Seven races into the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the list of winners is starting to grow. There have already been six different drivers representing five different teams to visit victory lane. Chevrolet accounts for five of those wins, while Ford and Toyota have each put one driver in the winner’s circle so far. Yet it’s also interesting to note who is not included in the list of winners – namely the four drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing. Other than Marin Truex Jr’s win in the exhibition Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, JGR has not captured a Cup Series checkered flag in 2023.
It is not that the Gibbs drivers have performed poorly to start the season, but they have lacked consistent race-winning speed. Christopher Bell has been the best of the bunch so far, currently third in points. Truex is ninth with Denny Hamlin not far behind in 12th. If the regular season were to end today, all three of them would be playoff eligible. Rookie Ty Gibbs is further down the points standings in 20th, but that’s not a surprise given his lack of experience at the Cup level.
Bell, Truex and Hamlin, on the other hand, are all expected to be championship contenders. There is obviously a lot of racing left to go before the postseason begins, and, as we have learned over the years, performance during the playoff races is the most important factor for winning the title.
Yet playoff points do make a big difference, and that is where JGR could be in trouble down the line. The entire team has banked only a single playoff point, courtesy of Hamlin winning stage two at Richmond Raceway last weekend. Compare that to the 21 banked playoff points for Hendrick Motorsports, a total to which William Byron and Kyle Larson added at Richmond with a stage win and race win respectively. It may be early, but it already feels like JGR is in a hole.
What is even worse for the Gibbs drivers is how easily those Richmond playoff points could have swung in their favor. Larson and Byron dominated the first half of the race until Hamlin and Bell broke up the Hendrick party near the end of stage two. Bell had run in the top 10 throughout the race while Hamlin had worked his way back to the front of the field after an early pit road speeding penalty. Along the way, an incident where Hamlin spun JJ Yeley brought out the caution on lap 45. It was during the following yellow flag period when Truex came to pit road for a fresh set of tires, although most of the other leaders stayed out. This sequence of events would have a major impact later in the race.
Truex took the lead for the first time on lap 295. As he continued to hold the top spot into the final quarter of the race, it looked like the Gibbs squad had the upper hand on the Hendrick drivers.
Then, in the last 30 laps, racers from both camps began to drop out of contention. Truex lost the lead to Byron during a green flag pit cycle, but his worst break was Tyler Reddick’s spin on lap 372. Due to the earlier pit stop under the caution for Yeley’s spin, Truex’s team did not have a fresh set of tires remaining. The No. 19 crew had to put on six-lap scuffed tires when Truex came to pit road. Making matters worse for JGR, Hamlin was busted for speeding again and had to restart at the tail end of the pack. Larson would win the race off pit road, swinging the momentum back in Hendrick’s favor.
When the race restarted on lap 380, the field only made it to turn 1 before Bell bumped Byron into a spin, sending the No. 24 sliding toward the outside wall. With Truex still at a tire disadvantage and Hamlin and Byron buried deep in the pack, most of Larson’s competition was gone. In the final 14-lap run to the checkers, he scooted away from Bell and everyone else to earn his first win of 2023.
It was a huge missed opportunity for JGR, which has generally been the team to beat at Richmond over the last decade. Hamlin has four wins at Richmond and has finished in the top five in over half of his 33 starts there. Truex has three wins in the last eight Richmond races. Even Bell, who has never won at Richmond at the Cup level, has five consecutive finishes there of sixth or better. Last weekend would have been the perfect opportunity for the Gibbs drivers to notch their first win of 2023. Hamlin, Truex and Bell all had a shot, but all three came up empty.
With the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race and Martinsville Speedway up next, there will be no lack of opportunities for JGR to score a victory. Gibbs’ team won the dirt race last year with Kyle Busch, while Martinsville figures to be another Hendrick/Gibbs showdown. Bell is the most recent winner there, scoring the 200th victory in a Cup Series points race for JGR last October. In fact, Bell is responsible for Gibbs’ last three wins. Hamlin has not won since the Coca-Cola 600 last year, while Truex’s last points win was his triumph at Richmond in September 2021.
Continuing a trend from the end of last season, Bell is still carrying the banner for JGR. That’s quite a change from the recent past where Bell and the No. 20 team, like Erik Jones before him, usually struggled to keep pace with the veterans in the other three Gibbs cars. Not since Matt Kenseth’s seven-win season in 2013 has the No. 20 car looked like the clear top dog at JGR. Yet with Busch off to Richard Childress Racing, Ty Gibbs still learning the ropes and Truex and Hamlin struggling to find victory lane, Bell is the clear bright spot in the Gibbs camp. If JGR is going to get a win anytime soon, Bell feels like the best bet.
However, looking at the bigger picture, a win here and there by the No. 20 will not be enough. JGR cannot have a repeat of 2022 where Bell was the only one doing the heavy lifting in the second half of the season. The organization must figure out how to get its veterans back to victory lane and collect some playoff points. With Hendrick winning big at Gibbs’ house in Richmond, can Gibbs return the favor by winning at Hendrick’s house in Martinsville? We’ll find out in two weeks.
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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