Parity in NASCAR: Why it's up to the teams to bridge Toyota gap
Maybe Brad Keselowski was on to something when he alleged a lack of parity in the Monster Energy Cup Series.
In the last three months, Toyota drivers have won eight of the 12 races. Want to talk raw speed? Toyotas have won 12 of 26 poles this season — including Kyle Busch’s career-high eight poles for one season all earned in the last 16 races.
And the six Toyota drivers have led 4509 of a possible 7971 laps this season or 56.5-percent. The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota alone has led 23-percent of all laps raced.
So, it’s not surprising the manufacturer’s dominance is a cause for concern among its competitors, including Keselowski, who questioned the supposed equality between manufacturers prior to the post-season kickoff at Chicagoland Speedway.
“We are all in for a rude awakening,” Keselowski tweeted on Sept 15. “Haven't seen NASCAR let a manufacturer get this far ahead since the 70s.”
Keselowski not backing down
While his comment triggered a twitter war from the Toyota contingent, the 2012 Cup champion — who finished fourth on Sunday but hasn’t won a race since Atlanta, 26 races ago — didn’t back down from his sentiments after Sunday's ISM Connection 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“I felt like we were where we needed to be to win and to run up front with the pit crew and the setup,” Keselowski said. “Just kind of lacking a little bit with aero stuff to keep up, but at this type of track, aerodynamics are a little less important, and I felt like it helped us run a little bit higher this week.”
While the driver was pleased with the way the No. 2 Team Penske crew performed on Sunday, Keselowski still lacked the necessary speed to compete with race winner Kyle Busch — or Truex prior to his wreck at the end of the second stage.
“This execution is as good as you can get,” Keselowski added. “A little bit of luck helps and of course you want to be the fastest car. That’s not the scenario with rules the way they are now, so we’ve got to make the most of it and hope to catch a few breaks and make sure we do our part.”
Playing within the rules
On Monday, seven-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus warned Keselowski to be cautious when questioning one car make’s advantage over another, particularly since Toyota is playing within the boundaries established by NASCAR.
“All the manufacturers have had an opportunity to work within the confines that NASCAR has put out there from a downforce standpoint,” Knaus said on FOXSports 1. “Now, that being said, the Toyota teams have exploited this to the next level. I think they actually started to show up with that around May 2015 in Charlotte. We really started to see some performance out of the 19 car and some of those guys around that point in time.
“Fast forward — and they get a new body, some more tweaks to the car, and then they’re a lot better. I think, hands down, they have a better downforce/aero package than the other manufacturers do right now. So it has swayed in that direction. But it’s up to the teams and the manufacturers to be able to try and get that better.”
When Chevrolet was on top
Knaus knows what it’s like to have a target on his back. He’s been in the same position the Toyotas are in now where the other teams in the garage were gunning for the No 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet — the current defending champions. Before last year, Chevrolet had won 13-consecutive manufacturers' championships. Last year, Toyota collected its first manufacturers' title since entering the Cup Series in 2007.
“Go back six to eight years, and a lot of Chevrolets were winning a lot of races,” Knaus said. “I think it was more so because they had better teams than what the other manufacturers did.
“The teams had the strength then. Now I think the manufacturer has the strength and it’s a huge, huge advantage for those guys.”
Toyota hoped to secure five seeds in the playoffs. They settled for four — Truex, Busch, Kenseth and Hamlin. Three of those drivers have amassed 10 wins, and Truex and Busch have already advanced to the next round of the playoffs.
Keselowski leads the Ford charge and he, too, has already moved on to Round 2 based on points. The Blue Oval has five drivers with title hopes. However, Kurt Busch’s chances appear bleak after Sunday’s DNF.
As for the Chevy camp, once again the bow-tie boys qualified the most teams in the playoffs — seven. On most weekends, Kyle Larson has been the only Chevy to run within Toyota’s zip code.
But as Knaus proved last season, it’s not always the fastest car that wins the title. Experience and execution count for a lot.
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