There’s no doubt about it, the Joe Gibbs Racing camp should be among the ones to beat for Wednesday night’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN) at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. They’ve been so strong on the .526-mile paperclip and entering this weeks race with some new found life.
JGR put three of their four cars in the top five of the finishing order on Sunday afternoon at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. not only earned his first playoff point of the year on Sunday, he swept both stages as well in earning his first top five finish of the year too.
Kyle Busch led 100 laps two races ago in Bristol for his first laps led since February. Denny Hamlin is showing no signs of slowing down despite the suspensions of three key members of his race team.
Now, it’s to one of their strongest tracks on the schedule — Martinsville.
Busch has just one finish outside of the top five since 2015. That’s 11 starts. In the spring race, he’s finished first, second, second and third respectively since 2016. He’s also scored six top four finishes in his last eight starts on the season, half of which being a runner-up.
Hamlin has three straight top five finishes on the Virginia paperclip and four top fives in his last six on the season.
That leaves Truex Jr. who won the Fall race last year. He also won both Richmond races too as he’s won the last three Cup races in the Virginia Commonwealth. He has a top 10 finish in nine of his last 11 Martinsville starts including being second, fourth, third, eighth and first respectively in his last five.
Busch though, says while that’s all great, he feels this could still just be a mirage.
“I wouldn’t say entirely,” Busch said on Sunday if their performance at Atlanta is a sign that they turned the season back around. “Atlanta is kind of its own beast. Well, Atlanta and Homestead are pretty significant high downforce tracks, and we tend to run well here. Truex definitely tends to run well here. He did last year, and I think Denny has won here (once in Cup), so it’s a place that we should have good results at, and it’s nice to come out of here with a good solid run, run up front all day long and have a good outing. Hopefully we can keep that momentum rolling.”
Truex and Hamlin say their pace is encouraging, but they’re not sold on it yet. See, this group combined to win 18 of the 36 races last year. Throw in Erik Jones and they won 19 races, a NASCAR single season record.
This year, they’ve won just twice, both by Hamlin. Some of their top finishes are more lucked into, rather than done on speed. They’ve admitted that. That plus the new found speed for the Chevrolet camp, most notably Hendrick Motorsports, and the lack of practice has hurt Toyota’s performance between last year this.
“We’ve had a really strong season as far as being competitive and getting tons of stage points, and we’ve been kind of lacking on our finishes a little bit,” Truex said. “So it felt good to get that top five out of the way.
“I think it’s been a little bit tough not having practice and things like that to hit it right. I think our cars are close. I don’t think we’re dominant. I think there’s some really fast cars out there that we’re trying to catch up to. We really have to do all the little things right to be able to put ourselves in position to win races, and we’ve done that. We’ve been in position a few times this season, and things didn’t go the way we needed them to, and when you’re not a dominant car, you’re not just going to blow by through the field when you have issues. We definitely know we need to get better.”
Truex, says that it’s hard on them to prepare for the races even because in the Coca-Cola 600, they dominated then came back a few days later and struggled to stay in the top 25.
“That’s just where the practice thing comes in,” Truex continued. “You go back to the racetrack with your best guess of what you think is going to work, and it’s not always what you think it’s going to be. You give a great driver and crew chief and engineer and team an hour to work on a race car, they’re going to get it better.”
Hamlin, agreed and said a few weeks ago that with this COVID-19 situation that they’ve all been in, that it’s going to be until a couple of months before we see many changes made to these race cars. It kind of is what it is, but the silver lining is, JGR has the finishes and improving. That could be scary for the competition this Fall.