AUSTIN, TX — One of my 5 burning questions entering this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series at the Circuit of The Americas was if Joe Gibbs Racing was needing to panic yet. Well, as we sit here after the sixth race of the 2022 season has concluded, I still think concern needs to be had for the Toyota camp.
Denny Hamlin finished outside the top 10 again. He was 18th in Sunday’s EcoPark Automotive Grand Prix. He spun late and went from 22nd to the back and charged back up again to a top 20.
Hamlin, while having no wins in the regular season last year, had 8 top fives in the first 9 races of 2021 including 17 top 10’s in the first 26 races run.
Well, he’s not had a top 10 yet this season. He crashed in the Busch Light Clash. He crashed in the Daytona 500 (37th), he had overheating issues in Fontana (15th), he made a lapse in judgement in shifting in Vegas (32nd), he had a speeding penalty in Phoenix (13th) and crashed in Atlanta (29th). He then had issues in COTA including a late race spin to finish 18th.
Kyle Busch also battled a rough race car for the majority of the race but still found himself second at the end of the second stage, one spot behind Hamlin, and in the top six towards the closing laps before late race issues. He’d come home 28th. That comes after being 33rd last week.
Busch, just needs a clean week and he’d be okay. Unfortunately, we’re six races in and they’ve yet to have a drama free race weekend.
While the other two drivers came away with top 10’s, it still wasn’t pretty.
Martin Truex Jr. was 23rd and 21st respectively in the two stages but lucked out from new tires and some late race carnage to finish 7th, which oddly enough is his best result all year. Still, he has 3 top 8’s in the last 4 weeks and if he, like Busch and Hamlin, could put together a clean weekend, may be more of a factor than we’re looking at him now.
“It was just a battle,” Truex Jr. said. “We never could get the car where we needed it. I was definitely worried after practice – I was not feeling too good. Your hands are so tied to these things with these short practices. We just battled all day and fought on and got a decent finish but no stage points, so just a so-so day for this Bass Pro Shops Toyota team.”
Same for Bell. He started seventh but pit before both stage breaks to finish 18th and 20th respectively in them. Then, he had to pit on Lap 36 for a steering problem. They’d fall to the back. By the end, he was crossing the finish line third.
Well, he pit again with Truex Jr. on Lap 52. They had nothing to lose. A caution was about to come out for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. so they ducked down pit road with a few others. A yellow did end up flying so 10 others did hit pit lane under that caution. They now had fresh tires and a little more than 10 laps to charge.
It worked for Bell. He finished with his first top five all season.
“It was a hard fought day that’s for sure,” Bell said. “Losing power steering wasn’t ideal. I picked up an issue early on in the race, and I knew something wasn’t right and eventually lost power steering a couple laps later. That wasn’t good, but this 20 group did amazing getting us back out there. The DeWalt Camry was really strong on restarts. I was always able to pick off a couple spots and that’s ultimately how we got our finish.”