Nobody is as eager to get to Phoenix this weekend as Joe Gibbs Racing, the team that can only view the Daytona 500 as a disaster.
JGR was running 1-2-3 at one point of “The Great American Race” and in prime position to put one of its drivers in Victory Lane. Instead, Matt Kenseth went to pit road with an engine issue after leading a race-high 86 laps. Kyle Busch followed him a few moments later.
Both could only watch in street clothes as Denny Hamlin tried to carry the JGR banner. He led three times for 33 laps, only to get stuck in the wrong lane in the closing laps and fade to a 14th-place finish.
It was a bitter outcome for the organization and for manufacturer Toyota, which had put a huge emphasis on the Daytona 500 and had all six of its factory cars running 1-through-6 at one point of the race. In addition to Kenseth and Busch’s engine woes, Michael Waltrip and Martin Truex Jr. didn’t have full power at the end of the race.
As NASCAR moves into the desert for Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway, Kenseth said he believes JGR showed at Daytona it’s a strong organization.
“Despite not getting the finish we deserved last weekend at Daytona, I’m really pleased with how our season began during Speedweeks,” Kenseth said. “We had really fast cars and our No. 20 team had great pit stops so I’m excited with how we ran at Daytona and really thankful to be part of this team. I’m just looking forward to getting to Phoenix and building upon what we have already started for this year.”
It was Kenseth’s first race with JGR after leaving Roush Fenway Racing, and he was seeking his third Daytona 500 title.
Busch’s disappointment showed Sunday at Daytona. He’d won his qualifying race earlier in the week and thought he had a shot at winning his first Daytona 500.
“I’m glad to go back to a race track where drivers matter and car handling matters,” he said. “The best way to get over the disappointment of the Daytona 500 is to get back in the car and have another chance at winning the next one. I wish the race was today, to be honest. I’m ready.”
Busch has made no secret that 2012, when he won only once in all three of NASCAR’s national series, was the worst season of his career. Because his temperament often overshadows his talent, he’s earning a reputation as a driver who may never win a Sprint Cup title.
He said this week he’s more determined than ever.
“I’m here to work hard and I’m here to win and bring home trophies and championships, that’s what my ultimate dream is,” he said. “I don’t know whether it’s the Lord upstairs just making me wait or what. Even if I did win one championship, I’m not done, I’m not leaving. I still want to win more. You still have that same hunger and drive to get as many as you can.
“It just plays out as it does, sometimes. Sometimes it’s your year and sometimes it’s not your year.”
BIG FINISHERS: Jimmie Johnson was only partly joking when he likened the Daytona 500 to the lottery — every driver in the field had a shot at holding the winning ticket.
One glance at the finishing order proved Johnson’s theory: Michael McDowell and JJ Yeley, who more often than not are forced to start-and-park their rides, both finished inside the top 10.
McDowell, who drives for Phil Parsons Racing, was ninth for his first career top 10 in 115 starts.
“For us, an under-funded team to come here to Daytona and get a top 10 finish is pretty cool,” McDowell said.
Yeley was 10th for his first top 10 since 2008, and he came from 41st and a lap down to get his finish. In his first season with Tommy Baldwin Racing, Yeley also hit a milestone with sponsor Golden Corral: Every time he gets a top-10 finish this season, kids eat free on Monday.
“After a long, hard-fought day at Daytona, we were able to log a top-10 finish for our first outing,” Yeley said. “The best part of it all is making lots of kids happy when they eat for free as a part of JJ’s Monday.”
Team owner Baldwin thought it was a sign of how hard the organization has worked.
“We put in a lot of work over the offseason and to see JJ and the team make the top 10, that tells us that we did a good job,” Baldwin said. “Seeing our team progress through the past several years, moments like this are why I started my own team.”
ALLMENDINGER BACK: A.J. Allmendinger will make his NASCAR season debut this Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Allmendinger, who didn’t have a ride for the season-opening Daytona 500, will drive for Phoenix Racing in the No. 51 Guy Roofing Chevrolet. It will be Allmendinger’s fifth race with Phoenix Racing, which gave him a chance last year after NASCAR reinstated him following his suspension for failing a drug test.
“It’s been a few months since I’ve been in a stock car,” said Allmendinger. “I haven’t been in one of the Gen-6 cars yet, so I think it will take a little time to get acclimated to it. Phoenix International Raceway is a great place for me to get back behind the wheel. I’ve always enjoyed the race track. It will definitely feel different, but I’ll be ready to go.”
Allmendinger has eight previous Cup starts at Phoenix, where he has two top-10 finishes. He’s also won one pole and started on the front row three times.
“It definitely helps to go to a track that I enjoy already,” he said. “Of all the tracks we go to, this is one of the most technical and challenging. It takes finesse and you have to hit your marks nearly perfect every time.”
Allmendinger watched Phoenix Racing’s run in the Daytona 500. Regan Smith drove the car Sunday to a seventh-place finish.
“I was really impressed with their run last week at Daytona,” Allmendinger said. “It showed that they’re putting together solid equipment and have a good feel for the new car. I think for the first 30 to 45 minutes I’ll have to ease into it and get used to the new car, but after that, I’ll be up to speed and ready to go.”