Gibbs teams 'starting to turn corner' as Chase nears
July 28, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- The three drivers and several executives of Joe Gibbs Racing stood in a circle on pit road Sunday, clearly buoyed by an effort that placed the team's trio of cars in the top five at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Never mind Jeff Gordon, off to the side kissing the bricks in celebration of his record-setting fifth career victory on the storied oval.
Indeed, teams in the Sprint Cup Series were again left chasing Hendrick Motorsports horsepower, as Gordon led the final 17 laps Sunday to finish off a convincing triumph at the Brickyard. But the Gibbs group had plenty to be happy about as well, given that the team finished second, third, and fourth in an event where many contending teams begin rolling out new equipment with one eye on the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Kyle Busch finished second, Denny Hamlin third and Matt Kenseth fourth, marking the first time JGR has placed three cars in the top four of a single event since Hamlin, Busch and former Gibbs driver Joey Logano placed first, second and fourth, respectively, in September of 2010 at Richmond. Although JGR has won just twice this season -- and the last was Hamlin's victory in early May at Talladega -- the show of force may have offered a preview of what's to come.
"Our focus all year has been to build the best race cars we could for September, because that's when it really, really counts. You can lead the regular season. You can have 10 wins before the Chase starts. If you have one bad race or you don't run as well for those first three races of the Chase, you're out," said Hamlin, referring to the elimination format to be used for the first time in this year's revised Chase.
"So our biggest thing is trying to time this correctly, and trying to get our cars to run well in the fall when it really, really counts. So we're starting to turn the corner, I feel like, for that reason. We've been working hard to try to run well all year. We really have. We've been off. But our cars are starting to turn that corner and become more competitive, obviously."
This time a year ago, Kenseth had four wins on his own, and was on his way to a career-best seven. This season he's the only Gibbs driver still winless, emblematic of a JGR team that's been competitive every week but typically hasn't had enough to break through. Meanwhile, Gordon's victory Sunday was the seventh of the season for Hendrick, while Team Penske has prevailed five times behind drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano -- leading everyone to wonder if those two organizations will ultimately clash in the Chase.
Gibbs, which also won with Busch in March at Fontana, has lingered as almost the forgotten team, despite the fact that Kenseth pushed Jimmie Johnson all the way to Homestead in the title race a season ago. JGR hasn't shown that kind of form with across-the-board consistency this season, but Indianapolis -- a notoriously difficult layout with sharp corners and long straightaways that can really tax the car -- provided a hint that it may be yet to come.
"All the guys at Joe Gibbs Racing have worked really hard the past few months in trying to make better race cars, TRD guys making better horsepower. It all paid off good today," Busch said Sunday, referring to Toyota Racing Development, which manufacturers engines for JGR.
"We were able to come home 2‑3‑4 for JGR as an organization. We're proud of that. You certainly see the guy out there in front of you beating you, and you know you've got a lot of speed to gain. Those guys were really, really fast. I don't think he even went 80 percent the whole last run of the race and was driving away from us. We have a lot of big areas to gain big speed in, then a bunch of little areas to gain a little bit of speed, too. We have to continue to work on that and get better."
That guy, of course, is Gordon, who Sunday seemed able to overtake at will, and offered further evidence of which engine manufacturer leads the pack.
"We're still way behind in the horsepower department," Hamlin said. "But we're getting our cars better. Once we get the horsepower better, we'll win a lot of races."
In fairness, they've been far from mediocre. Hamlin has finished eighth or better in his past three starts. Kenseth has now placed fourth in three of his last four races. And Busch has now been runner-up in the last three Sprint Cup events on unrestricted tracks. According to the driver of the No. 18 car, Indianapolis only reinforced a recent trend.
"I don't know that you pin it on one race," Busch said. "I finished second at Kentucky, Loudon and here. We had some good races going. It would be certainly more beneficial to pick up some trophies, take some trophies home, get some of those benefits for the Chase. Three second places, that's 11 extra points that you miss out on. That sucks pretty big for the Chase and for those bonus points. But, you know, if we keep going that way, then things will pay off sooner or later. We'll start winning some."