A week after it failed to place a car higher than 15th at Las Vegas, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota put three cars in the top 10, with Kyle Busch leading the way with a runner-up finish in the Auto Club 400.
But that didn’t keep David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, from noting that race winner Alex Bowman “schooled us.”
KB is right on. Competition have raised their game. Love how our guys drove to the front and fought inside the top-10 most of the day. But the #88 schooled us – kudos to them and #HMS. Setting up to be an exciting season – 3 races in & each OEM with one W. #NASCAR #TeamToyota https://t.co/NEWNY0JJi4
— David Wilson (@DavidWilsonTRD) March 2, 2020
Bowman led 110 of 200 laps and won Stage 1 on the way to victory lane.
Meanwhile, Toyota cars led just once for a total of three laps. That was when Martin Truex Jr. – who started at the rear after failing pre-qualifying inspection three times – battled with Bowman in the middle of the final stage.
That’s after Truex led Toyota’s only lap last week at Las Vegas.
Busch only finished second after Ryan Blaney had to pit for a corded tire with three laps to go. After starting 17th, Busch placed 10th in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2.
His runner-up finish is his first top 10 of the season.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Busch told Fox. “Guys did a great job here though just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second-place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here and try to get some points. Guys are doing all they can, I know along with everybody at (Toyota Racing Development). I appreciate all the hard work, we just have to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here. Obviously, it’s a little bit of something here and maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas, but overall good car today.”
Behind Busch were Denny Hamlin in sixth and Erik Jones in 10th.
Hamlin was running in fourth on Lap 140 when his No. 11 Toyota brushed the wall exiting Turn 2 and he dropped to seventh.
“We’re still slow,” Hamlin said. “Our cars handled okay. If we don’t have a draft, we’re just run over. It’s tough because I feel like we’re getting beat on throttle time, but we’re also just getting murdered down the straightaways. Just need more horsepower, more downforce and less drag. If we can have all those, we’ll be better.”
Jones’ top 10 is his best finish of the season after he placed 18th at Daytona and 23rd in Vegas.
He called the race “a step in the right direction.”
“I don’t think any of us really had race-winning speed,” Jones said. “I think Kyle (Busch) got some good track position on that restart and was able to maintain. We got shuffled back and kind of had to come back from 15th. I don’t know, I think we’re off. We didn’t have anything for the 88 (Alex Bowman) or anything like that.”
After making his way to the front, Truex’s status as a contender ended with a slow pit stop on Lap 160 when a tire changer’s hand cramped up. He finished 14th.
Meanwhile, the rookie campaign of Leavine Family Racing’s Christopher Bell remains stuck in neutral after three races.
After wrecking out of the Daytona 500 and placing 33rd in Vegas following a crash, Bell was the only driver who failed to finish the race Sunday. His day ended on Lap 80 when he went to the garage after a bolt from another car struck a hole in the oil cooler on his No. 95 Toyota.
No Angela it was not engine failure. Bolt from another car came thru our nose and knocked a hole in the oil cooler. Nothing we could avoid or help . https://t.co/90ir4zH0WE
— Bob Leavine (@BLeavine) March 1, 2020
Gaunt Brothers Racing and Daniel Suarez had their best outing of the season after failing to make the Daytona 500 and suffering a mechanical issue coming to the green flag in Vegas.
Suarez had an uneventful day and placed 28th, two laps down.