These are adventurous times – and not necessarily in a fun way – for Joe Gibbs.
For a team owner whose operation has produced victories in four of the nine Sprint Cup races to date, Gibbs finds himself on a bit of unsteady ground as the tour works its way through a rainy weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.
Gibbs has three of the best drivers in the sport, but only one – Kyle Busch – is in the points top 10. Busch sits seventh, having scored wins at Fontana and Fort Worth. He’s the only driver with five top fives in the first nine races.
Gibbs has another driver with two wins, but therein begins the issues. Matt Kenseth
won at Las Vegas and Kansas, but the Kansas victory was tainted by the later discovery – in the bowels of NASCAR’s Research and Development Center – that a connecting rod in Kenseth’s engine was too light.
What followed were some of the heaviest penalties in NASCAR history, including a points hit that knocked Kenseth from eighth in points to 14th.
Entering Sunday’s scheduled Aaron’s 499, Kenseth is 13th in points and certainly retains a good shot at making the Chase, but the penalties cast a big shadow over the month of April for the team.
Gibbs has appealed the Kansas penalties. The appeals session is scheduled Wednesday at the R&D Center. If this week’s appeal results – Roger Penske was denied his appeal of penalties stemming from Texas Motor Speedway – provide an indication, Gibbs has work to do on that front.
And then there’s Denny Hamlin, who entered the fifth race of the season at Fontana sixth in points and riding high. He suffered a back fracture in that race, however, has missed four races (Martinsville, Texas, Kansas, Richmond) and has fallen precipitously in points – all the way to 28th. Having raced only five times while everyone else has raced in nine events will do that to a driver.
So the folks at Joe Gibbs Racing are busy on numerous fronts these days.
While striving to keep Busch, who missed the Chase last season, in the top levels of the points, JGR works to return Kenseth to the top 10 (and possibly eliminate or modify that team’s penalties) while working with Hamlin’s situation. He is scheduled to return to the cockpit of the No. 11 Toyota Sunday at Talladega.
Despite missing four races, Hamlin retains a lifeline – however slim – to the Chase. If he returns to the top 20 in points and wins one or more races, he has a shot at a wild-card spot.
“As much as I like to say that I'm going to win two, three, four races before the Chase and we've done it numerous years, it's no given,” Hamlin said. “We have to just treat it like it's the last chance. It's game seven every single week for the next 17 weeks, realistically, for us.
“We know, realistically if we win two races, I'm going to find it very hard to believe that we won't be part of the Chase. I don't think anyone that has won two has not made it, so usually if you've won two you're running pretty well and more than likely that will put us in the top-20 unless we have catastrophic failures. That's also part of the equation that we can't afford right now."
The equations – and the numbers – are tough at JGR these days.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.