Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – KANSAS CITY, KS – After a miserable night at Darlington Raceway, three Joe Gibbs Racing Playoff drivers—Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.—need to rebound in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The Southern 500 weekend started with promise for the JGR NASCAR Cup Series contingent. Bell won the pole for last Sunday’s Playoff opener, edging Hamlin for the top starting spot.
Bell led the first 33 laps, but his race started to unravel during the first cycle of green-flag pit stops. A 15-second stay in his pit stall dropped Bell to eighth in the running order, and subsequent hard contact with the outside wall, followed by a late wreck, dropped him to 23rd at the finish and squarely in the danger zone when it comes to advancement into the Round of 12.
After falling to 12th in the Playoff standings, just one point ahead of fellow Toyota driver Bubba Wallace in 13th, Bell expects to have a top-flight car at Kansas, where Toyota drivers have won four of the last five races and six of the last eight.
Bell has four top 10s in seven starts at Kansas, including fifth and third-place results in last year’s races. But the driver of the No. 20 Camry can’t afford a disaster like the one he experienced in this year’s spring race. Bell crashed out in last place (36th).
“We have speed,” Bell said after the Southern 500. “We’ve had speed a lot, and I know that in Kansas we’re going to be fast again. That’s been a really good track for Toyota. I know that we have the speed to do it—we’ve just got to put it all together.”
Hamlin likewise needs to put together a complete race. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota won the first two stages at Darlington, picked up two additional Playoff points and actually improved his position above the Round of 12 cut line to 27 points.
Thinking he had a loose wheel, however, Hamlin brought his car to pit road on Lap 274. The team could find nothing wrong, and the prospect of a victory and automatic advancement to the Round of 12 were gone.
“It’s really tough to tell,” Hamlin said of his car’s mysterious malady. “It looked like the left rear was still tightening as we were going. It’s close enough to where it didn’t matter. What I felt, (like) I was in a crash. I had to bring it in and just turned the day upside down.”
The day got worse when Hamlin was collected in a late five-car crash. He finished 25th. But Hamlin goes to Kansas as the winner of the most recent race there—the May 7 Advent Health 400. His last four finishes at the track have been no worse than fifth.
“We think we’re going to win every week,” Hamlin said. “There’s not one week where I show up and I don’t think I’m going to win. But you’ve got to play the game, and sometimes when you play the game it doesn’t work out the way you planned.
“I’m happy about the speed the car had (at Darlington) and the restarts that I had. The things I had to work on I felt like I really did well. It’s part of the process. We move on and if we advance, all we really lost out on is points for the next round, so we’ll see.”
Despite a 31st-place qualifying effort, Truex had excellent speed to start Sunday’s race. By the second cycle of green-flag pit stops in Stage 1, he had advanced 16 positions to 15th, but an unscheduled pit stop for a loose wheel initially cost him two laps and mired the No. 19 Camry in traffic.
Truex fought back for an 18th-place, lead-lap finish, but at Kansas, he can’t afford the sort of points erosion that dropped him from a tie for first in the standings to sixth place.
Fortunately, Truex has an excellent record at the 1.5-mile speedway on the Kansas side of the Missouri River. He has two victories and 906 laps led, and he comes to Kansas with finishes of ninth or better in his last eight races there—all good omens for a driver trying to preserve his status in the top 12.