CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The odds are once again stacked for Joe Gibbs Racing, the team with all four of its drivers in NASCAR’s playoffs.
Throw in Martin Truex Jr., who is aligned with the team, and the numbers point to a Toyota winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for a second consecutive year.
Kyle Busch gave Toyota its first Cup title last season, and the first championship for team owner Joe Gibbs in a decade. His bid to repeat begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, where the 10-race Chase begins.
His top competition could again come from within his own organization.
Including Truex, who drives for Furniture Row Racing in an alliance with JGR, the five Toyota drivers have combined for 13 wins through the first 26 races. They’ve led over 4,000 laps and again routed the field in the regular-season finale at Richmond by leading 385 of 407 laps in a Denny Hamlin win.
So can anyone beat their effort?
Well, Gibbs isn’t preparing any championship speeches just yet.
“There’s so many, I think, well prepared cars. This is going to be a battle,” Gibbs said. “There’s no way that you can pick a favorite right now. Everybody that’s in there is going to have a shot.
“I think it’s the greatest reality show going.”
So who can beat the Toyota contingent?
— KEVIN HARVICK: Although he has only two wins this year, Harvick should have been in victory lane a few more times.
The 2014 champion has been plagued by recurring pit crew problems, and Stewart-Haas Racing last week made two changes to his team after a slow final stop at Darlington cost him the win.
He doesn’t have the finishes to show for how good he’s been, but Harvick’s 1,211 laps led this year trails only Busch (1,244) and Truex (1,234). He also leads the series in top-five finishes (13) and top-10s (21).
There’s nothing at all to suggest Harvick won’t be in the final four at the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He made it last year, only to finish second to Busch in his bid to repeat his title.
Few are as hell-bent on winning as Harvick, who takes no prisoners and spares no feelings in his pursuit of a title.
— BRAD KESELOWSKI and JOEY LOGANO: There’s no doubt that Team Penske was deeply disappointed not to win the title the last two years.
Keselowski had six wins in 2014 and a strong Chase until a mechanical failure in the first race of the third round put him against the ropes. A pair of top-four finishes wasn’t enough to get him into the finale, and he settled for fifth in the final standings.
Last year was Logano’s year and he seemed unbeatable, particularly when the Chase began. Like Keselowski the year before, he too won six races, including three straight in the Chase.
But a feud with Matt Kenseth that wouldn’t go away blew up badly at Martinsville Speedway (same place as Keselowski’s problem a year earlier) and Kenseth intentionally wrecked Logano in a race Logano seemed poised to win.
Logano didn’t recover and failed to make the finale as Penske was denied in yet another season it had dominated.
— KYLE LARSON: So, Larson may be a stretch, and definitely not a favorite. But it’s hard to count him out considering the way he’s running.
Larson has hit a groove this year, especially since winning his Chase-clinching race at Michigan last month. The third-year driver followed it with a third-place finish at Darlington, then hustled from 12th to second on a two-lap overtime sprint Saturday night at Richmond.
It’s Larson’s first appearance in the Chase, but he raced like a participant during his 2014 rookie year. He wasn’t eligible that season, but reeled off five consecutive top-six finishes in the first half of the Chase.
He hasn’t hit career numbers this year in many categories, but his 241 laps led is his best to date.
Larson’s biggest fight will be advancing through the first three rounds, but should he somehow make it to the final four, he considers Homestead one of his favorite race tracks. He’s not finished lower than 15th there, and was a career-best fifth last season.