Race Weekend Central

Just What Is the Value of East Series Title for Max Gresham, JGR?

DOVER, Del. – When all was said and done at the Monster Mile Friday (Sept. 30), Joe Gibbs Racing was celebrating a second K&N East Series championship. Third place was plenty good enough in the season finale, with Max Gresham‘s effort clinching the title for the No. 18 squad once rival Brett Moffitt hit the wall during the race’s final laps.

It was the cap of a memorable season for the Georgia native, who completed every lap of competition over the series’ 12-race schedule, and it had plenty of folks at JGR talking.

Said team executives in Gresham’s post-race presser: “He’s a great talent,” one that they expect “to see in Nationwide or Cup sometime very soon.” Statistically, there’s little Gresham could have done better; 100% laps completed, 11 top-10 finishes in 12 starts, four poles and two wins.

And on-track at this treacherous 1-mile oval, Gresham proved himself. Never wilting under the championship pressure, he spent 39 laps up front, even making a hard charge through traffic after a bad pit stop in the race’s midsection that saw the No. 18 Toyota emerge without a scratch.

Still, just as is the case for every driver racing at the K&N level for a major Cup organization, the East Series is not the end-all-be-all, championship or not. Gresham may have had family money that went a ways towards landing him one of the premier minor league rides in the sport, but he is now a crucial element of the team’s development ladder.

That’s no small deal; between Joey Logano‘s uncertain future in Cup, and sponsorship shortages threatening to curtail Nationwide starts for Ryan Truex, Matt DiBenedetto and others, a fully-funded prospect can pretty much cherrypick a ride – assuming they don’t actually get the call.

Here’s the problem, though, for JGR moving forward. Gresham’s on the same track that every prospect to come through the organization since 2007 has been on … and it’s a track that’s yet to yield any lasting results for the operation. Just take a look at the drivers that have gone through the team’s East Series program:

  • Marc Davis failed to score a win in two seasons and has made only 11 attempts across all of NASCAR’s touring series since his release (he’s start-and-parking for R3 Motorsports in a Nationwide car this weekend).
  • DiBenedetto posted an average finish of 22.0 in six starts driving JGR’s potent Nationwide Series cars a year ago; he’s now running the East Series full-time with a non-Cup organization.
  • Logano’s only Cup win came as a result of pit strategy immediately preceding a rainout. The driver known as “Sliced Bread” during his tear through stock car racing’s development network has now become all but irrelevant on the Cup circuit, failing to make any Chase appearances while never cracking the top 15 in the standings. Longtime JGR backer Home Depot’s continued future with the organization remains murky.

Of course, it’s not a total wash by any stretch. DiBenedetto finished fourth in the points in the East Series this year after leaving JGR. Moffitt, who ran a limited schedule for JGR’s East program a year ago, wound up third in the standings after winning three races in the East Series this year driving for Michael Waltrip Racing.

And as for Logano, he’s still won a Cup race, as well as 16 poles and nine race wins for JGR’s Nationwide program (where he’s finished in the top 10 79.2% of the time). Out of all those names, only Davis has truly fallen off stock car racing’s radar.

But still, there’s a disconcerting pattern you find emerging at Joe Gibbs Racing, who has two legitimate stars in Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch driving the team’s Cup cars. Ironically, though neither of them followed the development track that Logano, Davis, DiBenedetto and now Gresham are on. Instead, the two of them both went through the ranks driving good cars – just not tailor-made to dominate the field.

Kyle Busch drove ARCA, Truck and Nationwide races from the age of 16 before landing a full-time NNS ride for Hendrick Motorsports in 2004. The No. 5 team was the defending champion when Busch took the seat, but Busch was also racing against a stacked field that included Brewco Motorsports, Team Rensi at their prime, Chance 2 Motorsports and PPC Racing.

As for Hamlin, who took the wheel of JGR’s No. 20 car in 2005 as Mike Bliss‘s replacement, his results in that car were far from flashy. Hamlin posted only one top-5 finish that entire season driving the No. 20, but no one can forget the remarkable run he had in the team’s No. 11 Cup car at the end of that same season.

While JJ Yeley proved unable to get the team’s floundering third car up to speed, Hamlin posted two top-10 finishes and a pole in the final seven races of the Cup circuit, earning the FedEx ride he’s held ever since. The Gibbs Nationwide cars, then mid-pack runners, were nowhere near what they are now … and being forced to race that equipment against cars that were often stouter had Hamlin Cup ready.

So what’s the difference between development in 2004-2005 and the model JGR has been following since Logano in 2007? It all comes down to equipment. 2007 and Logano’s title run in the East Series proved to be just the start of major Cup organizations saturating the ranks there (one look at Friday’s K&N field at Dover saw entries from JGR, Michael Waltrip Racing and a number of factory-backed Toyotas; Red Bull Racing has also fielded entries in the series the past few years).

There’s no getting around just how much of an advantage those kind of resources have on racing at the K&N level. The top-five drivers in points after the 2011 season closed this Friday all either drove for a Cup or factory-backed entry.

Of course, amongst those giants it’s been JGR making a statement, virtually dominant in any minor-league NASCAR series where it chooses to compete. Logano’s run through the Nationwide Series, one that saw him post stellar results prior to taking over the No. 20 Cup car from Tony Stewart came right as JGR went from a presence on the Nationwide Series circuit to an overwhelming 2,500-pound gorilla.

Just as JGR’s East Series cars proved to be the class of the East Series field in 2011 (Gresham’s championship says it all), the same can be said for JGR’s Nationwide Series entries.

In short, the way JGR driver development is now situated, their prospects are running in the best possible cars at every level until they get to Cup. And as Logano’s ongoing struggles demonstrate, that’s hardly the means to create the next star driver … or even solid Cup driver.

The point to all of this futuristic talk? While Max Gresham can (and rightly should) celebrate his first NASCAR championship this weekend, whether that title is of any true significance to the future of JGR, and even the sport, remains to be seen.

There’s something to be said about seeing up-and-coming drivers getting a shot at winning races and competing head-on with veterans, but there’s also something to be said about learning how to race in cars that aren’t the class of the field.

Gresham had a tremendous opportunity in 2011 to drive JGR’s East Series car and he made the most of it. He is now, and always will be, a NASCAR champion.

Whether he’s a more developed driver as a result? That remains to be seen.

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