The Top Five: Breaking down the Watkins Glen race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International…

1. Total Toyotas

Fans can be upset and drivers (coughBradKeselowskicough) can politic all they want, but Toyota is absolutely dominating the series right now.

After a slow start for Joe Gibbs Racing, the four-car team has joined Furniture Row Racing to put six of the fastest cars on the track every week. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a big track or a road course — Toyotas are likely going to be running up front most of the day.

Just check out Sunday’s finishing order: Toyotas swept the top four spots (for the first time ever) and had all six of its main cars in the top 10. And Toyota drivers also combined to lead 59 of the 90 laps.

As Kyle Larson has faded (he’s now third in the point standings behind Truex and Kyle Busch), it’s increasingly looking like the Toyotas will roll into the playoffs just as strong as they were last year.

Of course, a Chevrolet ended up winning the 2016 title — so that doesn’t mean a Toyota championship is a sure thing.

But it’s certainly looking good at the moment, particularly with Truex holding 34 playoff points (plus staring at another 15 if he hangs on to be the regular season champion).

As a reminder, that means Truex would start each round of the playoffs with at least 49 points — close to a full race — and could still add more points in the regular season and the playoffs races themselves.

So is Truex a lock for Homestead?

“It doesn’t mean that it’s a free pass or we’re just going to skate through,” Truex said. “We’re still going to work hard and try to do the best we can. But I do think that as the playoffs start, the thought process probably shifts more toward, ‘How do we figure out how to run really well at Homestead? Have a shot at winning there?’ Because that’s what it’s going to come down to.”

2. Blink and you’ll miss it

Sunday’s race was the shortest full-distance Cup Series points race in NASCAR’s modern era (1972-present). It was actually three minutes shorter than Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, which is kind of amazing in itself.

The last time a full-distance Cup points race was less than the two-hour-and-seven-minute run-time of Watkins Glen? Hickory in August of 1971, according to NASCAR.

One big reason was there were only three cautions — and NASCAR let the race play out at the finish, with the final 36 laps all under green.

That’s becoming a trend lately, since NASCAR seemingly has stopped calling late debris cautions after an outbreak of criticism following the Michigan race in June.

A recap:

— At Sonoma, the final 55 laps were green.

— Daytona was an overtime finish, but that was set up by an accident.

— Kentucky was an overtime finish, but that was set up by Kurt Busch blowing up after a 100-lap run.

— At New Hampshire, the final 35 laps were green.

— Indianapolis finished in overtime, but that was set up due to multiple wrecks.

— At Pocono, the last 55 laps (all of Stage 3) were green.

I love that. Yeah, it might be more exciting to see a crazy double-file restart in overtime — but if a caution is not warranted, then it’s good to let the race play out. And that’s what NASCAR seems to be doing.

Plus, a long run at the end doesn’t mean it’s a boring race. The finish Sunday was still in doubt and had plenty of excitement right down to the final seconds. So those are all positive things, and I like how NASCAR is officiating these races. I hope this trend continues through the playoffs, when the races mean so much more.

 

3. Brad and Kyle, Part 389

Based on his radio chatter, I thought Busch was going to go punch Keselowski in the face after the race, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Busch shook hands with AJ Allmendinger and laughed about something, then walked briskly toward the garage with reporters trailing behind.

He didn’t say anything notable (“Imagine that,” he said about the contact) — saving his thoughts for a mid-flight Twitter Q&A on the way home — but it was clear he was once again upset with his nemesis.

This is my favorite rivalry in NASCAR. On the surface, the two men have a lot in common: Both Busch and Keselowski are such unapologetically hard racers, both each have one title, both own a Truck Series team and each has a child who was born days apart from the other.

Yet there is ZERO common ground between the two, who have no relationship (despite Keselowski’s attempt at an olive branch through his blog a couple years ago). And they conduct themselves in a much different manner.

I think both are fantastic for the sport and are compelling, interesting people. They add spice to the race weekends on a regular basis. So it doesn’t bother me that they don’t see eye to eye, because that’s entertaining for the rest of us.

Oh, and don’t expect them to ever chat about Sunday’s incident, either.

“I don’t think he is really the listening type, so that is pretty doubtful,” Keselowski said.

4. Points battle blown open

If you haven’t paid attention, the points gap for the final playoff spot (see below) is only getting wider with four races to go.

Joey Logano is now completely out of the picture — he’s 106 points behind Matt Kenseth for the final spot — and in a must-win situation. That’s crazy, by the way.

Meanwhile, Kenseth added to his lead over Clint Bowyer and is now up by 28 points. Bowyer needs either Kenseth, Chase Elliott or Jamie McMurray to have a bad race (or two) while he has really solid results at Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Richmond.

Of course, this all changes with a new winner. But it’s fairly obvious after Sunday there won’t be 16 different winners, so there should be at least a couple spots available to make the playoffs on points.

5. Must-See TV

NBCSN’s experiment with using a radio-style call for its TV broadcasts this weekend was a smashing success and as well-received on Twitter as any new thing can possibly be these days.

Mike Bagley of the Motor Racing Network fame was phenomenal in his role at the top of the esses, bringing all the excitement and enthusiasm from the radio to a TV screen. But just as impressive was Parker Kligerman, a driver with no formal announcing training, being able to pick up Bagley’s lead and call the action through the inner loop. Jeff Burton also brought a ton of insight in a fast-paced environment.

In addition, Leigh Diffey’s play-by-play announcing from the booth was top-notch. The F1 announcer was filling in for Rick Allen (who was in London for the track and field world championships) and was perfect alongside Steve Letarte, who was typically excellent in breaking down the strategy.

All in all, it made for one of the best NASCAR TV broadcasts in recent memory.

———–

PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +34

16. Matt Kenseth +28

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -28

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Pocono race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…

1. Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch?

Kyle Busch haters can skip over this part, but the guy is a serious championship contender despite not having won in more than a year until Sunday.

For most of the season, the best car each week has been either Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Larson. But Busch has been creeping into the picture lately, and he’s been the one to battle Truex the last couple weeks while Larson hasn’t shown as much speed (even before incidents which resulted in finishes of 28th and 33rd).

Busch hadn’t won since the 2016 Brickyard 400 and Joe Gibbs Racing hadn’t won all season until two weeks ago, so everyone has been busy talking more about that than how the 2015 Cup champ might have a pretty good shot to do it again.

Busch has the most poles, second-most laps led and third-most top-five finishes this season. And perhaps most important, he is now tied for the third-most playoff points with Larson and Brad Keselowski.

As JGR continues to gain speed, Busch has been out front the most. He’s led at least 74 laps in four straight races now. That’s a very dangerous car for his rivals to deal with.

“… We’ve had speed, we’ve been right there, we’ve been able to do what we should be doing: That’s running up front,” Busch said. “It’s just been a bit frustrating on the finishing side.”

It’s scary, because with all the near-misses until Sunday, you get the feeling the No. 18 team hasn’t even performed to its potential yet. If Busch and his team start converting all the close calls into wins? Watch out.

2. What’s the point?

Speaking of championship contenders, I was puzzled by the No. 78 team’s decision to pit late in Stage 2 and give up what seemed like a sure playoff point — which would have made 30 on the season.

I get that Truex and Cole Pearn were going for the win, which meant sacrificing a stage win. Had it worked, they would have made a trade for four additional points than a stage victory brings.

But that’s only if it works. It didn’t. So instead of one playoff point, the team left with zero.

“That was the gamble,” Truex said. “That was our mindset before the race. We figured if we felt like we were good enough to possibly win the race, we’d have to pit before the end of that second stage. Just stuck to our plan.

“It didn’t work out, so obviously now I wish we would have stayed out and won that stage. That’s part of it.”

I can’t recall every situation that led to 14 stage wins for Truex this season, but it seems like the team had been going all-out for playoff points every week until Pocono. And as has been discussed frequently, those points are going to be a massive factor this fall in deciding who makes it to Homestead. So why not take as many as possible when the opportunity presents itself?

Truex and Pearn had an easy one point, gambled for four more and ended up with none. That’s what a team in a trailing position should do, not the leader.

This was like a basketball player passing on a wide-open layup with a 20-point lead; there’s no need to take a contested three in that situation.

3. A different level of speed

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pumped after finishing 12th, pleased he and the No. 88 team “finally put one together” and had a “complete race” despite an early speeding penalty. Earnhardt ran in the top 10 for much of the second half of the day — something he didn’t anticipate after fighting a loose condition on corner entry all weekend.

But even on a good day, he wasn’t really close to running with the top cars.

“Man, I don’t know where the speed is that the front three or four have,” he said on pit road after the race. “They’ve got it every week. We don’t have that, and we’re not going to find in that garage on Friday or Saturday. If we don’t show up with it, we’re not going to find it. That’s somewhere in the shop.”

Earnhardt said it was probably only a matter of time before Busch started matching Truex’s speed, given the information-sharing arrangement between alliance partners JGR and Furniture Row Racing.

But he’s not sure where the speed is coming from, and that’s concerning.

“It’s nothing you can visually see,” he said .”We’re all in the garage together. We can see under their cars, see the springs they’re running, stuff like that. But it’s not in anything like that.

“They’ve got a lot of speed somehow. They’ve got a lot more speed than everybody else. Gotta give ’em credit.”

4. Season slipping away for Logano

Joey Logano’s season of misery just keeps snowballing as the playoffs approach all too quickly for his team’s liking.

Sunday was another race where everything seemed to go wrong.

Not only did the team lack the speed it needed to be competitive, but both Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon made mistakes on pit road.

Logano was caught speeding with 36 laps to go and had to serve a pass-through penalty under green, but then locked up his tires coming to pit road. When Logano told the team he hurt his tires enough to possibly incur a flat, Gordon quickly made the call to pit for four tires.

But that was a no-no, because pitting while serving a penalty requires another pass-through down pit road. By the time it was all over, Logano finished 27th and one lap down.

The result was Logano’s eighth finish outside the top 20 in the 12 races since he won at Richmond but had the win ruled to be encumbered. He’s now 69 points behind the cutoff with just five races until the playoffs begin.

I caught up with Logano as he was walking glumly away from his car on pit road and asked whether he’s ever faced such a stretch of adversity in his career.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

But Logano said his team “still knows how to do it” and added “we’ve just got to built some momentum back up.”

The thing is, momentum might not be necessary. It just takes one great race (or one good race where everything falls into place) to make the playoffs, and Logano is certainly capable of doing that.

There’s not much time left, though.

5. Sunday doubleheader (kind of)

Qualifying on the same day as the race was kind of weird, even though there were a lot of positives on paper.

The flow of race day seemed all messed up, and the laid-back atmosphere that qualifying brings took away from the typical Sunday morning vibe — where the anticipation builds in the hours before the event.

Maybe I’ll get used to it (a similar schedule will be tried again next week), and I hope that’s the case — because there definitely some good sides of it. Fans get added value with on-track activity before the race itself (some of whom never get to see a Friday session at the track because they don’t come for the whole weekend) and drivers/teams get an extra day at home (after all, the Cup Series really doesn’t need to be at some of these tracks for three days).

 

I just wish the schedule could be tightened up a bit. After qualifying, there was roughly a 45-minute gap until the drivers meeting, then a 90-minute gap until the green flag.

Lunchtime quietly rolled by without much fanfare, and the sun started to shift in the sky before the race finally went green at 3:21 p.m. ET.  People were just milling around waiting for it to start.

But come on — this is NASCAR! Big-time auto racing, right? It shouldn’t feel like waiting for the leaders to tee off at a golf tournament.

 


PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +38

16. Matt Kenseth +17

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -17

18. Joey Logano -69

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

Video: Toyota drivers participate in Olympic crossover event

During two days in Utah, I watched as Toyota NASCAR drivers Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez — along with crew chiefs Cole Pearn and Chris Gayle — mingled with Olympic athletes and participated in various Winter Games training.

It was pretty fun, and I could tell you all about it, but I’d rather show you. So here’s a video I made about it:

12 Questions with Erik Jones

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Erik Jones of Furniture Row Racing. I spoke with Jones on Wednesday while attending a Toyota event in Utah where NASCAR drivers and Olympic athletes interacted.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

Man, it sounds bad to say, but I’d say up until last year it was 100 percent natural ability. And then once I got to the Cup Series, I think we all have natural ability at this level — everybody’s really good, so that’s where working at it really comes into play. I would say this year has probably been 60 percent natural and 40 percent working at it.

It’s definitely a big change for me. Being in Trucks and Xfinity wasn’t easy, but it definitely wasn’t as hard as the Cup Series; I felt like I could really just get a good feel for it quickly and go out and be pretty quick everywhere. At the Cup level, it’s like, OK, everybody’s pretty quick at it, everybody gets it pretty easy and so you have to be really good at all the little things that make up for it for a lot of times.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I think for me, I’m just an average 21-year-old kid. I like to have fun, I like to party and have a good time. You know, go out, work hard and do my job on the weekends and have fun during the week.

Unfortunately, we don’t always get to show that in our sport. It’s hard to really broadcast that side in the world or that side of our lives out to the sport. But I like to just hang out and play a round of golf with my buddies or hang out at the pool and do whatever we wanna do. So it’s hard to really show that personal side. I wish there was a better way or an easier way to broadcast that out.

And I think that has been changing over the last few years and I think you’ll start to see more personality from a lot of guys. You’ve really only seen Dale Jr. come out and really show a lot of personality within the last few years, so hopefully I can figure that out better and hopefully it continues to go that way in NASCAR.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Just the travel for sure. I’m kind of a homebody at heart; I like to be home, I like to be around my family, my friends. In the Xfinity Series or the Truck Series, it’s not so bad. You leave on Thursday and you’re home on Friday or Saturday night and you have Sunday off. In the Cup Series, you really only have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at home and Thursday you’re traveling again. So that’s a tough part.

All in all, compared to an everyday person going to work 9 to 5, we have it pretty good and you feel kind of guilty at times complaining about some of the things you have to do. But it really does take a toll on you traveling that much. It’s pretty rare that we get days off and get to enjoy ourselves and do what we want to do, so that’s definitely the hardest part for me.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, I don’t really have an issue with it. I guess the hardest part for me sometimes is if I’m trying to spend time with friends and family. I wouldn’t necessarily say a restaurant setting, but sometimes you really just want to chill out and relax. But I don’t really have a problem with that — as long as we’re not in the middle of a meal or anything, I don’t really have much of an issue.

It’s not like I’ve ever been bombarded at a restaurant by 10 people. Every once in a while I have somebody come up and say, “Hey, nice to meet you,” and I don’t really mind that all.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I really don’t think that people necessarily understand 100 percent of the work that goes into it from the shop side and the engineering side. I don’t think a lot of people really see how many smart people we’ve got working on these cars. The engineers we’ve got — we have at-track engineers, but we also have engineers who are just working in the shop 100 percent of the time and trying to develop new products and make our cars faster.

Obviously, we can’t share all our simulation tools and all the neat things we get to use to make our cars faster, but I wish people could see that because there’s some really, really cool stuff that I think people would be pretty intrigued by to just check out and learn more about.

Unfortunately, we can’t show every fan in the world 100 percent what’s going on in the shop. I wish I could take everybody on an in-depth tour and show them the process of how these cars are built and how they’re put together, how the bodies are put together, the wind tunnel testing we do and some of the more technical side of things would be really cool to show people.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Geez, I don’t know. Let me pull out my phone. It’s been awhile.

You’re scrolling through all these texts and no driver names are popping up.

Daniel Hemric. There we go. That was on the 12th (nine days ago). It’s been awhile. But yeah, Daniel Hemric. I hang out with him probably the most of any driver away from the racetrack. We have a pretty similar background, so we have lots to talk about usually.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah, 100 percent. I started racing Late Models when I was 13, and it was the first time I’ve ever been on a racing tour. We pulled into the track one day and my first-ever crew chief said, “We’re just kind of the traveling circus. We all roll in, it’s the same guys, we unload, set up and put on a show.”

It’s no different at all at this level. I think we’re there to put on a show, to entertain the fans. That’s what we’re there to do, and I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be considered entertainers.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I’d say it’s changed a lot over the years. Early on in my career I didn’t use it much and then I think I got a little too happy with it and then I had a lot of guys angry at me, so now it’s pretty rare (when) it comes out. The only times I really get frustrated now is racing with lapped cars. If there’s a lapped car you catch and he’s not giving you the lane, that’s pretty frustrating.

I had a guy early on, a race director in Late Models. Every drivers meeting, he’d say, “I don’t want to sound rude, but the lapped cars, you’re a second-class citizen today. It’s not your day. Give these guys the lane, they’re trying to race. That respect is going to come around when it’s the other way around some day.” So it’s really frustrating to me when you don’t get that respect, because it is going to come back around for him some day, and that’s probably the only time you’ll see it out of me.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, it goes both ways. I’ve never really went back out necessarily and just wrecked somebody, paying them back for being wrecked, but I make their lives as hard as I possibly can. Anytime I race around them, they’re not going to get a break from me and there’s not going to be a lot of patience from me either.

But it does go the other way for me, too. If there’s a guy that lets me go early in the race if I run him down, he’s going to get that respect back — at least until 50 to go. I think that’s the time where it goes out the window a little bit, everybody’s racing hard for the position, they don’t want to give anything up.

But it definitely does go each way. Most of the time, a lot of these guys will give you that favor early in the race, and definitely you feel like you kind of owe it to them.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Danica Patrick, I guess, probably. I haven’t really had dinner with like a celebrity of any sort, other than that. No A-listers, Hollywood or anything like that, so I’d have to say that’d be it.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I think it really goes back to one of your first questions there about working at it, the natural ability and the work ethic of it all. It came so easy in the Truck and Xfinity level that I never really learned how to work at it and how to get better at it. I’ve had guys tell me, “You might need to work on this or that,” but I was like, “I’m winning races, why do I need to work on that?” Getting to the Cup level now, I think that’s the biggest thing that I’d like to improve, at least on the racing side, to try and get more proficient in it.

12. The last interview was with Michael McDowell. His question was: Eventually when you do retire someday, what do you think will lead into your decision to say, “I think I’ve had enough?”

That’s a deep question. I think it will go two ways, honestly: Either you’re not capable of performing anymore, you’re not competitive, you’re not running up front and contending for wins — or you just get burned out. You get burned out on the schedule.

I think a little bit of that was with Jeff Gordon. He was still competitive, he was still winning — he made it to Homestead his last year. So I think a lot of his decision was based on he has two young kids and he was done with the grind. I see either one of those two ways.

I think for me, it will probably be that I’m not competitive anymore, honestly.

The next interview is with Todd Gilliland. Do you have a question that I might be able to ask him?

I’m trying to remember back when I was 16 and racing. I would ask him how much pressure he feels to perform, or how much pressure does he put on himself to perform well to try and get that break at the next big level.

Does he feel like there’s a lot of pressure on him, or does he feel like he just puts that pressure on himself? Because I felt like when I was his age, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get those big wins that were going to put me on the map. So I would ask him if he’s feeling that same kind of thing.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. This week: Phoenix Raceway.

Newman!

Well, how about THAT? Luke Lambert’s strategy call — which seemed like a total Hail Mary to most of us — actually worked, and Ryan Newman ended up with his first victory since Indianapolis in 2013. That’s 127 races ago! Heck, Richard Childress Racing hadn’t won a race since Kevin Harvick left the team for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Did anyone see this coming? Certainly not me.

So was Lambert making an educated guess or just taking a total gamble? Well, Lambert had looked at the data — and Newman was the best car on long runs throughout the race. That gave him faith the tires would hold up enough to give Newman a shot.

“I figured our best opportunity to win the race was to put the car out front and see if Ryan could make it wide enough,” Lambert said. “I can’t say I felt confident we would win the race, but I felt confident we’d at least have a shot. And I felt we wouldn’t be able to do anything else to give ourselves that opportunity.”

Inside the car, Newman recalled the sketchy restart last fall here — and realized there was a chance he could get taken out if he wasn’t careful. So his first priority was to just get a good enough start to have some clearance going into Turn 1 — and deal with whoever was behind him after that.

But with Kyle Larson in his mirror on fresh tires, Newman thought he might be toast. The No. 31 car, though, was stronger than expected (after all, it had been running top 10 prior to the strategy call).

“We had a good car, and it was the first time all day we put some clean air on it,” Newman said. “It was just a matter of putting those things together and showing y’all what we had.”

Larson the amazing

Kyle Larson is the latest example of the 2.5-year rule for new Cup drivers. Basically, young drivers either figure out how to find speed within the first 2.5 years of their career — or perhaps never get any better.

Everything seemed to click for Larson midway through last year, and he’s been a much more reliable contender ever since. These days, he’s one of the best drivers in the series — and the points leader!

Larson has now finished second in four straight non-plate races. That’s Homestead, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

And despite getting close to wins, Larson said the runner-up results aren’t getting tiresome — yet.

“I’m sure if I ran second for the next eight weeks, yeah, it’s probably going to grow old,” Larson said. “But it’s so cool to be one of the fastest cars every week. … I just hope we can continue to work hard, be consistent, be mistake‑free on pit road and on the racetrack. If we can just keep doing that, the wins are going to come.”

Everything isn’t great

When Kyle Busch’s team informed him Joey Logano’s tire had blown with five laps to go, Busch said, “Trust me — I know.”

Afterward, Busch was asked by KickinTheTires.net why he said that.

“I knew there was a going to be a tire blown because we haven’t made it past 44 laps in any run today without one being blown, right?” Busch said, practically biting his lip to stop himself from saying more.

It had to be a bitter pill for Busch to swallow — his recent nemeses Joey Logano and Goodyear essentially combined to cost him a race (although it wasn’t either of their faults directly; Logano melted a bead with excessive brake heat).

But just when it looked like Busch would go from puncher to victor in a week, it was he who ended up getting socked in the gut once again.

That’s the brakes for Logano, Dale Jr.

Two of the recent Phoenix race winners — Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — were expected to be contenders on Sunday. But that never materialized.

Logano couldn’t recover from a speeding penalty after he developed brake problems, eventually blowing a tire that caused the final caution. And Earnhardt had similar issues with his brakes, meaning he had to tiptoe around the track.

“The car just got to where I couldn’t get into the corner the way I needed it to,” Earnhardt said. “The last half of the race, the brake pedal was just almost to the floor. A couple of times it was on the floor going into the corner — pretty scary.

“The whole last 50 to 60 laps, I was pumping the brakes on all the straightaways to keep the pedal up so I would have some brakes for the corner and lifting really early. We just couldn’t run it hard enough to get up there and do anything with it.”

Toyota young guns shine

Despite seeing Busch’s win chances vanish, it wasn’t all bad for Toyota. The manufacturer’s two rookies — Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones — both got their first career top-10 finishes after different strategy calls on the last pit stop.

Suarez finished seventh after taking two tires and Jones finished eighth after taking four. Regardless of how they got there,  the results were much-needed confidence for Suarez and validation for Jones’ consistently speed to start the year.

“We didn’t have the speed, and the communication wasn’t great,” Suarez said of the first couple weeks. “We’ve been working hard trying to build chemistry, communication, and we have for sure been getting better.”

That communication was key to improving the car while also gaining track position on Sunday.

And Jones had to power through feeling sick, as he received two bags of IV fluids Saturday night after the Xfinity race.

“We’re going to have ups and downs, good weeks and bad weeks from here on out, but this is definitely a good week and one we can soak up for a minute,” he said.