We’re only two races into the the NASCAR Cup Series season and we’re already writing sentences that make us do a double take or spit takes depending on if we’re drinking liquids.
When the green flag dropped on the Daytona 500 last weekend, we were not expecting the following stat to be staring back at us after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:
Through two races, Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie, the retired David Ragan and part-time driver Brendan Gaughan each have more top-10 finishes than defending champion Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, former champion Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and William Byron.
Put simply, the second batch of drivers – which includes 3/4ths of Joe Gibbs Racing – has none, while a group of typically midpack cars and partially retired drivers have at least one apiece.
That’s due to a combination of DNFs, poor performances and wrecks among the latter group.
Busch hasn’t finished better than 15th. Elliott’s best finish was 17th in the Daytona 500. Truex’s best was 20th Sunday while Jones’ is 18th (Daytona) and Almirola’s is 21st (Las Vegas).
Not counting the 2015 season when he missed 11 races due to injury, Busch has failed to finish in the top 10 in the first two races five times in his full-time career (since 2005). The latest he’s earned a top 10 was in 2010 (Bristol, race No. 5).
Last year, Busch started the season with 11 straight top 10s.
He now heads to Auto Club Speedway, where he’s won three of the last six races – including last year – and he’s finished outside the top 10 just once in his last eight races there.
This is the sixth time Truex hasn’t earned a top 10 in the first two races of the season in his full-time career (since 2007). He goes to Auto Club Speedway having finished eighth or better in four of his last five starts at the 2-mile track (including one win).
After the chaos produced by the final round of pit stops and restart, Wallace placed sixth Sunday, earning his best finish on a 1.5-mile track and his fifth career top-10 finish. He was among the drivers who did not pit under the final caution.
“We had a shot at a good finish and we capitalized on that,” Wallace said. “All-in-all, it was a good day and a win for us. It was just a good gamble call. We were terrible on restarts. It would take us 10 or 15 laps just to get going and get the car underneath us. Then, we could start fighting our way up there.”
Wallace also credited new crew chief Jerry Baxter for the result. Baxter was Wallace’s crew chief in the Truck Series when he won multiple races.
“There were frustrating moments over the radio, just trying to make this Coke Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE better,” Wallace said. “I know how I lose my cool a little bit, but one of the main reasons I brought Jerry Baxter in was to calm me down and show that light at the end of the tunnel. Every time I fired back, he said ‘I get it, you’re fine, we’re going to be fine’ and he was right. It was a good call by the team and everyone involved.”
Dillon pitted for four tires during the last caution and was able to snag a 10th-place finish after a “nuts” restart. It’s his first top 10 on a 1.5-mile track. Sunday was his 128th Cup Series start.
“I think I restarted 19th and went through the middle, and we ended up 10th,” Dillon said. “I don’t really know what happened, but we just started passing cars. You just had to find the lane, and you’re processing things at such a high rate of speed. You just had to be committed to where you were going.”
The result was Germain Racing’s first top 10 on a non-superspeedway oval.
“That’s what makes NASCAR fun,” Dillon added. “Nobody just dominates everything anymore. It was a really fun race and I hope the fans enjoyed it.”