With 12 races left in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have maintained their status as championship favorites. The two of them, along with Kevin Harvick, have combined to win 17 of 24 races run thus far. All three drivers have known for months they will be each other’s primary competition for the title once the postseason begins.
However, Busch and Truex are approaching the championship fight from a slightly different perspective. While they are competitors racing for different organizations, they are also quasi-teammates. When Furniture Row Racing moved to Toyota in 2016, it arranged an agreement to receive technical support from Joe Gibbs Racing. Toyota Racing Development would furnish engines for both teams while JGR would provide Furniture Row with chassis and personnel. The idea was to have the two organizations share setup and engineering notes and work together as one superteam under the Toyota banner.
Since then, the alliance has worked well overall. Truex’s rise to becoming a weekly contender really began in 2015, but the No. 78 has enjoyed its most productive seasons in terms of wins since joining the Toyota camp. Busch has also become a more consistent winner and championship contender in the last few years. Following Truex’s championship last year, the JGR/FRR alliance could very well produce a second straight title.
And yet, they are still two separate organizations chasing a championship that only one driver can win. No matter how closely Gibbs and Furniture Row work together, they cannot jointly win the big trophy. One must eventually defeat the other. As a result, Truex and Busch are going to spend the rest of the season pushing the boundaries of the Toyota alliance, potentially to a serious breaking point.
Consider Saturday night’s race (Aug. 18) at Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch went into the race as the favorite, looking to add an eighth trophy to his collection from Cup Series wins in Thunder Valley. Truex, for all his success in the last few years, has never won at any track under one mile in the Cup Series. The race got off to a rocky start for both drivers after Busch triggered a multi-car melee on lap 2. Both drivers received damage, with the No. 18 getting significantly more than the No. 78, yet they had clawed their way back to the top five with less than 100 laps to go.
Then, the contact happened. While racing for second on lap 431, Busch didn’t have Truex completely cleared when he came out of Turn 4, causing him to clip Truex in the left rear. Almost instantly, the No. 78 went spinning into the wall as Busch drove past. Truex’s hopes for victory were done, collecting J.J. Yeley in the process, while Busch’s march through the field fell apart in the closing laps after a flat tire caused him to spin out. An evening when both drivers had victory in their sights ended in frustration for each.
There was no ill intent on Busch’s part in spinning Truex. The tight confines of Bristol make racing at the half-mile bullring a game of inches, where one slight mistake can have major consequences. Busch even took the blame for the accident after the race.
“Totally my fault. I feel terrible about that,” Busch said. “Got in the gas as I was coming up off the corner, was gonna slide in behind him. Didn’t think I was next to him yet. Just barely clipped him and sent him for a whale of a ride.”
Truex was visibly upset by the incident, kicking his wrecked car in frustration after he climbed out. But he seemed more frustrated with the situation than with Busch himself.
“I just got hit in the left rear,” Truex said. “Pretty simple. I mean, it’s a shame. We had a good night going.
“It’s just Bristol. Trying to get that first short track win. This place has been so hard on us, I can’t even explain it to you how good we’ve run here in the past three or four years, and crap like this [happens] every single time. It’s like, just one thing after another. So, it sucks that it happened, but at the end of the day it’s racing at Bristol.”
Truex’s comments signal more disappointment with the lost opportunity of a Bristol victory than with his manufacturer teammate. With five playoff points up for grabs, Busch could have easily gone on to win and made Truex’s path to the title more difficult. Yet it was Kurt Busch who won the race, and with Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano winning the stages, none of the so-called “Big Three” added to their playoff point totals.
So, no harm, no foul for Kyle Busch and Truex? Maybe, but maybe not. Since they are part of the same multi-team alliance, is there a sense of expectation they will work together, or at least not make each other’s lives on track more difficult than they already are? Busch may not have spun Truex deliberately, but he is still responsible for taking the No. 78 out of contention. Despite having a respectable amount of playoff points, Truex does not yet know how many he will need to advance through the playoffs. He only knows that Busch cost him a chance to get more.
Of course, the roles were reversed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year. Busch and Truex had the dominant cars of the day and had been working together on restarts to ensure they could hold the top two positions. As they prepared for a restart with 50 laps to go, the No. 78 and No. 18 teams agreed that it was now too late in the event for the same kind of restart collaboration. Instead, it was every man for himself from that point forward. On the restart, Truex got loose underneath Busch, slid up the track, and caused both cars to crash out of the race.
Busch had led 87 of the 110 laps run up until then, but Truex’s mistake cost him the opportunity to win and earn playoff points. In that instance, Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens apparently did blame Truex for the incident, getting into a shouting match with several No. 78 crew members. The escapade ended with the suspension of two No. 78 crew members by Joe Gibbs Racing, since JGR technically provided the crew members to FRR.
The on-track incidents between Busch and Truex reflect the confusing nature of the Toyota alliance. JGR and FRR share data, equipment and personnel away from the track. But how does that relationship extend to the heat of the battle during the race, if at all? Do Busch and Truex recognize that their teams are stronger together and work as teammates in the exact same way Busch works with Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones? Or, do Busch and Truex interpret their situation as competitors from different organizations and take the “every man for himself” approach? Will they accept that accidents can happen when hard racing occurs?
The manufacturer superteam, as it exists in NASCAR today, is still a relatively new concept. The protocol for how drivers race each other is not well defined. Busch and Truex’s position as two of a very few top-tier championship contenders is putting strain on the Toyota alliance as the Nos. 18 and 78 teams struggle to figure out what their responsibilities are to each other.
Perhaps FRR and JGR could work together more closely in a perfect world. A stronger alliance means that Truex or Busch is more likely to defeat Harvick and bring Toyota a championship. But a championship for Furniture Row Racing does not count as a championship for Joe Gibbs Racing. Just ask Busch after Homestead last year. Every alliance has its limits, ones Truex and Busch will continue to test until the last checkered flag of 2018 falls.