Toyota's strength only part of the story from Kansas Speedway
Well, we went into Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway with a lot of buzz. In the grandstand, in the media and in the garage the buzz was all about the Toyotas and their almost-complete dominance so far in 2016.
I mean let’s face it, until Saturday night the Joe Gibbs Toyotas had won five of the 10 races of the season. Guess what? Now Joe Gibbs Racing has won six out of 11 races in 2016.
So when I say complete dominance, I’m not only talking about season, but also Saturday night when it comes to Toyota. Think about this. Of the 267 laps run the other night, Toyotas led something like 246 of them. That in my book is complete dominance. Kyle Busch now has the most wins (three) of any driver this season. He’s also second in the points, now only 4 behind Kevin Harvick, who ironically finished second to Kyle in the race.
Then when I was reviewing everything I found a lot of other interesting storylines as well that came out of Kansas. Austin Dillon simply continues to impress all of us this season. It just seems the paring of he and Slugger Labbe was the right call. Austin finished sixth Saturday night. It was also his sixth top-10 finish of the year and he moved up two more spots to eighth in the points. I still believe we’re going to see that No. 3 car with that young man behind the wheel drive into Victory Circle this season.
Our two rookie-of-the-year drivers had impressive outings again. Ryan Blaney go his fourth top-10 finish Saturday night and his first top five of the year when he brought his No. 21 Ford home in fifth. Chase Elliott had to overcome some adversity with the wall, but he came home night, which marked his seventh top-10 finish in 11 races. Like Austin, I’m not going to be a bit surprised to see either one or both Ryan and Chase win a race this year.
It was great to see Austin’s teammate Ryan Newman finish seventh. So it’s great to see the Richard Childress Racing camp running so much better this season. A.J. Allmendinger started clear back in 29th but by the end of the evening he had his third top-10 finish of the season when he came home eighth. So the No. 47 had a great night as well.
Probably the heartbreak of the night easily had to be the No. 78. I love Martin Truex Jr. and his crew chief Cole Pearn. They are just good guys. As you know they made the switch-over during the offseason to Toyotas and entered into an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. They are the best place they have ever been but for whatever reason they just seem snake bit.
Unfortunately, now I think it’s in their heads. They had the field covered at one point Saturday night by three-tenths of a second but then something weird happened, which cost them the race.
This time it was a broken head bolt off the brake that got caught behind the right-front wheel. It wasn’t anything Martin did or a mistake by the pit crew. It was simply an extremely rare mechanical failure. Poor Martin went from dominating the race, back to 21st but was at least able to claw his way up to a 14th-place finish. I swear though I think they now expect something bad to happen. So I felt horrible for them because they just never can seem to close the deal.
On the positive side of things, how about my buddy ol’ Smoke Saturday night? Tony Stewart looked like a man on a mission. He started 16th. He led 12 laps and finished 12th. Remember, he has to win a race and be 30thor better in the points when the checkered flag waves at Richmond in September. Tony’s only driven three races so far. When he came back at Richmond he was 112 points out of 30th. Now three races later he has cut that number down to 59 points back.
Look, I’m a Smoke fan. He has unbelievable talent and I know he wants to finish this, his last year, out in style. I know he’d love to make the Chase. I for one am not counting that out. That could very easily happen. If you don’t believe me, let me remind you about 2011. Tony made the Chase, which was under a different format then, without a win all year. He told anyone who would listen that neither he nor the team deserved to be there.
Do you remember what happened? They caught fire. Tony won five of the 10 Chase races. He tied Carl Edwards in the points but Tony won his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship because he had more wins than Carl. All of that happened in a span of only 10 weeks. When you combine that with what Tony saw Kyle Busch do last year after his injury, well I’m just going to say - hear me now, believe me later – don’t count Tony Stewart out of the 2016 championship hunt.
Try as I might to look for other things to write about, most roads lead back to Joe Gibbs Racing. Did you know that Saturday’s win ties Coach Gibbs with Jack Roush for third on the all-time NASCAR Cup win list? That’s amazing the Coach has gotten his organization already in that position in his illustrious career. Again, don’t forget, this was a man who won three Super Bowls before he even turned to NASCAR.
Kyle is also on the threshold of putting his name in the NASCAR history books again. Up until Saturday night there were only three tracks he hasn’t won at. Kansas was one of them but obviously that box is now checked. Now that only leaves Charlotte and Pocono with both of those coming up in a few weeks. Kyle is goal-driven so I expect him to put max effort into winning at both those tracks this year becoming the only driver to win at every NASCAR track on the circuit.
The other thing Saturday night did for Kyle was tie him with Tony Stewart with the most wins at Joe Gibbs Racing. They are tied at 33 but Tony won two championships for the Coach so you just know that Kyle wants to break both those records as well. This is a guy who is only 31 years old for goodness sakes. He’s not a guy that’s out logging laps hoping to win. Kyle is driven to win. That’s all he cares about during our regular season and all he’ll care about once the Chase starts. There are things on Kyle’s radar that he has clearly targeted and it’s a safe bet he’ll probably accomplish them.
Before the engravers start etching his name on the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship trophy, I think we best not overlook Kevin Harvick. Yes, I know all of Stewart-Haas Racing is in a lame-duck year with Chevrolet and their alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, but someone forgot to tell Kevin. He finished second again Saturday night. He’s leading the points after 11 races. He’s also racked up a win, five top-5 finishes and nine top-10 finishes in 11 races.
So after 11 races we’ve only had six different winners. As I mentioned earlier, Kyle has three wins and teammate Carl Edwards has two. Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski also have two each with Harvick and Denny Hamlin both winning once. There are 16 spots for the 2016 Chase and the way things are going I just don’t think we’re going to see 16 different race winners.
What’s really going to be interesting to see is how the landscape for the Chase gets changed if our rookies, Ryan and Chase or if Austin Dillon put a win on the board. What if Tony Stewart is able to meet NASCAR’s requirements and makes the Chase? That’s going to mean some names we always expect to see in the Chase on the outside looking in.
So we off to the land of concrete and crab cakes. Naturally I’m talking about the Monster Mile otherwise known as “The House Jimmie Johnson Built.” Jimmie has 10 wins there so you know he has had Sunday circled for a long time on his calendar. Ironically he didn’t win there at either races last year, so it will be interesting to see if the No. 48 can get back to his dominating Dover ways, or will be another week of complete dominance by those Toyotas?