It probably was a good thing for NASCAR in general that Erik Jones was disqualified early Sunday after failing a post-race inspection, denying the cars from Joe Gibbs Racing, the Hogs of Stock Cars, a 1-2-3-4 finish in a Cup race Saturday night at Richmond, Va.
Such competitive imbalance stinks, especially when NASCAR is trying to sell parity and unpredictability. Add in the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing uses Toyotas â which have been made in the U.S. for a while but the old-timey yahoos still see as âforeignâ â and it could be hard to keep peopleâs interest for two more months.
NASCAR installed a rule before this season that drops a car that fails a post-race inspection to last place in the field, so Jones, the fourth-place finisher Saturday, will be credited with a 38th-place finish. Jones, one of 16 playoff drivers, is now so far behind that he must win the next race to get to the next round.
If Jones fails to make the Round of 12, only three Gibbs drivers would advance. With four drivers guaranteed spots in the tricked-up crap shoot of a championship race Nov. 17, that would mean at least one berth would go to someone else. Woo!
So, with eight races to go, there is still a chance for a driver from another team using a car manufactured by someone other than Toyota to win the Cup championship. This is what passes for drama in NASCAR now. Gibbs and Toyota are all but destined to win a title.
Beyond the race at the hybrid oval-road course Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which did well in the ratings and at the box office in its first run last year, there will be nothing new in the last seven races. Six will be at tracks that have hosted a race already this year.
But the three Gibbs drivers who will likely remain in contention after Sunday are formidable. Martin Truex Jr. won his second straight race Saturday â after he spun out and lost the lead to his teammate, Kyle Busch. Truex and Busch led 310 of 400 laps at Richmond.
Truex, Busch and Denny Hamlin (who came in third Saturday) have won 14 of 28 Cup races this year, with Jones winning a 15th race. Truex, Busch and Hamlin have won at least four races this year, and Gibbs drivers have won five of the last eight Cup races.
Â Busch has not won since early June, a span covering 14 Cup races, but he is still in third place in the Cup standings, just behind Kevin Harvick, who won three of seven races before the playoffs. The only other non-Gibbs winner since July 13 is fan favorite Chase Elliott.
Donât blame Joe Gibbs. He uses Toyotas because they perform better generally than Fords or Chevolets, and his 15 winning cars have passed post-race inspections (though Jonesâs disqualification surely will cause JGR haters to think other funny business might be going on).
Busch and Hamlin are not easy drivers to like, and Truex had a more charming story when he won a Cup title in 2017 for the unheralded team owned by Barney Visser, who has since gotten out of the sport. Truexâs longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, had beaten back cancer.
Gibbs, the modest former football coach who lost his son, J.D., to a neurological disease in January, said after Saturdayâs race, âI reflect back for the last two weeks before this, we had eight cars in races, seven of them had bad days. So it’s just ââ our sport is extremely hard, as all pro sports are, and that’s the way it should be. That’s the reason why the fans love to come and see it, because you have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s the greatest reality show in the world. We don’t know what’s going to happen.â
So, Gibbs said, that is why he is so nervous. You have to wonder how much more nervous Gibbs would be if he had a slower pack of cars â meaning, cars like everyone elseâs. Great for Gibbs, not so great for everyone else, and not for the general vitality of NASCAR.
Yes, Gibbs is right, in that we donât know whatâs going to happen. Maybe only two of his drivers make the final race. Maybe another team wins the Cup. Maybe, but it does not seem too likely. Maybe someone else gets hot. Maybe more Gibbs cars are DQâd. Awful lot of maybes. Now watch Jones win Sunday.
Gibbs will have earned a title if he gets one. But the days of anyone but the giant teams winning are over, and NASCAR needs to figure out a way to balance it out.