By Aaron Bearden
If there was ever a doubt about which manufacturer is the favorite to claim the NASCAR Cup Series championship, that was settled on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
It’s Toyota, and by a noticeable margin.
Toyota lost one of its contenders in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 when Matt Kenseth was eliminated after a late crash and a damaged vehicle policy violation. However, what the team lost with Kenseth was easily made up for with the unexpected elimination of Kyle Larson and the advancement of 2015 Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.
Larson, 25, had previously been Toyota’s biggest threat. The fourth-year Chip Ganassi Racing driver tallied four victories during the regular season.
It was also common knowledge Larson is among the best drivers in the Cup Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway — the site of the season finale. After two subpar runs in 2013 and ’14, Larson rode the high line to a top-five at Homestead in 2015 and dominated in 2016 before losing the race on the final restart to Jimmie Johnson.
With his Homestead prowess and strong regular season, Larson entered this year’s playoffs among the championship favorites for Homestead. All he had to do was get there.
That all went up in smoke on Lap 73 at Kansas, when Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet blew its motor.
The result was similar to Martin Truex Jr.’s 2016 playoff run, when a dominant first round gave way to an early elimination after Furniture Row Racing encountered bad luck in the second round.
“Things happen,” Larson said. “You look at the past playoffs and the 78 had an engine issue last year and he was the best car all year. And then us, this year. So it’s disappointing.”
While Larson watched hopelessly from afar, Busch used strong runs in the day’s opening two stages to tally 16 critical stage points.
Those stage points ended up being enough for Busch to overcome Larson for the final playoff spot, even after being forced to take the wavearound after being trapped on pit road by a caution during a green-flag pit stop.
In fact, Busch also beat Jimmie Johnson — who struggled home in 11th after two crashes.
“Fortunately, our situation today was that we had to race guys that ended up crashing out,” Busch said. “Hate it for them. I would have liked to race it heads up and that might have been a different situation, but all in all we’ll take what was given to us today and we’ll live to see another day and fight again next week going to Martinsville.”
Then there’s Truex.
Sunday threw the kitchen sink at Truex and the No. 78 team. After starting on the pole, Truex was issued an early pass-through penalty for driving below the white apron line as the leader on a Lap 36 restart.
Truex fought back from that, only to be brought back to pit road on Lap 91 and trapped a lap down.
For most teams in the field, two consecutive setbacks would be a dealbreaker. But Truex bounced back with ease and won the race, completing the first-ever season sweep at Kansas Speedway. He also tallied his fourth straight win on a 1.5-mile oval in the same race that saw him lead his 2000th lap of the season.
Their Kansas trips complete, Truex and Busch head into the third round seeded first and second in the standings with 69 and 42 playoff points, respectively. Truex holds a 52-point edge — nearly a full race — on fifth-place Johnson, and Busch also maintains a hefty 25-point advantage.
Denny Hamlin also advanced to the third round, though he’s currently three points outside of the playoff bubble in sixth.
All told, Toyota holds three of the eight remaining postseason spots, tying them with Ford and giving them one more contender than Chevrolet.
More important, though, Toyota carries the most consistent speed of all three manufacturers.
Of the remaining playoff contenders, Toyota has tallied 13 of the group’s 21 total victories. The Toyota trio also all rest in the top four positions in average finish. Truex leads the field at 10.3, followed by Hamlin (11.4), Kevin Harvick (12.0) and Busch (12.1).
To his credit, Truex remained cautious in assessing his championship odds leaving Kansas.
“There’s no guarantee we’ll even get to Homestead yet,” Truex said. “One race at a time. You look at me like I’m crazy, but Larson was plus-29 today. He was (third) in points. He didn’t make it.
“I’ve been saying it all year. They all say I’m a lock because I’ve got so many playoff points, but I’m telling you, it’s not that simple. We’ve gotta go out there and perform. We can’t have an engine failure. We can’t go out and crash five laps in at Martinsville. We’ve gotta focus on one race at a time, do the best job we can do and try to keep the momentum going.”
No, a title isn’t certain.
But with Larson — the only driver that’s proven capable of contending with Toyota on a consistent basis — out, and two of the manufacturer’s three drivers sitting in the best position of anyone to advance to the title race, it’s hard to pick any manufacturer but Toyota to claim the first championship under the Monster Energy banner.