ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Joe Gibbs Racing drivers hold the final two playoff spots after the organization failed to score a top-10 finish for the second race in a row on a road course.
No JGR car finished in the top 25 at Sonoma last month. David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, called Toyota’s performance at Sonoma an “embarrassment.” Joe Gibbs Racing showed progress this past weekend at Road America but still placed no car in the top 12.
Tyler Reddick’s victory leaves only three of 16 playoff spots available to winless drivers. Christopher Bell has the final playoff spot. JGR teammate Martin Truex is the next highest winless driver in the playoff standings.
Eight races remain — including road course events at Indianapolis (July 31) and Watkins Glens (Aug. 21) — before the regular season ends.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s struggles on road courses have been among the issues the team has faced this season with the Next Gen car.
After the struggles at Sonoma, each of the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars had different setup this past weekend at Road America.
Truex led the group, finishing 13th at Road America.
“I think we definitely gained on it a little bit,” Truex told NBC Sports. “We’re lacking something in the rear. Just loose, can’t brake with those guys, can’t drive off the corner with them and, man, just burn the rear tires off with laps.
“We know what our cars are compared to theirs and how the downforce is different. Kind of feel like we’re handcuffed here on these kinds of tracks. It is what it is. We’ll keep digging and keep working. We gained on it for sure but not enough.”
Bell, who leads Kevin Harvick for the final playoff spot by 20 points, finished 18th at Road America.
“It seemed like we got halfway there,” Bell told NBC Sports of the progress his team made. “Moved up a couple of positions anyway. Just got big gains left to go.”
Denny Hamlin finished 17th after he was penalized twice for driving through more than three pit boxes.
Kyle Busch was 29th. He started at the rear after a missed shift led to an engine change. In the race, he struggled with the car’s handling, spun in Turn 5, was penalized for speeding on pit road and his pit crew was penalized for going over the wall too soon.
Busch’s average finish in three road course races this season is 29th. Hamlin’s average finish in those races is 22.0, Bell’s average finish is 16.0 and Truex’s average finish is 15.3.
RFK Racing’s decision to appeal the penalty to Chris Buescher’s team for a wheel coming off the car at Nashville gave Buescher the best chance to win at Road America and earn a playoff spot.
Buescher finished second at Sonoma last month. By appealing the Nashville penalty, the four-race suspensions to crew chief Scott Graves and two pit crew members were deferred, allowing them to be at Road America. Buescher finished sixth.
He’s 22nd in points — too far back to earn a playoff spot via points. He has to win to make the playoffs.
“Had speed off the truck again,” Buescher said. “Looking for a little bit more than what we ended up with, but in the hunt. We knew that these last couple of positions are going to be the hardest.
“I’m just proud to say we’re sitting here and talking about this and fighting for those last few because we had a little bit of a slow start. It’s been nice to see the progression made to have speed in both our race cars this weekend and running with each other. … We talked earlier this week about smoothing out these rough edges, Finding just a little bit here and there is going to put us in a really good place.”
Gibbs came out the winner, passing Larson on the final lap to win.
Larson came away impressed with Gibbs, the grandson of car owner Joe Gibbs.
“He’s obviously really good,” Larson said of Ty Gibbs. “I feel like you can tell a good race car driver from the road courses, and he’s always run really well on the road courses since he started.”
Larson is scheduled to run the Xfinity race at Darlington and that will be his first chance to race Gibbs on an oval.
“That will be a fun track to kind of see how he is as an oval racer,” Larson said. “He’s definitely really good.”
Gibbs said it was a “dream come true” to beat Larson, the reigning Cup champion.
Gibbs also said it was “really cool” to hear the kind words from Larson but noted “I’ve got to keep working hard and doing my thing.”