Toyota Racing clearly has saved its best for last.
With the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs featuring three race tracks using the 750-horsepower package, the Joe Gibbs Racing Camrys came out fighting as expected.
The manufacturer’s dominance at the shorter tracks—and Kyle Busch’s prowess at Bristol Motor Speedway—should propel all four drivers into the fast lane for the Round of 12.
Martin Truex Jr. joined Denny Hamlin as a postseason winner following his victory at Richmond Raceway on Saturday night. Truex proved once again the No. 19 team’s mastery in overcoming adversity.
Last weekend at Darlington, he overcame and speeding penalty and a loose lug nut to finish fourth. After jumping the start of the race on Saturday night, Truex was still able to rebound, thanks to the skill of the driver and the strength of the JGR equipment to score his third-career victory at Richmond.
“That was frustrating, I'm not going to lie,” Truex said. “But I knew we'd have a good enough car to overcome it. It felt pretty good the first couple of laps.
“Just one of those things; you've got to put it out of your mind and you've got to go race, and we knew there was a lot on the line. Very happy to get to do this and go to Bristol without any worries next week is always fun.”
Hamlin won both stages on Saturday night at Richmond and with his second-place finish cut Kyle Larson’s lead in the standings by 10 points.
After cycling out from the final round of green-flag pit stops, Truex held an eight-second lead over Hamlin with 49 laps remaining in the contest. Had Hamlin pitted three laps earlier with Truex, we might have been talking about the No. 11 team’s second win of the Playoffs. Hamlin shaved three seconds from Truex’s lead by Lap 375 and had closed to within 1.4-seconds at the finish.
“Our pit stops were a little slow there and we lost about two or three seconds, maybe four on pit road those two stops, and about a second and a half behind,” Hamlin said. “We were coming, just we got off track with our car right there in the middle stages of the race, but overall Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) and the team made great adjustments there at the end on the FedEx Camry, just needed a couple more laps, that's all.”
Hamlin won the Bristol Night Race from the pole in 2019, his second victory at the half-mile bullring. His greatest competition at Bristol will likely come from his teammates once again. Like Truex—and Larson, who has already advanced to the Round of 12 based on points, the drivers can enter next weekend worry-free. But that won’t stop Hamlin from trying to amass maximum points and another win.
“It's go time now,” Hamlin said. “Ultimately, it's the time where you've got to bring your best. All JGR team had fast cars for all of us today, and we just -- I really wish we would have got two in a row, but regardless, still a great day for our team.”
Christopher Bell fought an ill-handling car early on at Richmond but remained optimistic given his previous success at the track. His perseverance paid off with his first top-five finish since July and a 17-point buffer over 12th-place entering Bristol.
“Obviously all of our Joe Gibbs Racing cars were extremely fast, so hats off to everyone back there at the job, Toyota, TRD that gives us the resources that we need to come out here and do good,” said Bell, who is eighth in points. “We knew going into Richmond that this is one of our better racetracks, so we needed to capitalize on that and get all the points we could.”
Bell finished ninth in his first Cup start at Bristol. He also won the 2019 spring Xfinity Series race with JGR.
“Bristol is a really good racetrack for our company and me and a driver, but it's a little bit -- it's just you can get caught up in stuff so easily at Bristol,” Bell added. “It's nice to have a buffer and hopefully we can go to Bristol and have an uneventful event.”
Busch, who sits 10th in the standings, is in the most precarious position of the four JGR drivers. He made the greatest gain in the points on Saturday night moving from 14th to 10th with his ninth-place finish. After leading 39 laps in the Federated Auto Parts 400, Busch had the potential for much more had he not been busted for speeding entering the pits on Lap 345.
Busch currently has an eight-point buffer over his brother Kurt, who is tied with Alex Bowman for 12th. But the younger Busch leads all active drivers with eight-career wins at Thunder Valley. In addition to three victories in his last seven starts, Busch has just one finish worse than fourth at Bristol.
“Bristol is an attack-type racetrack yet, when you attack, you can get yourself in trouble,” Busch said. “You get two stage wins and a win at Bristol, and boom, you’re right back in the mix. Being able to have success racing against the rest of your title contenders is certainly a big challenge.”