Joe Gibbs Racing has been on a tear since midway through the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season. Winners of 21 of the last 45 races – including 11 this season – the four-driver crew of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards has been nearly unstoppable.
Add in Furniture Row Racing pseudo-teammate Martin Truex Jr., who has won twice this season and has led the second-most laps of any driver in 2016, and the Toyota conglomerate has won over half the races since Kentucky of 2015. Remember that it was that particular race that served as a key springboard in Busch’s ride to the championship.
At one point this season, JGR won four races in a row and six during a seven-race stretch. This dominance led many to predict that one of the four drivers would be your Cup champ. And if they lost out? It would most likely be to Truex.
But over the last six races, JGR has won only twice – both by Hamlin. For most teams that would be a great stat. But JGR has higher expectations, and similar to Hendrick Motorsports’ dynastic runs in the late oughts and early tens, anything less than a win is considered a poor showing.
So is this (slight) slowdown in production a worrisome sight for JGR? Is the team suddenly going to have to actually fight for the title (driving fights, not fistfights. Although we’re likely to see both over the next 10 weeks)? Or is this much ado about nothing, and one of Coach’s four drivers will be hoisting the Cup in Homestead?
MOVE ALONG, THE BATTLE IS FOR SECOND PLACE
Or third, or fourth. Perhaps fifth. Because with the way JGR is running this year, they could very well go into the final race at Homestead with all four cars still in contention.
I think the stats mentioned in the intro speak volumes. The four drivers have won nearly half of all the races contested in the past year and a quarter. The Chase is all about winning; it doesn’t matter how poorly one finishes if they can win another race in the round. Kevin Harvick proved that last year. But I don’t think any JGR driver really needs to worry about poor finishes. Unless a mechanical issue occurs – and JGR hasn’t had many this year – they’ll be battling for the win.
And that spells doom for the rest of the field. Just take a look at the Chase schedule:
Chicagoland: Hamlin won last year
New Hampshire: JGR swept the track last season and Kenseth won in the summer
Dover: Kenseth won here earlier this season
Charlotte: Edwards won the spring race last year and Truex dominated in the Coke 600 this year
Kansas: Busch won this year
Talladega: No wins, but anything can happen and the Toyotas are always strong
Martinsville: Team has won two of the last three
Texas: Busch won this year
Phoenix: Biggest question mark. Harvick will be hard to beat
Homestead: Busch won last year, and all four drivers have won here before
The winning thing they have down. But they also have the smarts to advance. Busch is aggressive, but rather than letting his temper get the best of him he’s learned how to apply it when it’s smart to. Kenseth has gotten more aggressive over the last two years. Edwards is calculating and knows when to push the issue. And Hamlin has a chip on his shoulder from 2010 that he’d like to remove.
But for just as good as JGR is, all the other teams are largely… meh this season. Brad Keselowski has been the main challenger to JGR this season, but two of his four wins have come on plate tracks. Harvick might play spoiler, but only if his new pit crew doesn’t make the same mistakes as his old one. And Truex … while he’s a Toyota teammate and will be speedy, he’s had issues in too many races to be the favorite.
Hendrick Motorsport’s two-car contention doesn’t seem to have the consistency up front, and last year’s Chase wunderkind Joey Logano has been largely unmentioned this season. Same with Kurt Busch. Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, and Chris Buescher will likely all have early exits without solid top 5s to push them through.
But it doesn’t matter, does it? How good or bad the other 12 Chasers will be. Because JGR will be in the title hunt, and it will win the 2016 Cup title.
NEIN. JGR ISN’T NECESSARILY THE FAVORITE
So far this season, the four entries for Joe Gibbs Racing have shown great form. There are certain weekends where they are nearly unbeatable. However, as last year proves, that doesn’t necessarily mean jack when it comes time for the Chase. Tempers and moods are fragile.
One brush of the wall derailed Matt Kenseth’s season last year. Then, there was the alleged brake check at Talladega that led to an explosion on the radio. After being eliminated, Kenseth infamously intentionally wrecked Logano at Martinsville. You know what happened next.
That type of scenario is just one way in which JGR could be denied its fifth Cup Championship. While such a situation is not necessarily inevitable, it could happen.
More reasonably, the team could simply get outrun. We’re talking about a team whose best entry in points was fourth after Richmond (Denny Hamlin), and that’s mainly because Hamlin won the race. He was over 100 points behind Kevin Harvick. The squad started strong, but they’ve come back to earth during some weekends recently.
Kyle Busch simply has no luck. Even when he’s run well, problems have emerged. Bristol last month is a perfect example; he led over half the race, then had an issue in the left rear that caused him to spin out of second. Had that been all, he would have finished about 15 laps down, but still would have finished. Instead, Justin Allgaier accidentally cleaned him out and Busch ended up with a DNF.
Since his victory at Indianapolis, Busch’s best finish was sixth at Watkins Glen. He also has two finishes out of the top 15.
Carl Edwards hasn’t had a top-5 finish since Kentucky in July. In that time, his best finish is a sixth at Bristol and he’s run into trouble in recent weeks.
Kenseth has had a series of bad runs recently, including two DNFs. Denny Hamlin is probably in the best shape of the bunch after winning last weekend. He’s the only one of the four drivers with real momentum.
While I do believe that JGR will win at least one race at some point during the Chase, they’re not the juggernaut that they were a couple of months ago. Harvick and Brad Keselowski have been every bit of a match for them and more. In addition, there’s nothing keeping Logano, Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Larson and others from stealing wins.
With this mess of a Chase format, winning does make your life easier, but its not required. You could go through the whole Chase, not win a race, and still make it to the final round. Two drivers (Busch and Truex) did that last year. Being consistently strong is potentially more important.
From what I can tell, Harvick is the most consistently strong driver in the series right now. He’s got the most top 5s and top 10s in the series. He’s entering the Chase with eight top 10s in the last nine races (Watkins Glen, where he crashed out, is the exception). In my eyes, he’s the man to beat as long as his pit crew doesn’t let him down.
Having said that, I would be shocked if any of the four JGR teams failed to get out of the first round. However, if anyone runs into trouble in Joliet or Loudon, Dover could be interesting. Last year’s Citizen Solider 400 at Dover was a scrum for the final spots. Any significant issues for a Gibbs entry in those first two races puts them back in the scrum.
My best guess is that one JGR team is still in contention at Homestead. Couldn’t tell you which team that would be right now, especially with Talladega on the schedule.
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