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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Joe Gibbs Racing Back on Top

ONE: “Finally, eh?” – Kyle Busch breaks his Pocono drought as Toyota triumph

Those were the words Kyle Busch spoke to his team after winning the Overtons 400 at Pocono and it sums everything up so well. It took Busch 26 starts at the Tricky Triangle to bag a victory and this one, his first Cup Series win since Indianapolis 2016, came after a sly bump-and-run on fellow frontrunner Kevin Harvick.

More importantly, this one signals a proper breakthrough for Joe Gibbs Racing, who have now taken their second win in three races – the first coming as Denny Hamlin won at New Hampshire in July – and shows that JGR are flying.

Toyota’s early-season anonymity is gone, as six out of the top 10 cars at Pocono were Camry-shaped, with rookies Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones showing their true colors ahead of soon-to-leave veteran Matt Kenseth in seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively. Furthermore, Hamlin led 18 laps, finishing fourth behind third place Martin Truex, Jr.

So surely, it can’t just have been Busch celebrating a drought but Joe Gibbs himself must’ve yelled out a “finally, eh” when the checkered flag flew, as JGR are now firmly in contention for a championship win, having turned those tables.

This will likely be a Toyota season: The momentum’s flying, talent’s abundant and the hunger, from JGR’s rookies and veterans alike, will be verging on insatiable come Homestead. Just the small matter remains as to whether satellite team Furniture Row Racing will upset the party.

TWO: Joe Gibbs lays down the law…at Furniture Row Racing

Speaking of which, Joe Gibbs suspended FRR’s front tire changer Chris Taylor and rear tire changer Lee Cunningham for three races after their altercation with Kyle Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens, who walked over to talk it out after Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. wrecked racing for position on a restart at Indianapolis.

truex hamlin nhms
Two different teams but one employer of pit crews led to a pair of suspensions after Indy. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/
NKP)

And that’s totally fine. Gibbs employs the pair as part of a technical alliance with FRR and he has the authority to do so.

“[I did it] Because of their actions and what they did,” said Gibbs on Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

“The video didn’t capture everything that happened there,” the JGR boss criticized FOX Sports’ coverage of the incident.

“Obviously there was some instigation going on, Adam didn’t feel that was all that necessary and wanted to make sure that those employees knew that, knowing that they were JGR in-house employees.

“They wouldn’t have done that if they were in-house Furniture Row employees, so it was just the nature of what all was going on there and who the people were and who they were associated with.”

Some rumors flew around after the suspensions that Gibbs was intentionally weakening FRR because they now prove a real threat to JGR, but with Truex beating all but one JGR racer at Pocono, it’s clear that Gibbs acted firmly but fairly.

THREE: Will Junior break his own drought?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hasn’t won yet this season, just in case you weren’t aware, and his chances of making the playoffs are looking bleaker and bleaker as the season progresses. At Pocono, however, Earnhardt did point out some tracks which could yield results.

“Michigan is a good one – that’s a good track for us,” he said on Saturday afternoon. Bristol? I could probably win there. What was the other one?”

It’s Darlington, and Earnhardt has never won there. Perhaps his throwback scheme, unveiled in July, could bring him some luck as it’s his 1998-9 Busch Series paintjob.

“Man, if we even come close [at Darlington], that’s a win – that place is tough…like I said on social media the other day, we’ve got to go into Watkins Glen like we can win,” he continued.

But, the situation looks dire, even if Earnhardt has won at four of the next six tracks which wait before the playoffs are determined. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Trevor Bayne are ahead of him in the queue, just below the cut-off line, and it seems Earnhardt will remain behind them.

Logano looks most likely to book a playoff place with eight top-fives so far already this season, though Suarez and Jones are now fully warmed up. It’s a shame to see the No. 88 decline too soon, but of course nothing in NASCAR is clear-cut, and Earnhardt won’t call it quits until November, playoffs or not.

On the subject of paint schemes, he won’t be running his late father’s this year. “No chance,” he said on Twitter. Had fun with that in the past for sure.”

FOUR: Next up, Watkins Glen

We’ll be turning left and right for the 35th NASCAR Cup series race at Watkins Glen, with the first having taken place 60 years ago. Team Penske’s Joey Logano looks like the favorite, having won in 2015 and finished second in 2016, now that Tony Stewart has retired.

Denny Hamlin is another solid pick as a result of his 2016 win, which he earned after having suffered back spasms – which he described as the “worst pain” – on that day last year.

Of course, 2013 winner Kyle Busch is still in the picture as he will be throughout the rest of the season. Hendrick Motorsports, however, doesn’t look likely to score highly at Watkins Glen.

The former Formula 1 venue will be split into two stages of 20 laps, with a final stage of 50 laps to finish the NASCAR race off; some misplaced (or well placed) strategic pitstop gambles will definitely mix things up this year.

FIVE: Speaking of Formula 1, things got nasty in Hungary

Yes, things got nasty in Formula 1 and then inevitable comparisons to NASCAR were made. It all started in Hungary as at the start of the Grand Prix, Haas driver Romain Grosjean clashed with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.

“We want racing, but we don’t want wheelbanging, we’re not in NASCAR,” he complained to Autosport.

It should be noted that races at the Hungaoriring are generally single-file cruises and this year’s spectacle was improved because of the aforementioned wheelbanging. Things however descended from that first-corner spat to a foul-mouthed post-race altercation.

Late on in the Grand Prix, Hulkenberg was forced to drive off the track by Haas counterpart Kevin Magnussen. Hulkenberg was angry because he had to retire from the race on the final lap, possibly due to damage from that previous incident, and he stormed up to Magnussen during a TV interview.

“Once again, the most unsporting driver of the grid,” said the German Renault racer sarcastically.

“Suck my balls, mate,” replied the Dane instantly, as he turned back to the TV camera and continued his post-race interview with a grin on his face.

That sets things up nicely for the next race in Belgium, August 27.

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