One of the hardest things to do in sports is to remain on top. Ask, all the greats, they’ll tell you — the most difficult part of being great isn’t the climb up, it’s remaining there. If you’re at the professional ranks, it’s easy to be great. After all, you have to be talented enough to get to the pinnacle of your respective sport.
But, the reason that staying on top is so difficult is, you have to alter your approach to what got you there. Sounds crazy, I know. Getting to the top one way is one thing, but staying there for a long period of time is a different approach.
See, everyone and everything is always evolving. Teams that didn’t get to the top are constantly changing their ways to eventually get there. They may discover something new to get them over the hump. The teams that did get to the top, well they can’t remain the same or they’ll get passed up.
Just look at the NASCAR Cup Series as a prime example.
Last year, Toyota won 19 of the 36 races, a series record, to go along with putting three cars in the Championship 4. With minimal changes to the aero package for 2020, you’d think that they’d pick up where they left off right?
Yes, they won Daytona again with Denny Hamlin, but Daytona and that racing package is a different breed compared to most other races. Most everyone in the NASCAR garage says that the real season begins the week after Daytona. This year, that so happened to be at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Over the last two weeks (Vegas and Fontana), Toyota has looked rather pedestrian. They led 93 laps in Daytona but only four combined laps since. For the season, their cars have paced the field for just 97 laps overall. By comparison, Ford drivers have led 298 circuits and Chevrolet 281.
Chevy drivers led 101 laps in Vegas and 127 more in Fontana.
Last year though, Chevy were the ones that looked like Toyota has. But, this past Sunday at the Auto Club Speedway, the bowties showed that they are for real.
Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet unloaded off the truck last Friday in Fontana race ready. Bowman, was quickest in both practice sessions on single lap speed to go along with being quickest in five lap and 10 lap averages too.
Everyone tabbed the Hendrick Motorsports driver as the favorite.
Bowman, backed up those expectations with a dominating win in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 on the Southern California race track. For the second straight week, his Chevrolet was among the best cars in the end to win. The weekend prior in Las Vegas, if not for a late race caution, Bowman was likely going to pass Ryan Blaney for the victory in the Pennzoil 400. At the very least, he was going to finish second.
But, it’s not just Bowman that’s running well lately. It’s all three of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates too. It’s really, all of the Chevy camp. That’s saying a lot.
It took 10 races before a Chevy driver reached victory lane in 2019. We’re only three weeks in now and they’ve already won.
“This is a place we’ve struggled at for the last two years, so for (crew chief Greg Ives) to be able to unload that close, really the last two weeks in a row, makes my job much easier,” Bowman said following his second career Cup Series win on Sunday. “We can really fine tune the car throughout practice instead of having to make huge changes. It’s really been our probably best couple practices the last two years that I’ve been driving for (Hendrick Motorsports), and I just attribute that to the hard work in the shop and great work over the offseason.”
He and others can thank Chevy for spending a lot of money this past offseason updating their Camaro. It was money that some questioned on how worth it that it was. A new car is coming out in 2021, so why update a car that’s going away in nine months?
Well, Chevy isn’t okay with being down. They’ve been embarrassed the last three years. Since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 championship, a Chevy driver hasn’t been in the Championship 4 in the Cup Series over the last three years. They won just four races in 2018 and only seven more in 2019. Prior to that, they had won at least 10 races for 17 consecutive seasons and 23 of 24 years before overall. In fact, from 2003 through 2015, Chevy had won 15 races or more in 12 of the 13 years. To win only 11 times combined over the last two, wasn’t going to cut it. They were going to go for broke in 2020 to end that Championship 4 drought and to visit victory lane far more, like the not so distant memory days.
So far, it’s working.
“I think the new body has helped us a lot, the new Camaro,” Bowman continued. “Any change we make, we make for a reason, and Chevy did a good job with that car.”
Third place finisher Kurt Busch agreed.
“I feel like the Chevys had a really good balance when it came to speed and long run speed,” Busch said following his fifth top six finish in his last eight Fontana tries. “It looked like the Toyotas were just bogged down early in a run when they were wide-open. That’s why they qualified poorly.”
Fourth place finisher Chase Elliott feels refreshed for how well it’s going thus far.
“I feel like we were better than we’ve been, which is good,” Elliott said. “Not good enough to win, obviously, but better than we’ve been. So, we’ll take it and move on.”
For Bowman and Elliott, Sunday’s finishes were their first career top five results on the 2-mile oval. Bowman, had never even finished in the top 20 in four prior starts.
That as well as how well Jimmie Johnson has been running early this season is encouraging for the seven-time champion. He feels like this is all heading in a promising direction.
“This team is going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “I know in my heart what I am capable of and what this team is capable of. It’s just taken a little bit to get the right people in the right places, and rebuild and get this Ally Chevy exactly where it needs to be.
Chevy not only won in Fontana with Bowman but they put four cars in the top seven overall. Last year, they had just two cars in the top 10 for the entire race as they finished sixth and 10th.
In Vegas, Chevy had six cars finish in the top 10 including four in the top six (all from different organizations). In 2019, Chevy only had two cars in the top 10 too.
Right now, it’s clear that Chevy is far ahead of pace in 2020 from where they were at this time in 2019. In 2019, Chevy only had three cars place in the top 10 in the spring race at Phoenix last year and one in the Fall race.
What about the Toyota’s? They’ve won at least 13 times in each of the last five years. Right now, despite no changes to the aero package, they look lost.
“Slow, we were slow,” Busch said following his third straight top three finish in Fontana. “Just didn’t have the speed overall today for some reason. Then, there at the end felt like the tires were worn out at the last bit of the race. Just frustrating day for us with our Interstate Batteries Camry. I just feel like we’re kind of missing it a little bit – here, here, here and here and those things kind of add up and drag you down a little bit.”
His teammate in Denny Hamlin agreed.
“We’re still slow,” said the Daytona 500 winner following his second top six finish in three tries in 2020. “Our cars handled okay. If we don’t have a draft, we’re just run over. It’s tough because I feel like we’re getting beat on throttle time, but we’re also just getting murdered down the straightaways. Just need more horsepower, more downforce and less drag. If we can have all those, we’ll be better.”
Busch, said that they have a lot that they need to do to get better.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Busch continued. “Guys did a great job here though just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here and try to get some points. Guys are doing all they can, I know along with everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing Development). I appreciate all the hard work, we just have to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here. Obviously, it’s a little bit of something here and maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas, but overall good car today.”
Maybe though, this weekend is just what the doctor ordered. The rules package for Phoenix reverts back to the 2018 days instead of the short track package from a year ago. That in turn could possibly help Toyota’s.
While they swept both races a year ago in going 1-2-5 in this very race last March and 1-2-6-7 in the Fall, maybe this is a breath of fresh air. Toyota won the Fall race in November of 2018 in this very package. They were 2-4-5 in the Spring race of that season too. They even won the 2017 Fall race too giving them four wins in the last five tries in the desert.
But, if they come out and look pedestrian like they have through three races run this year, then they may be in some major trouble.