Those who tuned in late to Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash may have been confused.
For awhile, it looked like a replay of last year’s Daytona 500, as Joe Gibbs Racing’s four Toyota’s paraded around Daytona International Speedway with a field of cars stacked up behind them.
“The Gibbs team is really the only team that, to me, is always together at speedway events,” Jamie McMurray said Wednesday at Daytona 500 media day. “You look up and they’re always lined up. That doesn’t have as much to do with the team as it does with the drivers all working well together. You don’t see any other organization do that. So, that’s an advantage for them at plate tracks.”
While the JGR fortress was nearly impenetrable in last year’s Daytona 500 – JGR related teams led 156 of 200 laps – the opposition put up a successful fight in Sunday’s exhibition race.
In the closing laps, the two Team Penske cars of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano chiseled away at the four cars, side drafting each JGR entry until Hamlin was left to fend for himself with one lap to go. That resulted in Hamlin’s late block and contact with Keselowski in Turn 2, which allowed Logano to slip by and win.
Both JGR drivers and their competitors say that the team’s restrictor-plate strategy is harder than it looks.
“Game plans don’t necessarily all work out,” Kenseth said. “You’ve got to have strong cars to do it. The car has to end up there, not be separated by bad pit stops or strategy, what have you. It’s hard to say. … I thought we had it lined up really good in the Clash. We had all four of us in a row for a while. We just weren’t quite fast enough.”
Logano said it was the result of the “perfect storm” while Hamlin described it as his team being “almost selfless to a fault.”
“It took us the whole race to figure out how to do it and we almost ran out of time,” Logano said. “No, it wasn’t easy. The side draft is huge like it’s always been. Brad is probably the best at doing that leapfrog or what he calls the island hop, whatever you want to call it, and we were able to pull them apart and get in a hole and pull another one apart and get in the hole.”
Busch was the only other JGR car to lead Sunday (four laps) while Hamlin led all but four in the final 50-lap segment. The other four laps were led by Logano, who has won four restrictor-plate events dating back to his 2015 Daytona 500 event. Keselowski has chipped in another three for Team Penske since the fall 2014 Talladega race.
“The game has changed a lot and to be honest, I think the Gibbs cars have changed the game more than anything,” Logano said. “Like I said on Sunday, how selfless they are. They’re able to say, ‘Hey, you’re the guy in the lead and all four of us are gonna line up and we’re not gonna throw blocks, we’re not gonna try to pass you, we’re gonna stay in a straight line’ and it makes them really hard to pass. The only way you pass them is you’ve got to have a team that’s stronger that’s able to pick them apart one at a time and that’s what we were able to do.”
While the combined effort of Keselowski and Logano won the race after leading only 22 laps, Kenseth admits JGR’s four cars had nothing for the Penske cars.
“The 2 and 22 were fast,” Kenseth said. “They could pull the back car off the line all the time. The three of us couldn’t really get away. If it was going to work, I think it would have worked in the Clash better because the group is so much smaller.”
Only 17 cars were in the 75-lap race compared to 40 that will be in the Daytona 500. The lineup for Sunday’s race won’t be settled until Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel. Only then can teams begin making plans to try to duplicate what JGR accomplished last year or a way to break such a monopoly up.
“I think if it happens again, we have an alternate plan,” Hamlin said. “The same ideas are not going to continue to work over and over. You have to come up with something new, something to keep them off guard. Not just Penske, but there are going to be many other contenders in the mix of it that are not just going to allow us to go out there and lead all the laps. We’ve got to be ready for it.”