DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As the Daytona 500 approached 50 laps to go, it was shaping up to be a familiar finish for Matt Kenseth.
The defending champion of the race was in his first race for his new team, Joe Gibbs Racing, and was back at the front of the field, as he and new teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin were running 1-2-3 on lap 148.
Suddenly, smoke started coming out from underneath the front of his Toyota. It didn't stop. Earlier in the race, Kenseth felt a vibration in the back of his car, but this was a problem unrelated to that.
Kenseth pulled his car down to the inside from in front of the pack and then onto pit road. The smoke continued to come out from his car. His chance to win back-to-back 500s were effectively over with an engine issue.
Busch assumed the lead. It was shaping up to be a familiar finish for Joe Gibbs Racing, and not one that involved victory lane. Less than two laps after Kenseth pulled in, Busch was next in his stall, smoke coming from his Toyota.
"Just broke something inside the motor," Busch said. "There's pieces that are supposed to stay together and they didn't stay together. I hate it for this whole team. These guys, they do a great job and work too hard and it sounds like 2012 already."
A 2012 that included three straight summer races of engine woes from Busch. He missed the Chase and finished 15th. Over the last few seasons, engine and mechanical issues have struck Gibbs cars at some of the most inpportune times, and before 2012, the team merged engine operations with Toyota Racing Development. (Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. also suffered mechanical woes late in the race as his car appeared to go down to seven cylinders)
Back to the race. Busch's engine failure meant that Hamlin assumed the lead as the lone JGR car remaining. He stayed near the front of the field as pit stops cycled through and restarted third behind Brad Keselowski with six laps to go. But he didn't stay there, and backslid through the field and ended up 14th. Why?
. @keselowski sorry I couldn't get close to you cuz your genius teammate was too busy messing up the inside line 1 move at a time
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) February 24, 2013
That teammate would be Joey Logano, the driver who Kenseth replaced at Gibbs.
One race -- especially a restrictor plate one -- does not make a season, so it'd be presumptuous to jump to the assumption that this will be a season of unreliability for JGR.
"I know we're sitting in the garage so everyone is going to think we're bummed out, and I am," Kenseth said. "But I can't be any more thankful or excited, honestly. I don't think the week could have gone any better. Our finishing position doesn't show it, but it's just a great group; really really fast race cars. If you have really fast race cars and we get some reliability stuff fixed then we're going to win races and hopefully contend for championships."
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