RICHMOND, Va. — Joe Gibbs Racing got all three of its cars into NASCAR’s playoffs, but if something doesn’t turn around quickly, the organization won’t have a shot at winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have a combined two victories between them, and the trio was hardly impressive in Saturday night’s final warmup before the Chase begins.
Busch was never a contender in the Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway, where he finished 14th a day after he led flag-to-flag to win Friday night’s Nationwide Series race. Hamlin, at his home track, finished 21st and two laps off the pace, and Kenseth was 41st after hitting the wall early.
“It was a really bad night,” Kenseth conceded.
It’s a far cry from where the organization was a year ago when Kenseth went into the Chase as the top seed and reeled off back-to-back wins in the first two races. Busch was just as strong, finishing second behind Kenseth in the first two races and opening the Chase with three top-five finishes.
They’ve shown no sign of being able to replicate that performance when the Chase opens Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. The entire organization has failed most of this season to keep pace with Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Kevin Harvick from Stewart-Haas Racing.
Asked after Saturday night’s race if JGR is even in the game with the teams that have shown consistent speed, Hamlin said dryly: “We’re on the same racetrack.”
But Hamlin wasn’t conceding anything. He’s raced the last six weeks without crew chief Darian Grubb and car chief Wesley Sherrill, both suspended for a rules violation. They return to the No. 11 team this weekend. It’s possible the time away from the track allowed Grubb to focus on building new cars that could help JGR close the gap.
“I hope they’ve got some beast race cars coming up for us,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin also referenced Tony Stewart’s sour outlook in 2011, when he first complained his team would be wasting space in the Chase field if he qualified. Stewart later left his name off the list of drivers he considered championship contenders.
Stewart then reeled off five wins in the 10 Chase races to win his third NASCAR championship. Grubb was his crew chief at the time.
“I can give you the Tony Stewart speech from 2011 telling you we’re ‘a waste of space’ and all that, but we’ll just take his quotes and maybe we’ll go on that same run,” Hamlin said.
Only Busch didn’t sound as if that’s a realistic possibility. The JGR drivers have been vocal about a horsepower deficiency in their Toyota engines, and they’ve simply not run in the same league as Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, or the Hendrick juggernaut of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Busch has only nine top-10 finishes this season, and his 365 laps led have him well on pace to lead the fewest amount of laps since 2005, when he led 362 as a rookie.
Asked what he’s expecting in the Chase, Busch just shrugged.
Kenseth, who won a series-high seven races last year, is the most optimistic of the group even though he’s winless on the season. Kenseth had a pair of top-three finishes in the last three weeks, and has five top-10s in the last eight races.
“I feel great about my team. I’ve got a ton of confidence in the group,” he said. “Our preparation has been good, execution has been great, so I feel good about the company and the team and everything we can do.”
Still, he acknowledged the concerns with the Toyota engines — “it’s no secret we’ve just kind of been off on speed,” — and said it will take flawless execution to remain competitive.
JGR can take some solace in the new Chase format, which will favor consistent teams early and reward winning drivers with an automatic berth into the next round. Four of the 16 qualifiers will be eliminated every three races, and the champion will be winner-take-all in the season finale.
“Anything can happen,” Hamlin said. “I think these first two segments, for sure you can run like we’ve been running, just kind of be consistent, top 10 or so, and advance. Those last four races, those last two segments, you’re really going to have to have speed to be a contender.”