JGR drivers voice mixed opinions on short track success
July 13, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
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LOUDON, N.H. -- Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have a combined 31 career victories at Bristol, Dover, Loudon, Martinsville, Phoenix and Richmond.
In short -- pun semi-intended -- they aren't a trio of slouches when it comes to short tracks.
With a runner-up finish by Busch, a fourth-place effort for Kenseth and what very well could've been a top-three result for Hamlin if a late-race fuel strategy went differently, the JGR drivers showed once again in Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that they know how to handle themselves when there's less asphalt to work with.
So it was interesting to hear two of their drivers have differing opinions on the state of the Toyota-backed organization's short track programs, given the history of success they've all enjoyed.
"I think our package is getting quite a bit better on the short tracks," Hamlin said. "The last couple years I feel like we've fallen off as an organization on the short tracks and we did some testing here in the last few weeks and found some things that worked and obviously had a great day today overall, so I'm pretty happy with that."
Overall, it's tough to say what state the team is in when it comes to NASCAR's smaller venues. Its two most recent wins on short tracks came last year via newcomer Matt Kenseth -- one at Bristol, where he's always been great, and the other during the Chase at Loudon, which he'd considered among his worst tracks during his Roush Fenway Racing tenure. But for Busch and Hamlin, who have long considered them among their forte, both have been held winless since 2012.
So while Hamlin thinks the tide is turning in their favor, Busch isn't so sure.
"Well, we'd actually say (our short track program has) decreased," said the driver of the No. 18 Toyota. "Last year and the early part of this year -- Martinsville, Richmond -- I'd say that our short‑track program has decreased, unfortunately. You know, we haven't seen the 11 and the 18 winning as many short tracks like we used to be so dominant at."
Even though Busch isn't sold on how the organization has been putting together their short track races -- and he probably does have a point that they haven't been as good lately in them -- there is reason to believe things are starting to turn a corner.
Those types of races are more physically demanding than at, say, a 2.5-mile superspeedway, where there's little braking and the throttle is wide open at all times, so the further removed Hamlin gets from the back issues that plagued his 2013 campaign, the better. The Virginia native also participated in a Goodyear test last week at Richmond, which clearly helped the entire group at the Magic Mile, seeing as they were within reach of putting all three cars in the top-five for the first time all season, at a track of any length.
With Busch and Hamlin already in position to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with their respective Fontana and Talladega victories, the information gathered from that test could pay dividends seven races from now if Kenseth is still winless heading into the regular season finale.
"Denny went and did a test for us at Richmond last week for Goodyear and learned some things that he brought here, and so today was just a true testament to teamwork," Busch said. "What we did with our race car was somewhat to try to mirror what the 11 was doing this weekend and put some of their stuff in. Real proud of the effort there that we had somewhat similar race cars, all three of us did for that matter, I think we were second, third, fourth for a part of the race because there was only one car that was lights‑out on the rest."
That car was the race-winning No. 2 Ford of Brad Keselowski, which kept Team Penske in the headlines with its fifth win of the season and each of its drivers -- the other being Joey Logano -- looking like strong championship contenders.
It isn't time to count out JGR, however, especially if this particular aspect of its arsenal winds up being fine-tuned to the same degree that it once was.
"At this time last year, Kenseth and myself and the races that Denny was able to make, we led a lot of laps.” Busch said. "Unfortunately we just haven't quite seen that yet this year.
"(We're) trying to get better, and once we do, I think everybody will see, and you'll start hearing the name JGR a little bit more.”