Gibbs team poised to end Daytona 500 drought
February 21, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The last time Joe Gibbs Racing won the Daytona 500, it was so long ago that the organization's current president was changing the rear tires -- on Dale Jarrett's car.
"We won our second year in motorsports," J.D. Gibbs said of that victory in 1993. "We figured, 'This is easy.' It's a lot harder than it looks. We've had a lot of great cars down here."
Including Thursday night, when Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin swept the Budweiser Duel qualifying races to continue a promising Speedweeks for the Gibbs team. Richard Childress Racing may have claimed the early headlines by winning the Daytona 500 pole with Austin Dillon and dominating single-car runs, but JGR is now three-for-three in races with Thursday's sweep coming on the heels of Hamlin's victory in last weekend's Sprint Unlimited exhibition.
For NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars, there's only one event left -- the Daytona 500, which JGR hasn't won in over two decades.
"We've come with great cars over the years," owner Joe Gibbs said. "It shows you what a tough race this is, the 500. Like I said, we won once. Probably one of the greatest sporting experiences I've ever had. I was thrilled. ... This race is extremely, extremely hard to win, the 500. That probably says it the best. That says it the best, over 22 years, that's a bunch."
Sunday brings another opportunity to snap the skid. Kenseth was the class of last year's 500, leading 86 laps until an engine failure sidelined him midway through the event. A similar failure later befell Kyle Busch, while Hamlin finished 14th. But their run-up to the Great American Race has been more impressive this time around -- in fact, Hamlin is positioned to become the first driver ever to sweep the three Cup events of Speedweeks in its current configuration, a feat several others have come close to but never been able to complete.
"Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it's hard not to just want to go out there, charge out there, show that you're still on top and still the best right on lap one," Hamlin said. "I think that will be my challenge within myself, is keeping the reins back and realizing how long this race is, trying to be as patient as I can."
Kenseth led 31 of 60 laps in Thursday's first qualifier, while Hamlin used a fuel-only pit stop in the second to seize the lead and stay there. And yet -- as was the case with Hamlin's victory in the Sprint Unlimited -- both those wins came in shorter, nighttime races, while the Daytona 500 is a three-hour test in the daytime.
"I think there's things to be learned," Kenseth said. "We ran a full fuel run under green, so we've got a lot to look at there. We ran more than a fuel run on tires, so we got stuff to look at there. The biggest difference, I think, is track conditions. ... Sunday, if the sun is out, that kind of thing, the track could be fairly different. I felt like the track was quite a bit different (Wednesday) in our practice session than what it was tonight. I'd say that's the biggest difference."
This season marked the first time the Duel races have been contested under the lights, which could place more of an emphasis on the daytime practices.
"The little bit of practice we had in the first 500 practice yesterday, the cars drove a lot different," Hamlin said. "They moved around a lot. Obviously, we saw a couple incidents during practice. I'm not necessarily sold on whatever's worked here these few night races is going to be what you'll roll out for the 500. I think chassis handling will play a factor, especially if we're going to run this long on a set of tires. We still got quite a bit of work to do."
And yet, the work they've done to this point has been impressive enough -- particularly given that none of the Gibbs cars exactly turned heads in front-row qualifying last week.
"Those Gibbs guys, they're strong. I've been coming down here 15 years. You see cars qualifying really well, and some of them don't race well. Then you see guys that don't qualify well, and they race really well. I'm starting to draw some conclusions," said Kurt Busch, who raced his Stewart-Haas car into the Daytona 500 on Thursday night.
"I'm not the smartest guy. Maybe it's taken me way longer to figure this out than most, (but) the Gibbs cars, those Toyotas, don't throw in all that snake oil and magic for qualifying. If you're 18th on your own, like Matt Kenseth was on his own, Denny Hamlin was 23rd, that's pretty strong when you're going with basically your package you're going to race with. So now it's shown up three times. Denny Hamlin has two wins, Kenseth has a win, those Gibbs guys are on their game."
Joe Gibbs, though, is taking nothing for granted -- even though he's won three NASCAR championships and three Super Bowl titles in his career across both motorsports and football.
"For me, I'm always concerned in pro sports that anything can happen," the car owner said. "I don't think I ever go into something where I feel like, 'Hey, we got this thing.' That's just not the way I personally ever look at it. So many things have to go your way. I think drivers and crew chiefs, they're more optimistic than I am because, I don't know, I'm always nervous about it. But, you know, you make grade preparation and go for it. I know this: you win one of these, these 500s, it's one of the greatest experiences."
Particularly given that following that 1993 triumph, the Gibbs team members ended up at an area Steak 'n Shake with about 15 inebriated locals, taking photos with the trophy in the parking lot.
"That," Hamlin said, "sounds like my kind of night."