DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The most shocking storyline of Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series qualifying session at Daytona Int’l Speedway was the failure of Toyota to put a car in the top 12 for the first time in five years.
Not since the Daytona season-opener in 2012, when Mike Bliss was the fastest Toyota driver in 13th, had the Japanese manufacturer failed to crack the top dozen.
In fact, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were so dominant in qualifying just a year ago that they scored 23 poles in 33 races and locked out the front row 19 times, both numbers setting series records.
The team’s average starting position among all their cars last year: 3.7.
Saturday morning, however, the best that Toyota and JGR could muster was 14th from young rookie Matt Tifft, with Erik Jones coming in 18th and Daniel Suarez qualifying 21st.
That left the perennial powerhouse team with a dismal average starting position of 17.7 for Saturday afternoon’s PowerShares QQQ 300 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM).
With all of that, you’d think that the favorites from the Toyota stable would be worried, right?
Not at all, according to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookies Jones and Suarez, who return to the XFINITY ranks this weekend for extra track time ahead of their Daytona 500 debuts on Sunday.
“I don’t think (qualifying mid-pack) really changes the strategy for us at all,” Jones explained. “We were going to be racing pretty hard and trying to get up to the front anyways. Our Hisense Camry ran fine in the pack, I think. We never made a mock run, so I never really knew what our single-car speed would be like.”
“Do we wish we could’ve qualified better? Sure, but it’s Daytona and where you start doesn’t make a huge difference. We’ll work our way up and hopefully be there at the end.”
Jones feels like he will have a strong car in the draft and will be able to maneuver his way forward through traffic.
“I thought we had one of the better-handling cars in a pack. I was really comfortable with it,” he admitted. “I really felt like I could move around and make some good moves. We worked a little bit on some of the stuff in drafting in the packs to make it a little bit better. I think we helped them and I guess we’ll find out here pretty soon.”
Suarez will make his first Cup appearance on Sunday and said his major challenge hasn’t been his XFINITY car, but rather having to bounce between the two garage areas during a busy week.
“It was a little crazy for me, running back-and-forth from the XFINITY garage and doing practices for both sides,” Suarez explained. “I’ve been learning the differences between these two cars and hope to learn more as we go. The last two races I’ve done in the Cup car … in the Clash and the Duel, I think it’s a little help for today’s XFINITY race, but we’ll just have to see how everything works out.”
“So far, I think we’re much better than what we qualified in 21st, but I have a lot of confidence in my team and I know we’re going to move forward.”
Other Toyota notables in the starting field include Dakoda Armstrong (23rd), J.J. Yeley (24th), Scott Lagasse (25th), Benny Gordon (27th)and Brandon Hightower (31st).
The PowerShares QQQ 300 opens the NASCAR XFINITY Series season at 3 p.m. ET, with live coverage on FOX Sports 1, the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.
Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 23-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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