Toyota enters playoffs with Busch brothers still in limbo

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — As he addressed members of the media during a rain delay Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, Toyota Racing Development’s David Wilson made sure to mention that Toyota is the only manufacturer to have a driver make the final round of the playoffs every year since the current system was instituted in 2014.

If it happens again in 2022, it will be with just a few entries, as a frustrating year got even more frustrating in the past week.

23XI Racing driver Kurt Busch, who missed the final six regular-season races due to a concussion, withdrew from the playoffs Thursday after doctors told him he couldn’t race in the postseason-opening event. With the possibility of missing the entire first three-race round, Busch opted not to take the spot that he had earned with a Kansas win earlier this year.

The only possible positive, on the competition side, that could come from Busch’s withdrawal was that it gave Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. a better chance to make the playoffs, as it resulted in two spots being up for grabs in the season finale Sunday at Daytona.

Truex, though, found himself on the outside looking in as Austin Dillon won. Truex’s eighth-place finish wasn’t good enough, even though Ryan Blaney finished six laps down. Blaney placed 15th at Daytona, good enough to edge Truex by three spots (more than likely four spots since Blaney won most tiebreakers) on a day when they were among the many drivers involved in accidents.

“We ran a smart race,” Truex said. “Just wrong place, wrong time, which — 30 cars out here could say that. It’s just frustrating.

“We run well and get wrecked. At the end of the day, we had a somewhat decent finish, but it doesn’t really matter. I knew where I had to finish … and I just didn’t have enough speed to stay in that position.”

Fast Thoughts: 2022 championship pick

Fast Thoughts: 2022 championship pick

Bob Pockrass makes his predictions for the 2022 Cup Series playoffs and names his championship favorite.

Truex was fourth in the regular-season standings and has made the championship round of the playoffs in five of the previous seven years. His not capitalizing on the playoff opportunity leaves Denny Hamlin (two wins this year), Christopher Bell (one) and Kyle Busch (one) as Toyota’s only playoff hopes.

If that weren’t frustrating enough, the Kyle Busch contract situation looms over Toyota. JGR hasn’t found a replacement for sponsor M&M’s, and it appears Busch is on his way out in favor of Joe Gibbs’ grandson, Ty Gibbs.

Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs both denied a week ago that any decision has been made, and both declined to give any meaningful updates while at Daytona. Both Richard Childress and Matt Kaulig — owners of Chevrolet teams — have indicated they have been among those who have had talks with Busch but wouldn’t give any hints of how close they are to a deal.

“We’d be foolish not to put everything in play to keep him in the family,” Wilson said of Kyle Busch, a 60-race winner and two-time Cup champion. “That’s what we continue to do. … This is not just an offensive consideration.

“I don’t want to race against a pissed-off Kyle Busch. Wherever he lands, he’s going to do some damage.”

Could he end up at 23XI Racing if his brother can’t return? No one would say how deep those conversations have gone.

“Kurt Busch is under contract to drive the [No.] 45 23XI Camry TRD next year, and that is our working assumption,” Wilson said. “We know that’s what Kurt wants to do.”

They know Kurt wants to come back. But no one knows when.

Breaking down Kurt Busch’s decision

Breaking down Kurt Busch's decision

Bob Pockrass breaks down Kurt Busch’s decision and what it means for the rest of the NASCAR playoff field.

“We’re not holding out hope that Kurt can come back at some time,” said Hamlin, a co-owner of 23XI. “I think that he deemed if he did come back later, the chances of him winning a championship would not be very high.

“So why not give up that spot? That honestly was a Kurt decision more than anyone else.”

Kyle didn’t want to speak for his brother and his decisions but noted that Kurt’s choice to remove himself from the playoffs was tough.

“He’s very well aware of the decisions and the repercussions of those that he’s making,” Kyle Busch said of his brother. “So I give him … full credit for making those.”

Kyle Busch is the only Toyota driver with a previous Cup championship — he won titles in 2015 and 2019, but this year hasn’t exactly been a championship-type season. His only win came on the Bristol dirt track, when the leaders wrecked in front of him. He was eighth in the standings before playoff reseeding dropped him to 11th.

There are no Toyota drivers in the top five of the reseeded standings, with Hamlin sixth and Bell 10th. But Wilson thinks they have a good shot of making a run during the playoffs. The only race that truly worries him is the Charlotte “Roval” road course because JGR has struggled at those tracks this year. The other struggles have come in execution on pit road.

“We’re concerned about Charlotte Roval,” Wilson said. “We hope we’re not in a position where we have to do something spectacular there because my confidence level is not high.

“But short of that, I’m not worried.” 

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Thinking out loud

The vibe in the garage was that NASCAR probably wouldn’t wait too deep into a rain delay to call the Cup race Sunday if the race had gone past the halfway point and could be deemed official. It already had been a long weekend, with a rain-delayed Xfinity race and a postponed Cup race.

But NASCAR spent 3 hours, 19 minutes in a delay Sunday to get in the final 20 laps, going green with 16 laps to go and finishing about 15 minutes later.

NASCAR made the right move, considering the circumstances of the caution coming out as the field was wrecking due to a sudden downpour at the track.

By continuing, NASCAR avoided focus on whether it was slow to throw the caution and whether it made the right call in determining Austin Dillon, not Kevin Harvick, the leader. Harvick had hit some cars after the caution came out but thought he had maintained a reasonable speed.

Harvick’s car was too damaged to continue after the red flag, making the point that he should have been the leader relatively moot.

Social spotlight

Stat of the day

Three Richard Childress Racing wins are the most in a season for the organization since it had four in 2013.

They said it

“It was pretty awesome to just be behind the wheel.” — Austin Dillon

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass

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