Early woes can't keep Gibbs drivers from top
April 07, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
By the end of a race that went six laps past its advertised distance, those two JGR Toyota Camrys had rallied for top-10 finishes at a track where both drivers excel. And because Busch and Kenseth are so solid here in the Lone Star State, it magnified their poor qualifying efforts in which neither the No. 18 of Busch nor the No. 20 advanced past Saturday's first round of multicar qualifying.
Busch, last year's winner, crossed the start/finish line third after starting 29th. Kenseth rallied for a seventh-place effort -- his third consecutive top-10 -- despite starting 26th. Denny Hamlin, who advanced to the final round of group qualifying, was 13th.
"Matt struggled early but was able to make some good changes and got himself up to the top 10. All in all, we (all) seemed to have some runs there in the top 10," Busch said after notching his second top-five in the past three races. "It was a good afternoon for us. At the end there, I chose four (tires) just because I absolutely killed my stuff about three laps prior to that caution coming out so I knew that was our only chance."
Busch was among the majority to make that tire decision on the final pit stop before the final green-white-caution ending. He restarted fifth, and used his position on the inside line to overpower Brian Vickers (fourth), Kyle Larson (fifth) and Greg Biffle (sixth) to grab third place.
Kenseth, meanwhile, spent the majority of the race outside of the top 10 and was on the high line during the majority of the early restarts. The 42-year-old also struggled with a changing track condition.
It was cloudy and cool when the race started, but the sun was out midway through, changing the temperature of the asphalt.
"We just didn't qualify well and then we just really struggled," Kenseth said. "So, we just started -- we were just really far off. We were really loose. We got a little bit better, but really nothing we could compete with."
Hamlin, meanwhile, was the lone JGR driver with a good starting spot on the grid -- he came off sixth -- yet the No. 11 finished worst among the three teammates.
He led twice for 20 laps, but was hampered by a pit-road speeding penalty. NASCAR Executive Vice President for Racing Operations Steve O'Donnell tweeted an image of the sanctioning body's data that displays how fast a driver was going. The pit-road speed limit is 45 mph, and teams are allowed 5 mph grace. Hamlin's No. 11 was measured at 50.03 mph at Lap 141.
It was the speeding penalty, which sent Hamlin back into the middle of the pack, that was his unraveling.
"Obviously, we had a great car at the beginning of the race," Hamlin said. "Once I got back in traffic, the car didn't drive as good. Couldn't make up any track position and the car took a long time to come in. Disappointed with that -- we had a top-five car, just didn't finish that well."
No, but it was a bounce-back day for JGR with results that closely resemble how the team ranks in the points standings. Through seven races, the organization is the lone team to have two drivers in the top five in Kenseth (second) and Busch (fifth).
All three of its drivers are currently in position to make the Chase field through seven races, too.
"We made some gains, definitely," Busch said. "We learned some things this week trying some different concepts. There are some guys definitely that are still steps ahead of us that we have to get better as a whole, as a group."