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Phoenix can prove slippery to JGR drivers

March 01, 2014, David Caraviello,

Despite strong history, JGR trio struggled at 1-mile oval in 2013

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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- For Joe Gibbs Racing, Phoenix International Raceway can bring back bad memories.

It was here just over three seasons ago when Denny Hamlin's best chance at a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship began to slip through his grasp. It was here just over three months ago when Matt Kenseth's hopes of a second premier-circuit title went awry. And it was here this weekend when the three short-track aces comprising JGR's driver lineup once again tried to get their arms around a 1-mile oval that can prove slippery even in the desert heat.

That certainly proved the case last November, when Kenseth's uncharacteristic 23rd-place finish at Phoenix -- which essentially allowed Jimmie Johnson to coast to his sixth title -- was emblematic of greater struggles here for the JGR contingent. Although Kyle Busch managed a seventh-place finish in that race, Hamlin came home 28th, and this weekend said the Gibbs short track program wasn't where it needed to be toward the end of 2013.

"We definitely were not competitive," Hamlin said. "… Not just us, but all the (Gibbs) teams really had dropped off in performance. Excited to come here and see kind of where we are at."

Particularly given the rules changes on the Sprint Cup cars, which no longer must meet a minimum ride height. The Gibbs team is coming off a strong Speedweeks, one where Hamlin won The Sprint Unlimited and one of the Duel qualifying races en route to a second-place finish in the Daytona 500, while Kenseth took the other qualifier. But Phoenix is a different animal, and the three JGR drivers tested three different packages in preparation for Sunday's event.

"All these engineers, especially the ones at Gibbs, are really smart and they’ll download everything -- what the drivers have said, and the data that they see, and literally we can go out the next run and have one of the fastest cars," Hamlin said. "They are that smart, and they make stuff happen. Literally, I expect a whole new race car the next time we hit the race track."

All three of the Gibbs drivers have won races at Phoenix, and all three are accomplished at shorter tracks -- Kenseth and Hamlin cut their teeth in late models, while Busch started out on the quarter-mile Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway racing Legends cars. That certainly adds weight to the information they relay to their crews after practice, and the win-to-get-in element of the revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup makes teams less hesitant to take bigger swings at setups.

"The good news is that all of our engineers and crew chiefs and everyone, they all have confidence in what we say is what's going on with the race car," Hamlin said. "We are their only source of information when we go out there and we run, other than the pictures that they look at. They take what we’ve got to the bank and they'll fix it. It's so early in the season, and fortunately with this format where it's kind of win-or-nothing, you can afford to kind of throw caution to the wind and throw major packages at it between practices, because you know if you're racing for second you might as well be racing for 20th. It really doesn’t matter."

Saturday's two practices brought mixed results. Busch was 11th in the opening session, with Hamlin 14th and Kenseth 25th. In the final session, Hamlin led the Gibbs drivers in 12th, while Busch was 21st and Kenseth 23rd. Along with everyone else, they were chasing Kevin Harvick -- who led the day's first session, quickly jumped to the top of the board in the second, and has appeared to be the driver to watch in this rules package ever since a test this past December in Charlotte.

From a JGR perspective, Kenseth wonders if too much stock is being put in the most recent event at Phoenix. He points out that Busch was racing up from the back of the field last spring before being involved in an accident, and that Hamlin's 28th-place result last fall followed three consecutive top-three finishes at the facility. No question the shortcomings from this past November remain fresh in the mind, but to Kenseth they may be the exception rather than the rule.

"That's kind of going off one race," the 2003 series champion said. "Kyle's been really dominant here the last few years. Last fall wasn't as good for all of us, but in the spring, Denny almost won the race, and I thought we ran good enough to win if we'd have been there at the end … and I know Kyle got caught up in a wreck early from having to start at the back. I think really it's been a good place. Last fall wasn't good, obviously, but I feel like we'll be better this time."


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