Home / AJ Hecht / Pace Laps: Joe Gibbs & Toyota Take NASCAR Magic to a New Level
(Photo: Danny Peters)

Pace Laps: Joe Gibbs & Toyota Take NASCAR Magic to a New Level

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series: Joe Gibbs Racing’s Trio Too Tough?

Richmond Raceway over the course of the weekend turned into Toyota’s personal playground. A dominant NASCAR Xfinity Series win by Christopher Bell (see below) morphed into a 1-2-3-4 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing in Saturday’s (Sept. 20) Federated Auto Parts 400.

Erik Jones‘ failure in post-race technical inspection briefly put a damper on all that. Jones’ last-place finish (JGR currently has no plans to appeal) means the dream of an all-Toyota championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will likely have to wait another year. There’s certainly a chance someone like Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski can put their best foot forward and pull an upset. Remember what Logano did just last year. Putting at least one other driver in that Championship 4 stirs the pot.

NASCAR RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: RICHMOND

But at this point, this year’s Big Three appear to be all cut from the same organization. Martin Truex Jr. came out of the box firing, going two-for-two to start the postseason with a come-from-behind victory at Richmond. Even a late-race spin, courtesy of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., couldn’t stop a determined Truex on this night.

Kyle Busch, after a week filled with drama over lapped cars, put the off-track chaos aside to run a strong second. He’s qualified for the Round of 12 already and holds a significant playoff point advantage. The same goes for Denny Hamlin, third Saturday night to earn his fifth short track top-five finish of the year. He’s certainly the most vulnerable, posting runs of 36th, 21st and 16th this season at the Round of 12 tracks next up on the schedule.

But assuming Hamlin makes it through, he’s a threat to win at Martinsville and secure a spot in the Championship 4. And a “step off the pace” No. 11 team still had more speed than Keselowski or Logano, the latter of who spent most of the night at Richmond simply struggling to stay on the lead lap.

“We’re just blessed to have the kind of people we have around us,” owner Joe Gibbs said of the impressive Richmond run. “And I think that when you have a night like tonight, it may never, ever happen again, certainly for us. It was an absolute thrill, and I was just thrilled to be a part of it.”

That thrill may not be ending anytime soon. We’ve been waiting for the first time a team dominates the title proceedings under this format. Last year, Stewart-Haas Racing came close. But JGR is headed in that direction with arguably the top three favorites to reach Homestead-Miami. – Tom Bowles

NASCAR Xfinity Series: Christopher Bell Entering Kyle Busch Territory

If one thing is for certain on a weekly basis in the Xfinity Series, it’s Christopher Bell being one of the drivers to beat.

On Friday at Richmond Raceway, Bell picked up his seventh win of the season, already matching his total from 2018, his rookie season. That year, he went on to finish fourth in the championship standings.

This season has a similar feel. Seven wins in 27 starts is damn impressive, and leading 238 laps in a single Xfinity event is rare territory. The last time it was done was in 2015, when Ryan Blaney led 252 circuits at Iowa Speedway.

The victory was Bell’s 15th career win in 68 starts, which is roughly 22% of the time. Kyle Busch, the all-time leader in race wins in the series, has 96 wins in 352 starts, a staggering 27.2%.

Not too shabby for the 24-year-old future Cup star. But before that, he looks to conquer an Xfinity title, matching the number of championships Busch has won. – Dustin Albino

Formula One: Ferrari Gets a Huge 1-2 as Sebastian Vettel Almost Gifted Win

The 2019 Singapore Grand Prix was a battle of strategy. First, the battle between Ferrari and Mercedes, as Charles Leclerc kept the lead tight trying to save his tires and Lewis Hamilton kept close tabs on Leclerc through the first stint.

But then, it became a battle between Ferrari drivers as Sebastian Vettel pitted first in order to try and force Hamilton to stop earlier and give Leclerc a bigger lead. Vettel began busting off great lap times and ended up ahead of Hamilton and Leclerc. 

The Singapore track is so difficult to pass on, so once Vettel took the lead, there was not much that Leclerc could do with Vettel. Something that Vettel does very well is when he is leading a race, he uses the clean air very well to get out to a gap quickly and not allow the following car to use DRS, or be close enough for DRS to make a difference and hold off for the race win.

However, it is a slightly controversial finish for Ferrari as Leclerc has been the better of the two, pretty much all season and yet Vettel got the better strategy. Usually, Ferrari favors the driver who is higher in points after this part of the season. As we stand in 2019, Leclerc is in fourth ahead of Vettel in fifth. It was a concern we had coming into this season with Vettel poised for a title fight as well as Leclerc, but as they have not been very competitive we have only seen a few switched for fourth and fifth on track but not for race wins.

Now, we have the first bit of drama as Leclerc was very much unhappy on the radio with the result as he feels he was robbed of his third straight win of the season by his teammate and struggling teammate. On the other hand, it was a big win for Vettel who has not won in 392 days. A win like this could help him finally get his confidence back.

Now that Ferrari seems to have the pace on a track that doesn’t only just favor power but chassis and aero, we will see if they can take the fight to Mercedes and Red Bull to end the year and make it an exciting last leg of the season. – Drew Mongiello

NTT IndyCar Series: Josef Newgarden Becomes Two-Time Champion

Josef Newgarden is the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series champion. 

With an eighth-place finish on Sunday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the 28-year-old collected his second series title, beating out Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi and five-time-champion Scott Dixon in the race for the Astor Cup.

Clinching the crown with an unspectacular drive, Newgarden did just enough to get the job done as his three championship competitors failed to take advantage of the Team Penske pilot’s lackluster day. 

Dixon, a longshot coming into the weekend, had the best afternoon of the four eligible drivers, ending his title defense with a podium finish. Pagenaud, although looking racy, was never able to get by the Kiwi and ended his day in fourth, while Rossi closed out his campaign with a disappointing sixth-place finish.

It was a fitting end to a season in which Newgarden all but tried to give away the title, despite leading the championship for the entirety of the season following his win at the opener in St. Petersburg.

The Team Penske pilot made multiple unforced errors throughout the year, surrendering at least 20 points in the process with late-race spins at both Mid-Ohio and World Wide Technology Raceway. But a few uninspired drives from Rossi and Pagenaud in the closing stages of the season meant Newgarden went unpunished for his mistakes, giving away a title that was very much theirs for the taking and leaving them to wonder what could have been. 

But that won’t matter much to Newgarden. 

Overcome with emotion following the race, the Nashville-native now resides in rare company, joining Al Unser, Jr., Bobby Unser and Alex Zanardi–along with many other storied racing names–as a two-time champion.

Now left to settle into a long, satisfying offseason, his only question will be whether or not he can make it three. – AJ Hecht

Sports Cars: Scott Atherton To Retire From IMSA

IMSA announced Thursday that the sanctioning body’s president, Scott Atherton, will retire at the end of 2019.  Despite his retirement, Atherton will remain on IMSA’s Board of Directors.

Atherton has been the president of IMSA since 2013.  In that time, he has overseen the completion of the merger between the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am to form the current version of IMSA.  Prior to that, he was president of the Panoz Motor Sports Group, the parent company of the American Le Mans Series from 2000-2013.  In addition to sanctioning body roles, Atherton has also served as president of now-WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and in marketing roles in a career that stretches back to 1985.

With Atherton running either the ALMS or IMSA for the last 19 years, his departure effectively marks the end of an era in sports car racing.  When he took over as CEO of the Panoz Motor Sports Group in 2000, the ALMS was going into its second year after a couple of years of disarray.  The first rival sports car series in North America (the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC)) had just shuttered in the middle of their second year and Grand-Am had launched in order to replace them.  That said, the two series were running near identical equipment at the time.

It was a couple of years later that Grand-Am diverged from ALMS and launched the Daytona Prototypes in order to differentiate themselves.  The result was two rival but different sanctioning bodies, not dissimilar to CART and the IRL.  Today, the two bodies have united and IMSA has grown sports car racing in North America over the past few years.

As of now, there is no official successor to Atherton in the wings.  IMSA CEO Ed Bennett will name a replacement in the coming months. – Phil Allaway

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Frontstretch Staff
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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One comment

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    It’s amazing how some rule changes in Cup can help certain teams and hurt others.