The attrition rate was high last month at Daytona, where only 17 cars were still running at the end of the final regular-season race of the NASCAR Cup Series. Toyota was hit particularly hard, but not by wrecks. When Bubba Wallace and Martin Truex Jr. fell short in last-chance bids to make the playoffs, the manufacturer was left with just three drivers in the hunt for the title.
The first Next Gen season has been a rough one for Joe Gibbs Racing
Chevrolet may have the most championships in that span, but Toyota is the only one of the three NASCAR manufacturers to have placed at least one driver in the Cup Series Championship 4 every year since 2014. With Kyle Busch now eliminated, Toyota is looking toward Christopher Bell or Denny Hamlin to keep the streak intact.
In 2021, Joe Gibbs Racing drivers won nine times and put a pair of cars in the Championship 4. There have been just four wins in 2022: Two by Hamlin and one apiece by Bell and Busch.
The Toyotas’ struggles adapting to the Next Gen car was a big story early in the season. The situation improved during the summer, but not dramatically. If the talk died down, it was mostly due to people obsessing over Busch’s ongoing contract status saga.
Christopher Bell looks like Toyota’s best hope
Christopher Bell came into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as the 10th seed but with a reason to be optimistic because of the schedule. Bell scored three of his 14 regular-season top-10 finishes at Darlington, Kansas, and Bristol, and then he replicated the feat by placing in the top five in all three this month.
Stage wins bumped Bell up to the No. 7 seed for the round of 12 beginning Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
One of the most encouraging signs for him thus far is that Bell led 143 laps last week at Bristol, demonstrating speed that had only been intermittent for most of the year.
Bell is no stranger to the championship hunt. He won the truck series title in 2017, then totaled 15 Xfinity Series race wins over the next two years to finish fourth and third at the end of the season. He scored his first Cup Series victory last year and advanced as far as the round of 12, where he sits once again.
Denny Hamlin might only have two chances to get it done
Denny Hamlin has hardly been an afterthought in the playoffs, having finished second at Darlington and Kansas, then ninth at Bristol. Though those results carried him into the round of 12, they did nothing to pad his position in the points reset ahead of Texas Motor Speedway.
In fact, the victories by non-playoff drivers in the past three races have resulted in nearly no movement in points. Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman scored one stage win apiece, and Christopher Bell earned two. Other than that, there was no movement in points.
So, while Hamlin starts the round of 12 in sixth place, he is one of three drivers just four points ahead of Chase Briscoe, the first driver below the cut line. The schedule doesn’t favor him because the elimination race in two weeks is the Charlotte Roval.
Road courses have been the biggest Toyota weakness this year. In five starts away from the ovals, the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet posted a combined three top-10 finishes. Bell scored two of the high finishes and placed ahead of Hamlin in four of the five races; he wound up one spot behind Hamlin at Road America.
So, Hamlin cannot misfire at Texas Motor Speedway or Talladega and then expect to bail himself out in Charlotte, which is why Bell is the better hope for Toyota to continue its Championship 4 streak.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.
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