Editor’s note: NASCAR.com continues its countdown of team previews for the Monster Energy Series season, ranked in order of best finish in last year’s owner standings. Today’s feature: Joe Gibbs Racing and drivers Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Engine: Toyota Racing Development
Drivers: Kyle Busch, No. 18; Denny Hamlin, No. 11; Martin Truex Jr., No. 19; Erik Jones, No. 20
Crew chiefs: No. 11: Chris Gabehart; No. 18: Adam Stevens; No. 19 Cole Pearn; No. 20. Chris Gayle
2018 standings: Martin Truex Jr. nearly won his second straight championship, finishing second in the No. 78 Toyota for now-defunct Furniture Row Racing. Kyle Busch was close behind as a fellow Championship 4 contender, wrapping up the season fourth in the No. 18. Denny Hamlin placed 11th in the No. 11, with Erik Jones finishing 15th after a NASCAR Playoffs berth. Daniel Suarez piloted the No. 19 that Truex will inherit, falling shy of playoff contention in 21st.
What’s new: Joe Gibbs Racing landed arguably the best free agent on the market in years in Martin Truex Jr., forming a formidable twosome at the top of the roster in he and Kyle Busch. The pair combined for 12 race wins in 2018 alone, and mark two of the past four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions. Denny Hamlin will also work with a new crew chief in Chris Gabehart after his former pit boss and friend Mike Wheeler departed to work with Matt DiBenedetto at Leavine Family Racing. Speaking of LFR — it is now the beneficiary of the technical alliance with JGR previously held by Furniture Row Racing. That partnership resulted in the 2017 title for FRR, but time will tell how it will fare for the current alliance.
Outlook: JGR enters the 2019 Monster Energy Series season as one of three clear favorites to start the year along with Stewart-Haas Racing and defending champion Team Penske. Until we see what kind of speed each of these outlets brings to the track the first few weeks of the season it’ll be a tossup, but there’s an extremely likely chance the long-standing organization could place two drivers in the Championship 4.
Kyle Busch, No. 18 M&Ms Toyota: I’m expecting Busch to come out of the gates like a man on a mission in 2019. He’s raced for the title in each of the past four seasons, winning just one of them (2015). If you know anything about “Rowdy,” you know that’s not enough to satisfy the ultra-driven driver.
Busch is in the absolute prime of his career and only appears to be getting better. Since his 2015 title, he’s picked up 17 wins and clocked in a career-best average finish of 8.3 last year — more than two full spots better than his previous low of 10.8 in his title season.
With another close-but-no-cigar at Miami motivating him, a new championship-caliber teammate in Truex to push him to new heights and another year of working with mad genius Adam Stevens, there’s little reason to think Busch won’t make another Championship 4 appearance. A second Cup title wouldn’t be a surprise at all, either.
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 FedEx Toyota: Hamlin started the 2018 season off well with a pair of top fours and was firmly inside the top 10 in points the entire regular season … but a lackluster NASCAR Playoffs sunk his season and he never found the top 10 in points from post-Indy on. It was just the first time he had done that in a full 36-race season since 2007.
Combine that with the fact that he had his first-career winless full-time season and least top 10s since 2013 and there might be some cause for concern.
The 31-time Monster Energy Series winner certainly wants to shed his “arguably best driver to never win a title” moniker by, you know, winning a title, but it’s hard to see that happening coming off the season he had last year. It’s definitely not impossible, though, as he’s still in the right place to do it (JGR) and you never know what magic could spark when there’s a new crew chief/driver pairing.
Hamlin has a great shot to get back to Victory Lane, but has some work to do to make it to the Championship 4 in Miami once again, as he did in 2014.
Erik Jones, No. 20 GameStop Toyota: Jones took a solid step forward in his sophomore campaign — and first at the Cup level with Joe Gibbs Racing — winning his first race and improving on his top fives, top 10s, average start and average finish. He tossed in a playoff berth to boot.
Jones should only continue that trend in 2019, with multiple wins and a deeper postseason run on the table. He seemed to really take to intermediate track racing last year, being a constant presence in the top 10 at nearly all of the races. If he turns some of those top 10s into top fives and top fives into wins, Jones could be looking at a true breakout campaign a la 2017 Kyle Larson.
There’s always a chance of regression, of course, but at 22 years old in some of the best equipment the series has to offer, the sky’s the limit for Jones in 2019.
Martin Truex Jr, No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota: And then there’s this guy.
The question isn’t if Truex Jr. will win in 2019 and be successful in his first year at JGR, it’s how many wins will he have and will it be in double figures?
I’ll give it about a one percent chance that Truex goes through an adjustment period with his new team and starts the season a bit slow. It’s way, way more likely that he and crew chief Cole Pearn, who also made the leap from Furniture Row Racing, will hit the ground running now that they’ll be working out of the JGR shop and not from a satellite location half the country away with shared data.
Truex is as good of a preseason pick for 2019 champion as it gets, and I anticipate he’ll be leading the field for a good chunk of the season.
• Jan. 22: Assorted teams
• Jan. 23: Richard Petty Motorsports
• Jan. 24: Germain Racing
• Jan. 25: Leavine Family Racing
• Jan 28: Front Row Motorsports
• Jan. 29: JTG Daugherty Racing
• Jan. 30: Wood Brothers Racing
• Jan. 31: Roush Fenway Racing
• Feb. 1: Richard Childress Racing
• Feb. 4: Chip Ganasssi Racing
• Feb. 5: Hendrick Motorsports
• Feb. 6: Joe Gibbs Racing
• Feb. 7: Stewart-Haas Racing
• Feb. 8: Team Penske