The start of the Next Gen era can probably be summed up in one quick phrase – everybody is good somewhere; nobody is good everywhere.
With wins thus far at Richmond Raceway, Kansas Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and significant speed this past weekend at Nashville Superspeedway – as well as a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt race, which doesn’t quite translate anywhere else – Joe Gibbs Racing can count shorter-to-intermediate tracks among those it has dialed in for 2022.
Road courses, however, tell a different story.
The Toyota-backed organization’s results at Sonoma Raceway, where of the six competitors driving for the manufacturer Kurt Busch was the highest finisher in 18th, speak for themselves. The first road course of the season at Austin, Texas’ Circuit of The Americas did not go much better, with an average finish of 21.0 among them despite Christopher Bell’s P3.
“We struggled at COTA as well to be honest with raw speed and being able to be good there,” Kyle Busch said at Nashville. “In the early stage of the race, I think we were running eighth, we were fading, I got spun out by Chase Elliott running 12th, you know what I mean? So we weren’t great at COTA either, but we were able to get through some of the restarts and get positions on guys to get ourselves up front. Christopher, I think, was third or fourth. I was right with him on the last lap there. And so you know, felt like with everything that kind of ensued on the last lap, we would have had a shot to run in the top two or three, for sure.”
“But I would say both road course events so far this year were not our strong suit. Why we missed it? I don’t know. If I could answer that, we wouldn’t struggle, we wouldn’t have been bad. But talking to Martin Truex (Jr.), who tested for us at (Watkins Glen International), certainly not looking forward to going to The Glen either. They weren’t very fast there.”
For arguably the top organization of the past decade, this is not typical.
Toyota enjoyed a total of 10 wins last year in the final season for the Gen 6 Cup Series racer, spread across essentially every size and shape of race track the tour visits – including Bell’s victory on the Daytona International Speedway road-course layout. Part of what has historically made JGR so exceptional is its seeming ability to unload fast on a weekly basis, regardless of what track it happens to be racing at that weekend.
The silver lining here for JGR and its sister organization 23XI Racing is that they aren’t alone – every team is fighting the same battle from this regard.
The sort of hit-or-miss nature for teams just about every weekend so far may just be a product of the vast increase in parity across the board that was part of the intention in the development of the Next Gens.
“A little bit. I would argue, too, that the (Team) Penske guys weren’t great at Kansas,” Busch said. “They’ve been super strong at the flatter tracks. They’re really fast at Martinsville, Phoenix. They’ve been good. They were good at Gateway as well, too. … it seems that these teams or organizations kind of have that they’re good at these particular tracks. And so I think as we all continue to learn and grow, like, the good teams will be the good teams everywhere. But you know, it is kind of patchy right now with just getting an understanding built around this car.”
With five of its drivers currently on the right side of the playoff bubble and three of them provisionally locked in with their respective wins, there’s no need to sound the alarm bells just yet, but the road-course issue is one that Toyota would like to have ironed out over the coming weeks.
The Cup Series will turn left and right on three weekends over the next two months as the regular season wraps, starting with Sunday’s Kwik Trip 250 presented by JOCKEY Made in America at Road America (3 p.m. ET, USA Network, MRN, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio).
MORE: Full Cup Series schedule
Should those three races not produce the solutions and finishes JGR, 23XI and Toyota are looking for, however, it might be time to start sweating.
The season’s final road course is perhaps the most unpredictable one, with the most pressure and implications – Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval.
Busch, Bell and Denny Hamlin all finished in the top 10 there last year, but at the moment, that looks like a bit of a long shot. Given that the Roval marks the Round of 8 cutoff and calamity could spell catastrophe, you can be sure there will be plenty of emphasis placed on Road America, Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Road Course (July 31) and The Glen (August 21).
If there’s any team that has the knowledge, resources and talent to diagnose and rectify an issue like this it’s JGR, but if we’ve learned anything about the Next Gen through the season’s first half of racing … it’s no guarantee.