Did You Notice? … The first two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff races have seen Toyota run away from the field? Chicagoland saw a motivated Martin Truex Jr. win the race by over seven seconds. Then, at New Hampshire Sunday Truex combined with Kyle Busch to lead 299 of 300 laps. The duo would have likely finished 1-2 if not for a midrace wreck that damaged the No. 78.
Heading into Dover, two of the four Toyotas in the MENCS postseason have clinched a spot in the Round of 12. The other two, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, are over 40 points above the cutline. It’s clear the road to Homestead for everyone else is blocked by Camrys.
But the last few weeks for Toyota are nothing new. They’ve won eight of the last 11 Cup Series races, losing only to Kyle Larson twice and Kasey Kahne in a bizarre Brickyard 400 ending. Late-race cautions, allowing Larson to get the jump on restarts and contact between Truex and Busch at Indy is what kept it from being an 11-for-11 sweep.
More importantly, Toyota is flat out blowing away the competition throughout the event. There’s been an average of just 12.8 lead changes in Cup races during the streak, down 15 percent from this same stretch a year ago. A quick look at the laps led chart proves how dominant they’ve been.
Cup Series Laps Led: Last 11 Races (Since Kentucky)
1) Kyle Busch (Toyota) 875
2) Martin Truex Jr. (Toyota) 872
3) Erik Jones (Toyota) 279
4) Kyle Larson (Chevy) 251
5) Denny Hamlin (Toyota) 213
6) Brad Keselowski (Ford) 167
7) Matt Kenseth (Toyota) 134
8) Kevin Harvick (Ford) 81
9) Chase Elliott (Chevy) 53
All Others: 107
Combined, Busch and Truex alone have led 57.6 percent of all laps run during this stretch. Add in the other four manufacturer-supported Camrys (including Daniel Suarez) and the number rises to 78.8 percent.
That’s certainly troubling for Ford and Chevrolet. They both seem destined for second place in a manufacturer’s race that’s become one-sided. Suddenly, the days where Chevy got gift-wrapped that trophy every year (2003-15) look like a distant memory.
There’s an obvious point to be made here: one car or team making races a snoozer each week typically doesn’t help to build viewership. But it’s the way Toyota is doing it that raises eyebrows a bit. Despite having millions to spend, the manufacturer is expected to contract, not expand next season as the No. 77 team driven by Erik Jones suspends operations. Rather than keep Furniture Row Racing afloat with two teams, Toyota prefers not to spend extra money and focus on the five successful ones they already have.
Consolidating resources, Formula 1 style would be fine of course if there were 10 types of cars on the playing field. Unfortunately, in NASCAR we have three. How much longer can Ford and Chevy compete, on their own before playing copycat and consolidating themselves in order to keep up?
Setting the arms race this way leads to fewer cars on the grid and narrows the list of title contenders. The only way it works is if NASCAR can get more manufacturers to the drawing board.
In the meantime? We can’t say for sure if there’s any validity to Brad Keselowski’s claim Toyotas are running with an advantage these days. But it’s clear they’ve put themselves in position to lap the field in the playoffs unless someone finds a way to catch them. Fast.
Did You Notice? … No New Hampshire Cup race has featured over 20 lead changes in six years? That lack of competition, ultimately is what has their second postseason race shipping out to Las Vegas. Sunday was another dreadful example of a single-file, aerodynamic parade under the current handling package.
But NHMS, unlike some of the other ovals suffering has always been tricky to pass on. While action in the middle of the pack can be decent, the racing spreads out. And up front? The leader pulls away, time and again, turning even a short 300-lap stint into a rout. Jeff Burton once led all 300 laps at the track, coasting to a win when restrictor plates were put on the cars in November 2001.
So the question now for Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and Bruton Smith is what to do with a one-date track. Do they dare tear up the configuration here and start over? Is it worth it to sink money into the only viable NASCAR track in the northeastern part of the U.S.?
If not, NHMS may be living on borrowed time. Losing a date and a playoff spot once you already had two doesn’t say much for your future profit margin. Unlike Fontana, where aging asphalt saved the facility it’s hard to see a similar bounceback with only a one-mile track.
Keep in mind the September date from NHMS was earned through the closure of one of the sport’s legendary tracks: North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1997. There’s more than a few old fans down in those parts feeling karma has come back around.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- So Matt Kenseth, 2003 Cup Series champion and potential Final Four participant can’t find a ride for 2018. Marketing genius Danica Patrick is struggling for sponsorship to stay in the sport. But 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, at age 58 announces the formation of a new Cup team and sponsor, StarCom Fiber? And he does so during a year where he hasn’t been competitive in any event? It’s a head-scratcher, there’s no doubt. The team was supposed to run at Dover, debuting there but chose to take a few more weeks to hire personnel instead. I guess perhaps Cope could at least offer his marketing skills to these pending free agents?
- Digest this nugget: Jimmie Johnson hasn’t led a single lap since Daytona in July. His last top-five finish came at Dover back in June (win). If the No. 48 can’t pick up the pace here, you’ve got to start feeling Hendrick Motorsports is just too far behind to make Homestead.
- The Truck Series is struggling to fill fields more than we’ve ever seen it. Just 27 trucks are entered for Las Vegas and only about 22, by my count have enough money to finish the race. Teams like NEMCO Motorsports who have drivers in the playoffs are running start-and-park entries just to stay on the track. With Brad Keselowski Racing folding up shop, this problem needs immediate attention during the offseason. GMS Racing, Kyle Busch Motorsports, and Thorsport can’t field every truck on the track for the series to stay alive… right?
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