Published May 17, 2010
Kyle Busch's dominant Dover performance is the latest illustration of Joe Gibbs Racing's return to power.
With Gibbs' Busch and Denny Hamlin posting five Sprint Cup wins and five Nationwide Series victories in the first 12 races of the season, the organization's program is solidly competitive on both fronts.
So has Hendrick Motorsports met its match?
Certainly, there's not another powerhouse in NASCAR that has exhibited the consistency or the results that Hendrick has in the recent era. The ability to win nine of the last 15 championships -- including four consecutive titles with Jimmie Johnson -- is unequaled.
Last year, HMS spanked the field by sweeping the first three positions in the points standings with each of those three drivers claiming 13 of the 36 possible wins in the top series and Hendrick engines accounting for 17 victories.
Sure, Jeff Gordon has yet to win a race this season. He's currently on an 0-41 streak, but continues to lead laps and challenge for wins. A breakthrough can't be far behind. Mark Martin hasn't exhibited the same consistency he had last year, but he hasn't enjoyed similar luck either. Plus, talk of contracts and a younger driver, Kasey Kahne, coming into the fold have been a distraction. Then there's the curious situation of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who hasn't appeared truly happy since his win at Michigan 69 races ago.
And while pundits joke that Johnson is currently experiencing a drought after going winless in the last seven races, come Chase for the Sprint Cup time, the No. 48 team will be in championship mode again.
But the resurgence at Joe Gibbs Racing has been remarkable. The cars are competitive whether the team runs a wing or a spoiler. The engine has produced tremendous horsepower and escaped the woes of fellow Toyota engines provided by TRD. And the pit crews have been reliable, particularly during crunch time.
"We're just getting started here," team owner Joe Gibbs said. "I'm thrilled that the last seven, eight weeks have gone so well for us, but the reality is that can all turn in a week. That's one of the things about pro sports, the two that I've been in, and particularly this sport, we've got great teams out there we've talked about, the 48 (Jimmie Johnson), and to say that we're there would be ridiculous. They pretty much dominated things. They had a great car again (on Sunday).
"I think we're just getting started, but it's exciting for us to know that we have, over the last eight or nine weeks, started to get on a roll. It was good today that our other two cars were in the top 10. I was thrilled with that."
Coach Gibbs knows what it takes to develop championship teams, whether the venue is a football field or a racetrack. Over the last year, while melding the 11, 18 and 20 squads, there's been a change in attitude among the drivers.
At 29, Hamlin is the senior driver of the pack and is leading by example. He continues to extol the strength of his race team and the positive reinforcement has paid off for Hamlin dramatically -- particularly last weekend at Darlington. Hamlin carried the momentum into Dover, where he posted a solid fourth-place finish.
"Our team is just clicking right now," Hamlin said. "We're getting good finishes on our worst racetrack and that's what we need to do. It was a step in the right direction for sure. Our FedEx guys just did a great job on pit road -- we had a great last stop that really helped us and we just kept fighting."
The jury is still out as to whether there truly is a "new" Kyle Busch, but the current driver of the No. 18 continues to produce steady results under the direction of crew chief Dave Rogers. After 12 races in 2009, Busch was sixth in the points standings. Currently, he's second.
"Dave did a phenomenal job," Busch said. "He kept me going and kept my head in the game and just being able to work on the car, trying to make it better. We weren't the best in the beginning, but we were definitely a top-four car today. We worked on it there at the end and about lap 250 or 260 we really started coming on. It's just a testament to these guys and what all they do."
After Joey Logano's wild ride last year at Dover, escaping the Monster Mile with a top-10 finish on Sunday is a bonus.
Logano has shown tremendous improvement in qualifying with a pole at Bristol and an average start of 14.8. Logano, who turns 20 next week, still needs more uniform finishes. Under the care of veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli, it's just a matter of time.
Still, the stark contrast between JGR and Hendrick Motorsports -- other than HMS operating nearly a decade longer than Gibbs -- is the average age of its competitors. That will change at Hendrick after Kahne replaces Martin but given that the average age of Gibbs drivers is currently 24.6, the potential for the organization is amazing.
Yes, Joe Gibbs Racing continues to battle Hendrick Motorsports consistently on weekly basis. But the scary thing is its the future is even brighter.