One year after stunning Daytona 500 triumph, Toyotas pulled up short
What a difference a year makes.
In 2016, Toyota put together a stunning Daytona 500 game plan that saw all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers and Martin Truex Jr. work in lockstep in the closing laps.
The end result was Denny Hamlin’s JGR Toyota crossed the start-finish line 0.010 seconds ahead of Truex in the closest Daytona 500 finish since the advent of electronic timing and scoring.
Toyotas swept the top three spots and four of the top five in a performance that was strategically brilliant and flawlessly executed.
Well, the Toyotas had a plan again, but this time it all blew up on them.
And wasn’t the fault of the drivers or the teams.
It was, as they say, just one of them racing deals.
The six Toyotas — four from JGR and two from Furniture Row Racing, which this year added a second car for Erik Jones — pitted in unison early in the race for fuel and tires.
That proved to be a smart move, as Kyle Busch won the first stage of the race, which concluded on Lap 60 of 200.
Then, it all went to hell.
After completing 103 laps, Busch lost a rear tire and caused a six-care pileup, which took three of the top six Toyotas out of the race: Busch finished 38th, Jones 39th and Kenseth 40th.
“We were just biding our time, playing it out, trying to see what the strategies were gonna to do at the segments,” said Busch. “Thankfully we have I guess a segment point you know out of this day. That’s a positive. But man, you’re trying to win the Daytona 500 here, you know. It’s just so disappointing.”
Defending 500 winner Hamlin was part of a 17-car crash on Lap 128, while rookie Daniel Suarez got crunched in another wreck 14 laps later. Hamlin finished 17th, Suarez 29th.
“Actually I was so ready to race because I had been taking care of my car a lot, a lot,” said Suarez. “I was asking my team, ‘Possibly, it’s time to race? It’s time to race?’ I guess it was still too early.”
Truex, the lead driver for Furniture Row, also had some damage in the Lap 128 crash but his team fixed his No. 78 Toyota and with just two laps to go, Truex was leading the race, as it appeared he would earn redemption from being passed at the checkered flag by Hamlin last year.
Alas, it was not to be.
Instead, Truex was one of several drivers who ran out of gas at the end, and he fell to 13th place.
“We did what we wanted to do and that was to put ourselves in position to have a shot at winning this race,” said Truex. “We came close but didn’t get it done in the end. But considering where we came from it was a good effort that should have had a better finish.”
After winning Daytona and sweeping four of the top five spots in 2016, the highest-finishing Toyota in this year’s Daytona 500 was Michael Waltrip in eighth place.
But that’s racing for you.
You can have fast cars, great drivers and top pit crews and still see your day blow up. And that’s exactly what happened to the top Toyotas on Sunday at Daytona.