Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway was not the cure for what ails Joe Gibbs Racing. The four-car organization did deliver a stronger performance then it did at Texas Motor Speedway last month.
However, it is clear that JGR’s intermediate track speed is still lacking. The team’s slump is surprising, given its run of success during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Yet even more surprising is that JGR’s satellite organization, Furniture Row Racing, has not experienced the same struggles.
Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 team look as fast as ever, or at least not substantially slower than last year. Truex’s victory at Kansas is his second of the season, with the first coming at the similarly-configured Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Rookie Erik Jones, Truex’s teammate, had a rougher night, spinning three times during the course of the event. While he is struggling to earn good finishes as of late, Jones does not appear to be lacking for speed in the same way as his pseudo-teammates, particularly Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.
So, what is really going on with the six well-funded Toyota teams? How is it that FRR, the satellite organization, is producing generally faster cars than JGR?
Initially, some of the Gibbs drivers and team members commented that the organization was still getting used to their new cars. Toyota opted to run its 2018 Camry in NASCAR this year, which came with a redesigned nose. It is probable that this change really has contributed to JGR’s step backwards. Engineering and aerodynamics have become immensely important in NASCAR, particularly on the intermediate tracks. If JGR really is having trouble adjusting to the new Toyota noses, then it would explain the lack of speed at tracks like Texas, Kansas, and Las Vegas relative to the last two years.
It is not unprecedented to see a manufacture struggle after introducing a new car either. Back in 2005, Dodge had all its NASCAR teams switch from the Intrepid to the Charger. For NASCAR’s purposes, the biggest difference was a redesigned nose, which Dodge officials initially thought would give their teams an aerodynamic advantage.
However, the opposite happened.
Dodge won just three races that season, and the only victory on a track greater than one mile was Jeremy Mayfield’s fuel-mileage win at Michigan International Speedway. After Dodge crafted a new nose for the Charger in 2006, Kasey Kahne went on a tear, winning a season-high six times and becoming the driver to beat at the intermediate tracks.
That said, Truex has been running the same cars with the same new nose as the JGR drivers. Even if the new Camry is a contributing factor to Toyota’s struggles, it cannot be the only reason, or Truex would be struggling too.
Furthermore, not all of JGR’s drivers have been running poorly this year. Kyle Busch has had top five or at least top 10 cars nearly every week. Busch has also led 521 laps this year, second only to Truex, who has led 15 more. The fact that Busch has not won this season is more a function of the No. 18 team being in the right place at the wrong time. If the lack of speed was strictly a Toyota problem or even a JGR problem, Busch and Truex would not be running up front with such frequency.
The difference between FRR’s speed and JGR’s relative lack of it probably lies with how the cars are getting set up. Barney Visser’s team is doing something that has helped the No. 78 car tackle the learning curve presented by the new Camry and the 2017 rules better than any of the other well-funded Toyotas. It could be that FRR has found a trick to create more downforce that JGR has not. It could also be that Cole Pearn, Truex’s crew chief, has been more aggressive in pushing the No. 78’s setups to the brink of NASCAR’s tolerances. Either way, the satellite team is currently outperforming the larger organization.
No longer the underdogs, Truex and Furniture Row have emerged as Toyota’s biggest championship threat.
This situation is not unfamiliar territory for the No. 78 team. In 2015, when they were still aligned with Richard Childress Racing, Truex and FRR had a breakout year together, winning once and advancing to the final round of the postseason. While the victory came at Pocono Raceway, Truex was at his best on the intermediate tracks. Perhaps more significantly, Furniture Row outperformed RCR, which put two drivers in the Chase that year but never really looked like a championship-caliber organization. For the last two and a third years, FRR’s approach to NASCAR in general has made the team fast on intermediate tracks, no matter the team from which they have gotten technical support.
As for Joe Gibbs Racing, Kansas was a step in the right direction, but there is obvious work to be done. Kenseth remains outside the postseason cutoff by 17 points, and the finishes of Daniel Suarez and the No. 19 team have been all over the map. Hamlin has shown improvements in the last month and Busch remains strong. Yet again, none of the four have visited victory lane this year.
Gibbs’ slow start is surprising, yet it is important to understand that the team is not in uncharted waters either. While Dodge was struggling in 2005, JGR went on to win the championship with Tony Stewart. However, Stewart, and JGR as a whole, did not get his first victory until the 16th race of the year. The No. 20 team caught fire after that, winning four of the next six races and catapulting Stewart to the points lead, en route to winning his second championship Additionally, Busch had not run a single race at this point two years ago, but made a thrilling comeback to win the title.
Love it or hate it, NASCAR’s championship format demands excellence at the end of the year, not the beginning. JGR should be concerned about Kenseth’s and Suarez’s points positions, but it is way too early to write the team off as out of championship contention. Joe Gibbs has been down this road before, and it has led him to a championship on more than one occasion.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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