Published September 15, 2015
Joe Gibbs Racing solidified its long-term future Tuesday with the confirmation that veteran Matt Kenseth will join the team next season.
But what of this year? Can JGR bring home the Sprint Cup championship for the first time since 2005?
JGR driver Denny Hamlin is on a roll, having won two straight races and showing the strength of a potential champion. The organization has significant work to do this weekend, however, as team driver Kyle Busch sits in a precarious perch at the edge of the Chase standings. Joey Logano, who’ll be leaving the team at the end of the season to make way for Kenseth, also has an outside shot at a wild card.
Busch currently holds the second Chase wild-card (behind Kasey Kahne), with the regular season ending with Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Depending on the performances of drivers behind him in the standings, Busch can keep the wild-card spot without winning the race, but a checkered flag in his back pocket would be much better.
“We’re going to give it everything we’ve got,” team owner Joe Gibbs said Tuesday. “We’re so focused now on Richmond. We’ve got a real battle there with the 20 (Logano) and the 18 (Busch). If one of them can win that race, it’s going to be a huge deal for us.
“We’ve got a lot going on here. Setup-wise, we’ve got two different ways to go. We’re trying to make up our mind which is the best way to go. It’s a huge deal for us this weekend. We’ll be uptight. I’ll put it that way.”
Jimmy Makar, JGR’s competition director, said the team’s late-season push to keep Busch Chase-worthy won’t take away from its pursuit of the championship.
“We’re just racing hard just like we would any other time – maybe a little harder than normal, but that might not be a bad thing,” Makar said. “If there’s a negative to it, it’s the fact that Dave (crew chief Dave Rogers) is having to take his best cars and things to the track every week to put us in the best position to get into the Chase, where if we were more solidly in the thing, we could hold some back.”
With four wins this season, Hamlin will be at the top of the Chase standings when the Chase field is “seeded” for the start of the playoffs. He lost the title to Jimmie Johnson in the last race of the 2010 season.
“I still feel like in 2010 we had weak elements to our race team,” Hamlin said. “I think our cars were superior to the field, but I think there were still parts of our team that were not all that good.
“We weren’t getting good fuel mileage. The pit crew was a little more hit and miss than this one is. We’ve got the horsepower we need. The cars are running well. The pit crew obviously stands out. The fuel mileage is good. There’s no weak part of our team right now.”
Is he the favorite?
“Leading the points after Richmond, it puts you in the discussion,” Hamlin said. “But I think the favorites are the guys who have won championships in the past. Until we win a championship, I’m not going to put us as a frontrunner.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.