With two wins between them over the first 26 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and lots of questions about the performance of the Toyotas they currently drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, it’s difficult to blame JGR drivers Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth for entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup with an obviously eroded collective level of confidence.
Kyle Busch reached Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway in the fifth race of the season. Hamlin did so at Talladega five races later.
Kenseth, meanwhile, has yet to win a race this season after winning a career-high seven times last year during his first season with JGR after a long-time relationship with Roush Fenway Racing.
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That means none of the JGR drivers has won since May 4 when Hamlin did so at Talladega, and that obviously does not bode well for their chances of contending for the championship even though all three made the Chase.
None fared well during the final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway last Saturday night, when Busch finished 14th, Hamlin finished 21st and Kenseth finished 41st to break a string of four consecutive top-10 finishes. Kenseth had been running in the top 10 at RIR before hitting the wall on Lap 120 of the 400-lap race, forcing him to take the car to the garage for repairs.
Asked what he needs to do to be competitive in the Chase, which begins this Sunday at Chicagoland Raceway, Busch was blunt.
"I have no idea," he said. "Just fight every week and see what we can get and try to work hard. (Saturday) was a draining night, but we had good, solid run at last year’s Chicago and we tested earlier there this year, so look forward to getting back there. Hopefully we’ve got a good piece like we had last year, and we can run up front."
Busch did say that he thought the new Chase elimination format will favor his No. 18 Toyota team.
"We’ll try to salvage a good run in the first couple races, get ourselves established and start moving on," Busch said. "I know there’s plenty of opportunity out there for this M&Ms team and this 18 car to outperform four other guys to move on to the second round and the second round is going to be our tough boat with both Kansas and Talladega in there. I really like going to Charlotte, though."
And since Charlotte is one of the tracks grouped in with Kansas and Talladega in the second round, Busch said he is hopeful.
"Charlotte is one of my favorite places and we just tested there — felt like we had a good test there, as well — and we’ll see if all that bodes well for the Joe Gibbs Racing team," Busch said. "We’ll see if we can’t win a championship."
Hamlin, meanwhile, did not flinch when asked by reporters after Richmond what the strength of his team is heading into the Chase.
"Pit crew would be our strength right now," he replied.
Hamlin went on the explain by adding: "You know, we’ve got a lot of pieces of the puzzle put together for a championship run. As important as track position is nowadays, you’ve got to have great pit stops, and we feel like we’ve got that part licked. It’s just you’ve got to have faster cars, you’ve got to qualify better. There’s a lot of things that go into a championship run, and we’re missing a couple of them very important pieces, and that (includes) speed."
Kenseth, the eldest veteran of the JGR trio, opted to take a more optimistic approach toward the Chase — even though he’s the only one of the three drivers who has yet to win a race this season. He got into the Chase because he had the most points of the three drivers who qualified without a 2014 victory (Ryan Neman and Greg Biffle being the others).
"I feel great about my team. I’ve got a ton of confidence in the group," Kenseth said. "They’ve been really great on pit road. I think (crew chief) Jason (Ratfcliff) has been doing a great job this year, our preparation has been good, execution has been great, so I feel good about the company and the team and everything we can do.
"It’s no secret we’ve just kind of been off on speed. We just haven’t had the speed really for any of us to get up there and win the races that we did as a company last year, what we know we’re capable of. So with that being said, we’ve just got to be perfect. We just can’t do things like I did (Saturday) and take us out of a race. We’ve just got to go out and be perfect on the racetrack, pit road, calling a race, prep, all that stuff. Hopefully keep putting ourselves in position like we did at Atlanta, Bristol, some of those tracks. Maybe things will fall our way and we’ll be able to get some wins here before the season is over."
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