Who would have thought that a company such as Joe Gibbs Racing — on the NASCAR scene since 1992 — would suffer growing pains in 2009?
With Senior Vice President Jimmy Makar running the day-to-day operation, Mark Cronquist in the engine shop and crew chiefs Greg Zipadelli, Mike Ford and Steve Addington, JGR’s foundation hasn’t changed in years. Yet after Sunday’s Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, only one of its teams is in position to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
So what’s changed since last year, when all three of JGR’s cars qualified for NASCAR’s playoffs?
The difference is that the company is still in its infancy with manufacturer Toyota. Also, with the testing ban and no satellite team since Hall of Fame Racing partnered with Yates Racing at the end of last season, there’s no outlet for Gibbs to incorporate the latest technology into the cars. The technology issue is exacerbated by drivers’ inability to offer solid feedback to the crew chiefs.
Since Tony Stewart’s departure, the average age of JGR’s driver stable is 24. Certainly, Stewart had his mercurial moments, but he was a champion in every sense of the word. The communication skills of the remaining racers — Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano — are not at a level where the engineers can decipher the data to produce results.
Despite the credentials of veteran chief Zipadelli, he’s still dealing with a novice in Logano, 19, who can’t yet contribute sizably to his teammates. Hamlin, 28, has been the most consistent of the JGR drivers, even though his team has suffered its share of setbacks, such as the driveshaft misfortune on Lap 33 Sunday at Indy. The No. 11 Toyota sacrificed 16 laps for repairs, finished 34th and fell to sixth in the standings.
And then there’s Busch. Some consider Rowdy to be the finest raw talent in the garage. But at 24, he’s still searching for balance between his best days and his worst.
Over the last two races at Chicago and Indianapolis — when the No. 18 Toyota finished 33rd and 38th, respectively — Busch fell from eighth in the standings to 14th, out of the Chase Zone with six races remaining in the regular season.
Before Sunday, Busch called the Chicago race “our lowest point of the season” after his engine failed in the closing laps. But he remained optimistic.
“We need to rebound back,” Busch said. “I need to get my communication back with Steve. I need to get my communication better with the whole team and come back and fight. Hopefully, not just myself, but Steve and us can drag this team back in the top 12 and be where we need to be.”
Busch understands that he needs to control the situations that he can. With three wins to his credit this season, he looks at Mark Martin, who has been in a similar situation with four wins and is still in a precarious Chase position (ninth after Indianapolis). Martin took the No. 5 team — Busch’s old squad — and rallied the troops behind him. Busch desperately wants the same opportunity; he just needs someone to guide him there.
“I think Mark’s the same way,” Busch said. “He feels really bad that they’ve been having the bad luck that they’ve had — but they’ve been really fast and winning races. He’s been carrying that team really well. He and Gustafson have been working really hard together. So there’s no reason why Steve and I can’t do the same.”
Following Busch’s tire ordeal at the Brickyard, JGR president J.D. Gibbs remained complimentary of his driver. Gibbs accepted responsibility for losing ground among the competitors in the garage, and understands the company must get solid footing to regain its position before the Chase begins.
“Part of life and part of sports is you learn to deal with stuff like this,” Gibbs said. “Over time, as you grow and you’ve been around, you realize this. As discouraging as it is for him, it’s all our guys. It’s the 11 car. It’s the 18.
“But I think for everyone, what’s discouraging is — we may not have the best stuff right now, but if we run at our capabilities we’re going to run really, really well; the discouraging thing is we’re not running well. We’re not getting those finishes that we should be. We’re just kind of building that foundation for that Chase.”
Gibbs has until Sept. 12 to turn things around for his teams. After the Richmond race, the Chase field will be set. Beyond that, it just won’t matter.