don’t win in a round — than any other Cup driver.

The regular-season champion gets more playoff points (15) than any other driver, another reason it was important for Larson to take a 14-point lead in the regular-season standings.

“I thought [after Charlotte] we would still have a great shot to win the regular season title, which there’s still a lot of racing left to be had,” Larson said. “I could easily have a couple [races I don’t finish] here coming up.”

Hendrick vice chairman Jeff Gordon said he didn’t see much of a difference in the team’s attitude from before to after the waiver decision.

“[The team] seemed to be business as usual and prepping for the next race, the next two races, the way they normally do,” Gordon said about the St. Louis event that followed Charlotte before NASCAR determined a decision on the waiver and then the Sonoma prep.

“The best medicine in any of those situations is getting back to the racetrack. Especially when they got here, home track for Kyle [from nearby Elk Grove], and I think a track that they enjoy racing at, and a lot of the competitors do.”

Takeaways on a caution-filled, strategy-laden ay at Sonoma where Michael McDowell finished second, Chris Buescher third, Chase Elliott fourth and Ross Chastain fifth.

NASCAR Cup Series: 2024 Toyota / Save Mart 350 highlights

Truex, Busch Run Out Of Fuel

Larson was on a different strategy where he pitted after the second stage and then just had to make a quick pit stop for fuel under green in the final stage.

Buescher, McDowell, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch used a strategy where they stayed out at the end of the second stage for track position but had to have a longer pit stop for fuel under green in the final stage.

That led to Larson having to run down those drivers for the win, passing Truex on Lap 102 of the 110-lap race.

It also led to Truex to run out of gas when running second and Busch to run out of gas as he was turned by Chastain on the final lap.

Busch finished 12th because he was able to nurse his car to the finish line, while Truex was 27th.

More Frustrated Drivers

Several drivers saw their races end early after accidents or mechanical issues.

Ty Gibbs was the one driver who had an incident with the new Turn 11 inside wall put in for this race.

“I was finding grip down there and was making up time, and then got too close and clipped the wall and hurt the right front,” Gibbs said. “I just made a mistake and took us out.”

Austin Dillon was a victim of a wreck where Erik Jones got into Josh Berry and pushed Berry into traffic in Turn 11.

“The 4 [of Berry] and the 43 [of Jones], I don’t know what that is — [Berry] struggled all weekend,” Dillon said. “We broke the suspension in the right rear when we took the hit.”

FINAL LAPS: Kyle Larson secures first place to win Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway

Kyle Larson secured first place to win the Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Larson Best On Attack

Larson’s ability to race without worrying about fuel mileage gave him the ability to be aggressive, which is where he is at his best.

He was thoroughly confused over the strategy and didn’t realize he would have to pass several drivers after his final pit stop.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m like 10th,'” Larson said about coming out of the points and then trying to run people down. “I thought I was going to be faster for eight, 10 laps, but I didn’t know once the tires came up to temp if they would equal out at some point because there were still 20-something laps left.

“It did, it definitely got closer to equaling out, but I still just had enough.”

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including over 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass.

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