FORT WORTH, Texas — Entering Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the three remaining playoff drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing were optimistic.
Rightfully so. Denny Hamlin has been one of the two best cars all season long; Kyle Busch has been sporty at the majority of mile-and-a-half tracks this season and Martin Truex Jr. believed his team could hit the right setup at one of the two mile-and-a-half tracks in the Round of 8 to be in a points battle come the championship cutoff race at Martinsville Speedway.
If only it were that easy.
For the majority of the opening stint of the race, the three drivers stayed towards the front of the field. But the first self-inflected wound for playoff drivers came during the competition caution when Busch was caught speeding on pit road.
Over the radio, Busch took blame from the mistake, noting he knew he was speeding.
But with a 15-car incident on lap 32, multiple drivers elected to top off with fuel, Busch being one of them. He was able to stretch his tank for the rest of the stage and win the opening stage, scoring 10 points.
“We’ve been fast on the mile and a halves, so we were optimistic about coming here and running good,” Busch said post race. “This was very, very similar: 95% of what I ran here last year.”
Despite pitting towards the end of the stage, Hamlin finished seventh in Stage 1, while Truex missed out on stage points.
During the second stage, Hamlin remained a seventh-place car, while Busch dropped to 10th. Once again, Truex missed out on earning any stage points by finishing 11th.
Meanwhile, the final stage looked to be clean and green, until Chase Briscoe blew a right rear tire with 60 laps to go. From there, six restarts determined the race, in which Kyle Larson eventually won.
In the middle of the incidents were the trio of JGR drivers. With 23 laps to go, Hamlin made contact with Ryan Blaney, which led to a flat left rear tire. Hamlin brought out the caution by spinning three laps later.
With 14 laps remaining, contact between Truex and Daniel Suarez put an end to the No. 19 team’s day. Truex finished 25th.
Martin Truex Jr. hits the wall!
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 17, 2021
“I was definitely running tight trying to get all we could and maybe I squeezed [Suarez], maybe he came up, I’m not sure,” Truex said. “It’s really fast right there and yeah, hit the splitter and went straight to the fence. Tough spot to have contact like that. It is what it is.”
On lap 329, Chris Buescher’s car turned sideways while racing in the middle of the pack. Coming across the track, the No. 17 Ford clipped Hamlin’s car, giving him significant hood damage.
During the green-white-checkered finish, Hamlin was able to gain a few positions to finish 11th. Busch took the checkered flag in eighth.
“On a normal mile and a half, that could have been a 30th-place finish,” Hamlin said. “Today it was 11th because of the big crash there at the beginning of the race. I knew my risk as well.
“The reason we stayed out on the tire that was rubbing is because there was only 20 cars on the racetrack. If I crash, destroy the car and finish 20 something. If it clears itself, I finish eighth or wherever I was running. The risk for staying out, we said, screw it, blow.”
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 17, 2021
Still, Hamlin wasn’t completely pleased with the No. 11 car.
“I was disappointed in it a little bit,” Hamlin stated of his car. “We made some changes that maybe [weren’t] ideal, but it’s no worse for the wear. With two crashes, we finished maybe six spots worse than what we were going to finish.”
But while Hamlin salvaged an 11th-place run, Busch wasn’t happy to finish eighth. After all, in June’s All-Star Race at the same Texas track, the No. 18 Toyota was arguably the best car outside of Hendrick Motorsports.
“We fought grip in our racecar, just terrible,” Busch stated. “When we were up front, we fought speed. If we had more speed we’d be able to stay up more towards the front. Once we kept getting shuffled back and losing spots because we had no speed the balance got worse.
“Not a very impressive outing, for sure. Glad we got the points out of it, but there were still probably eight more points we missed out on and that could be important when the next couple of weeks roll around.”
Looking ahead to Kansas, Busch believes the No. 18 team needs to go back to the drawing board and see where it missed at Texas.
The positive news for Busch is, he won the last time out at Kansas in May.
Busch said, “Going into next week, you’d like to think we could continue our mile and a half presence alive. And next week is a mile and a half and we didn’t do that today, so I have no idea.”
With two races remaining in the Round of 8, Hamlin sits third on the playoff board, nine points above the cutline. Busch is right behind in fourth, eight markers to the good. Truex, though, sits 22 points below the cutline.
And while Hamlin was involved in two late-race incidents, he still gained two points on the cutline which is promising.
“We’re still the same distance over the cut that we were and we had a really mediocre day and we crashed twice,” Hamlin said. “I’m actually counting my blessings of this is going to be our bad race of the playoffs. Kansas and Martinsville, we can go there and win either one.”
The three drivers have combined to win five of the last nine races at Kansas.