Denny Hamlin’s NASCAR Cup Series win at Daytona International Speedway is the only finish better than 15th for Toyota after two races. Is it too early to hit the panic button?
Adam Cheek: Yes, way too early. A couple races in — one a superspeedway race with a few massive crashes and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where failing inspection or just running poorly were the culprits — is definitely too soon to hit the panic button. Four or five races in should be the breaking point — not enough to completely rule out a comeback in terms of points or wins, but enough to see how the cars run on several track styles and evaluate from there.
Vito Pugliese: Absolutely too soon. Let’s not forget either that that top finish was a Daytona 500 win, and he stood a chance as passing two of the fastest Fords drafting by himself. A Toyota also won the Busch Clash with its front end 4 feet taller than than any other car left on the track, with another one pushing it past everyone with ease. Last weekend at Las Vegas was a bit of misleading, as well as there were inspection penalties that sent three Toyotas to the rear of the field. Martin Truex Jr. had what was likely a top-five car before contact with the wall ended his chances, and the late race pitting and restart rough-housing stymied all of the progress that Kyle Busch had made throughout the day. It’s also worth noting that the Toyotas aren’t exactly strong in numbers. The four Joe Gibbs Racing entries and their sister car, the No. 95 of Christopher Bell, are the only true competitive cars, with all due respect to Timmy Hill and Daniel Suarez. Chevrolet also has a new nose this year that finally has it on a level playing field on intermediates. It’s not like Toyota is out to lunch, the competition has simply risen to its level.
Mark Kristl: Panic, no, concern, yes. Toyota has five chartered teams. The two open teams, Gaunt Brothers Racing and MBM Motorsports, are further behind those teams. So the fewest number of drivers per manufacturer means Toyota has a smaller database from which to work. Its drivers are too good not to run better, but it may take longer than anticipated.
Amy Henderson: Way, way, way too soon. If they’re not competitive after a month, then we can talk. Daytona is Daytona, and Daytona things happened. The concern I had at Vegas was that after the teams who were penalized had to fix their cars to pass inspection, they weren’t able to move through the field. Whether the Bondo was giving them an advantage that got taken away or whether they were just off the mark is the question. Truex was fast — his finish wasn’t indicative of his speed. I fully expect the Toyotas to be competitive not dominant at Auto Club Speedway this week. Now, they may have more competition this year from Chevrolet, but isn’t that the whole point? It’s no fun for fans to see one team or manufacturer dominate, so having them all competitive is what’s actually important.
Of the five drivers who followed Joey Logano across the finish line at Vegas, which one needed a good result the most?
Pugliese: Jimmie Johnson. With 2020 being his final season, and 2019 being one to forget as quickly as possible, he needed to have a strong showing early. Much of his troubles — and most of the Chevrolet teams, for that matter — can be traced to the aerodynamic deficiencies of the cars last season. With a solid top five under his belt this early, prospects are solid for Johnson to at least win a race in his final season, as well as make the playoffs. While he’s not a threat right now to win a record-setting eighth championship, I would have never guessed he was going to win his seventh in 2016, either.
Cheek: Matt DiBenedetto. Yes, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Bubba Wallace also finished well, but DiBenedetto made a huge jump to Wood Brothers Racing after 2019. He tied his career-best finish, nearly closed in on Logano at one point, and was already running seventh before the caution came out to set up those final pit stops. Plus, if Logano had heard his pit crew correctly, he would’ve come in and DiBenedetto would’ve likely won the race. That’s a huge confidence booster for both DiBenedetto and the team.
Henderson: Johnson. The No. 48 team couldn’t find their ass with both hands and a flashlight last year, but Johnson showed that when he has a competitive car, he’s still a competitive driver. His battle with Busch in the late laps at Las Vegas was really fun to watch, and when he had the right car, it was Johnson coming out on top of that battle. Whatever you think of Johnson, he’s the best of a generation, and he deserves to go out on top, as a contender, and not an also-ran.
Kristl: Stenhouse needed a good finish to prove JTG Daugherty Racing made the right call. Over the offseason, I questioned whether the team made the right decision to fill its open seat. Stenhouse has always been a good driver at superspeedways. Running well at Las Vegas showed he can run well at other tracks as well.
Was Ryan Sieg finishing third at Vegas an indication of that team’s improvement, a mere fluke, a lack of strong competition or something else entirely?
Henderson: Probably a little bit of all three. His team has definitely improved over the last couple of years, especially considering their budget, which is a lot smaller than some of the teams they’re racing every week. He’s made the playoffs a couple of times and had some solid finishes. With his blue-collar organization and perseverance, Ryan Sieg should be a fan favorite for those tired of the wealthy kids getting all the breaks. As far as a lack of competition, the same teams with the same money are still there. They may have new, less experienced drivers in some of the seats, but the money and all the advantages it brings are still there. Did Sieg get a little lucky in Vegas? Sure, and isn’t that what people flock to Vegas for — a little dance with Lady Luck?
Cheek: A combination of team improvement and lack of strong competition. ieg’s run was impressive, running as high as second and holding onto third by the time the checkered flag flew. Running his own racing team, he’s done very well and shown improvement over the last few seasons, making the playoffs in two of the last four years. However, I’ll also attribute that performance to lack of competition — not that there’s any shortage of talent in the Xfinity Series, but the three best drivers departed after 2019. Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick dominated their competition over the last two years, so it might take a few races before we see the best of the 2020 season sort themselves out. Regardless, Sieg’s No. 39 was impressive Sunday night, and that should provide a lot of confidence and momentum heading into the rest of the season.
Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis have put up a $100,000 bonus for any Cup driver that can beat Kyle Busch in a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race. Do you see this as a positive for the series?
Cheek: Absolutely. In a series with only 22 full-time drivers — roughly two-thirds of the field — and with many of those rookies or drivers with only a few years of experience, the division needs the attention, and it’s something we’ve never seen before, making it more intriguing. The possibility of watching Busch, who won all five of his Truck events last year and who regularly dominates the races he enters, duke it out with another driver at his level for an entire race is a tempting one. Very few series regulars can even keep up with Busch in the races he runs; former series champion Johnny Sauter finished a distant second to Busch at Las Vegas, nearly six seconds back. It would be fun, raise money for a great cause if Busch wins and certainly would make more viewers tune in.
Henderson: Yes, of course. While I’d have preferred Harvick to offer the bounty to a non-Cup driver to beat Busch, the challenge puts eyes on the series. People will watch those races now, and hopefully they’ll be treated to a great show that will keep them coming back. The problem, though, isn’t so much about finding a driver who can beat Busch, but rather finding a driver who can do it and then finding that driver equipment that cam compete with the richest team in the garage. If the equipment isn’t a match for the No. 51, the drivers won’t matter.
Kristl: In his last nine Truck starts, the only two drivers to best Busch have been Noah Gragson and Sauter. Harvick and Lemonis putting up a bounty generated interest in the Truck Series – hopefully it will continue. If a Cup driver such as Chase Elliott or rookie John Hunter Nemechek wins a race, it adds excitement. However, the bounty would be best in this regard. If Busch does not win, then give at least half the money to the winning driver – Cup driver or not.
Pugliese: I would, but not sure who or where that is likely to happen at. Busch didn’t exactly pick tracks where things would be on a level playing field, like Daytona, Talladega Superspeedway or Martinsville Speedway. Instead they are on the types of intermediates — Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Kansas Speedway — that see him run off and leave the field in his wake. That’s not to say it can’t or won’t happen; engine failures, loose wheels or untimely cautions can catch anyone at any given time. A wild restart as we saw this past Sunday in the Cup Series can jumble up the running order as well. Hopefully it does help get some extra eyes on the track or butts in the seats, but at the tracks he’s racing at, it’s going to be a tall task.