The Wednesday night race at Darlington Raceway may have been this season’s best showing for the Toyota camp, led by a Denny Hamlin victory. But there have been no emphatic declarations about being back on top.
“(That) was by far the best race that we had as far as being competitive on speed,” said Hamlin. “So, I don’t know what that says because it was a night race. There was more on-throttle time. I think we’re still behind; I don’t think we can sugarcoat it in any kind of way and say we’re in good shape now.”
Joe Gibbs Racing went 1-2 with Hamlin and Kyle Busch in the Toyota 500. Hamlin is now a two-time winner this year, following up on his Daytona 500 victory from February. He is also the only Toyota driver who has been to victory lane through six races.
Erik Jones finished fifth Wednesday night after spending time at the front of the field, leading 27 laps. Martin Truex Jr. also led, 16 laps, and was 10th in the final running order; and just behind him was Christopher Bell in 11th — a Cup Series career-best finish.
“I think we’re right there,” said Truex of speed. “We’re probably not the strongest team right now. I don’t think our cars are the fastest cars out there. I think if you look at the stats, we’ve had some really good race cars with the 19 (team).
“Stage point wise, we’re really looking good. We’ve gotten a lot of stage points — I think more than anyone. Our Stage 2 results have definitely been really good and average finish wise, it’s just been little mistakes here and there.”
Truex does lead the series in stage points with his 67 leading Alex Bowman’s 65. Stage points have been the saving grace for Truex’s team in the overall standings, considering that Truex had not scored a top-10 finish until this past week in both Darlington races.
Truex is eighth in the standings, ahead of many who have a better overall average finish; there Truex is 19th.
“There are just some little things we need to clean up for the results,” said Truex. “We’re right there, I think. Denny’s win the other night was big for the company, I feel like, and all four of our cars — really all five of our cars — were competitive at Darlington, especially (in) the second race.”
Before the sport went on hiatus because of COVID-19, questions were starting about what was wrong with the Toyotas. After dominating the NASCAR Cup Series last year, its teams appeared to get off to a slow start, except for Hamlin’s Daytona 500 superspeedway win. Most notably, Toyota had just one car inside the top 15 at the Las Vegas and Phoenix races.
Even after Fontana, a race where four of the five Toyota teams finished inside the top 15, drivers were still saying more work was needed. Busch was outspoken about missing something and being slow. Hamlin had also used the ‘slow’ word.
“I think the Hendrick cars are the class of the field right now,” noted Hamlin. “Throw in the Fords. The Fords are always fast. We saw the 14 [Clint Bowyer] very strong (on Wednesday). I think we still have a lot of work to do. I saw some improvement from Sunday to (Wednesday), and that was just setup.
“The cars weren’t a big difference. It was just getting your car right for the racetrack. Maybe putting more emphasis on the actual setup and having the car actually drive good is something that’s going to be better for success for us.”
Truex’s optimism comes from what is ahead on the schedule. He dominated the Coca-Cola 600 last year en route to winning, having done the same in 2016. Cup Series teams will run the Coke 600 on Sunday and then a second race at the track mid-week, providing two more intermediate tests for the Toyota camp to see where they stack up.
“We’re right there, we just have to keep plugging away and make all the right adjustments,” said Truex. “Charlotte has been a good place for us, and hopefully, this weekend will go well.”