Toyota Heating Up
Two weeks ago, Martin Truex Jr. ended his 54-race winless skid at Dover. Last week, Denny Hamlin’s 33 race drought came to an end at Kansas. The veteran Joe Gibbs Racing duo have given the organization three drivers into the 2023 postseason already with just rookie Ty Gibbs (-20) the only among the camp to be on the outside looking in.
Christopher Bell locked himself in via his Bristol Dirt victory which as a result, gives JGR three wins in the last five weeks including two consecutive.
It’s not just them, it’s Toyota in general. Tyler Reddick’s win in COTA has stamped four of Toyota’s six cars into the playoffs. It was at that point to what was the turning point of Toyota’s season.
In the five races prior, they had led just 94 laps and 11 combined Top-10 finishes. In the last eight races, they’ve led 687 laps, won four times from four different drivers and taken 20 top-10’s. That’s 88% of their season laps led and 64.5% of their Top-10 finishes in this stretch.
Kansas though was expected. Toyota has won 6 of the last 8 Kansas races now including 8 the last 13. They also swept last year. Toyota’s went 1-3-4-5-6 in the spring race (171 of 267 laps led) and 1-2-3-5 in the Fall (94 of 267 laps led). They combined to lead 265 of 534 laps (49.6%) a year ago.
Now, they lead 148 of 267 laps last Sunday.
They now go to Darlington to where they’ve won 7 of the last 12 races on the Lady in Black too.
Martin Truex Jr. led 248 laps in his dominating Mother’s Day performance in 2021. He backed that up with finishing fourth in that year’s Southern 500. However, a year ago, he finished just 24th and 31st respectively and didn’t see either finish. The thing is, he had a top five car in both races though too. He crashed up front in the closing laps of this race last year while being in the Top-5, then blew a water pump while running in the Top-3 of the Southern 500.
Truex 196 laps in the 2020 Southern 500, those 248 in the 2021 spring race, one lap in the 2021 Southern 500, 28 laps in last year’s spring race and 48 in last year’s Southern 500.
He has four Top-8 finishes in the last five weeks. He had just one in the previous seven.
Hamlin has nine top 10 finishes in his last 12 “Lady in Black” starts including eight of them being in the top five. He’s a four-time Darlington winner and also has four runner-ups there too which includes the last time out. Five of his last seven tries have seen him also finish inside of the Top-5 there including three of the last four. 16 overall Top-10 finishes in 21 starts with 792 laps led. He has three Top-5 finishes in the last four weeks. He had none in the previous eight.
Christopher Bell had one of the better cars on this track last year. He started third and second respectively while finishing sixth and fifth.
This track was made for Reddick. Running the high line right up against the wall. Reddick was second and third respectively here a year ago and now is with Toyota power.
Ford Struggling On 1.5-Mile Tracks
The Ford camp’s biggest deficit is being shown right now. They struggle on intermediate tracks. In Las Vegas, they led just 14 laps all day and had only two Top-10 finishers. Last Sunday in Kansas, they had just one car finish in the Top-10 and led nine total laps all afternoon.
By comparison, Toyota has led 164 laps on these two tracks while Chevrolet has paced the field for an astounding 351 laps.
While Darlington is a tad smaller (1.33 miles) in comparison to Kansas and Las Vegas (1.5-miles each), will they once again struggle?
Ford has led 50.8% of all their laps this season on the three superspeedways. They led 122 laps in Daytona, 221 laps in Atlanta and 88 more in Talladega. Take out the 296 laps led in Martinsville, they led just 121 combined laps everywhere else.
HMS Dominating Playoff Tracks
We’ve raced on four of the 10 playoff tracks now. Hendrick Motorsports has shown in those races that they’re going to be a force to beat in this year’s postseason.
They went 1-2-3 this past March in Las Vegas to which saw them combine to lead 250 of the 271 laps that day. They went 1-2 in Stage 1 and 1-2-3 in Stage 2.
A week later in Phoenix, they went 1-2 in both stages and 1-4 in the end. They led 265 of the 317 laps in the Arizona desert.
In Martinsville, they won again and this time doing so by leading only 30 laps.
Now in Kansas, they went 2-3-7 and led 100 of the 267 laps last Sunday.
Kyle Larson has finished second, fourth, first and second respectively in those races with an average finish of 2.25.
William Byron finished 1st, 1st, 23rd and third respectively with an average finish of 7th.
Alex Bowman was third, ninth and 11th. He missed Kansas due to injury but his average finish is 7.66.
Can they show out Sunday in Darlington?
Byron, led laps in both races last year including what was a Top-2 result in this very race before Joey Logano shoved him out of the lead late. Byron has three Top-8 finishes in his last five Darlington starts. Byron has also improved his finishing position in each of the last four weeks (23rd to 7th to 4th to 3rd to…).
Larson may have only been 36th and 12th last year. But I also can’t ignore three straight runner-up’s prior and two third place finishes in a three race span even before that. He led 45 laps in 2016, 124 laps in 2017, 284 in 2018, 44 in 2019, 156 in the 2021 Southern 500 and 30 in this race last year. All he’s missing is a win…
In races that he’s not had any issues this year? He has a pair of wins, a pair of runner-up’s and a fourth place run.
Chastain vs. Gragson
For the second time in three weeks, Ross Chastain and Noah Gragson had an on track run-in. This time, Gragson wasn’t going to let Chastain get away with it. He was fed up with how Chastain races and even though they see each other weekly off track, the rookie driver was going to confront the Florida watermelon farmer on his aggressive driving style after the race.
Gragson was perturbed for how Chastain raced him late in last Sunday’s AdventHealth 400. He looked to make a move on Chastain on the outside in Turn 4. He felt like Chastain pinched him into the wall. Chastain didn’t hide behind the fact that he tried to squeeze Gragson exiting the corner, but he did also note that he left him a full lane though too. He didn’t force him into the wall.
Gragson grabbed Chastain and after several attempts from Chastain to tell Gragson to, “stop,” enough was enough and Chastain decked him. That’s when NASCAR broke it up.
Gragson feels like Chastain’s rivals are all talk and no action. He’s sick of drivers blaming him but not doing anything about it. So, he took matters into his own hands.
However, Chastain’s connection punch should also send a message to the garage that buyer beware. That was a vicious right hook across Gragson’s cheek.
Chastain has rubbed Denny Hamlin wrong multiple times. Brennan Poole was the next victim last week. Kyle Larson wasn’t happy. Heck, even Christopher Bell blamed Chastain when Chastain didn’t even touch him on a Richmond restart.
There’s no doubt about it, Chastain’s driving style has made enemies. The thing is, Gragson is the only one to do something about it physically and Chastain showed though too that you may want to think twice about doing so.
Plus, his driving style is what this sport needs. More times than now, the water cooler talk on the Monday’s after each race weekend is focused on something Chastain did. From the “Hail Melon” move in Martinsville to the fight in Kansas, Chastain is being talked about and he’s backing it up.
The Trackhouse Racing driver currently leads the points standings and that comes a year after winning twice and marching all the way to the Championship 4. The team isn’t going to hold Chastain’s aggression back. They have his back in him being the way that he is and think that he doesn’t need to change anything.
That’s why Chastain is arguably the Polarizing figure that this sport has needed. They have what they have out of Chase Elliott. They now need that villain who can back it up.
Las Vegas didn’t deliver in March, but Kansas showed us that may this Next Gen needs the right conditions to thrive on intermediate tracks. With temps soaring well into the 80’s on a sun filled Sunday afternoon in the Midwest, the AdventHealth 400 produced 37 lead changes among 12 drivers. That’s 12 more lead changes than the previous record.
There were also 11 cautions, 10 of which for spins off Turn 2. This action produced a great late race battle for a thrilling duel for the win, a fight on pit road between two frustrated drivers and plenty of storylines to get us into the week leading up to Darlington.