In case you haven’t noticed, Joe Gibbs Racing seems to have found another gear in the past few weeks.
The most tangible proof yet?
Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where JGR drivers Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth finished second, third and fourth, respectively, behind race winner Jeff Gordon.
While the Gibbs boys spent most of the day behind the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and fellow Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne, it was still a terrific outing for JGR, which finally seems poised to challenge NASCAR’s other elite organizations for top-dog status as the Sprint Cup Series draws ever closer to the season-ending 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"We came out of the box soft in 2014 and really got taken back," Dave Rogers, crew chief on Busch’s No. 18 Toyota, said in an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com after Sunday’s race. "The Stewart-Haas guys came out rock and rolling. The Hendrick guys were pretty fast. We were behind and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing took it personal. Everyone’s been working really hard, and hard work pays off in life. It does at the racetrack, it does in real life, so really proud of everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, everyone at TRD (Toyota Racing Development), Kyle, my team, everybody, for digging down and making our race cars better. We still have a ways to go, but we’re not done working, either."
The three Gibbs drivers combined to lead just 18 laps — all courtesy of Hamlin — on Sunday, while Gordon and Kahne combined to lead 110 of 160 laps.
Despite being clearly outclassed at the Brickyard, the entire Gibbs organization seems to be picking up steam. In three of the past four races, including Sunday, JGR has placed at least two drivers in the top four.
That’s a marked improvement for an organization that came out of the gate painfully slow this season after collectively winning 12 races and nearly winning the championship with Kenseth in 2013.
"We’re just trying to make everything better," said Kenseth, who remains winless in 2014 but is in position to make the Chase based his position in the standings. "We’re gaining on it. If the Chase started today, we’re still not where we want to be, but I feel like we’re definitely headed in the right direction. We’re headed there fairly rapidly, so hopefully we can keep that pace and in a few weeks have stuff that can be one-two-three and be leading more laps, and win some of these things."
Why the sudden uptick in speed after spending most of the season’s first half languishing behind Hendrick, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing?
"I think just our teams are doing a better job of preparing our cars, and Toyota’s doing a better job with the motors, and it’s just been real helpful," JGR team president J.D. Gibbs said.
Don’t expect the Gibbs crowd, which actually notched two early-season wins — one from Busch; the other from Hamlin — to rest on its recent laurels, however.
"You can look at it and say we ran really well at Loudon, we ran really well at Indy, Kentucky, so yeah it appears we’re starting to peak at the right time but, man, we’ve got so much racing to go," Rogers said. "This rules package, nobody’s figured it out yet, and I think it’s way too early to start celebrating. We’ve just got to keep working, keep focused, keep doing what we’ve been doing, and hopefully it will continue. Everyone’s going to work hard, though — everyone in this sport works hard.
"So if anyone sits on your heels, you’re probably going to get passed. We’ll see. We’re happy with the direction we’re going. We’re not quite happy with where we’re at, though."
VIDEO: Kyle Busch discusses second-place finish at Indy