NASCAR

Joe Gibbs Racing needs to step up

Jeff Hammond discusses the keys to winning at Michigan.
Jeff Hammond discusses the keys to winning at Michigan.
FOX Sports TOM JENSEN
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It’s time for Joe Gibbs Racing to regroup.

Last Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway proved to be an exercise in relative futility for the team, as it tried unsuccessfully to stay up front while running detuned Toyota engines in search of longevity.

For just the second time all season long, none of the three JGR drivers led a lap during the race; none finished the race in the top five, either. And while teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are virtual locks to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Denny Hamlin remains in deep trouble.

The 12 drivers who qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup are the top 10 in points at the conclusion of NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, plus the two drivers who finish between 11th and 20th in points and have the most race victories.

To make it into the Chase, Hamlin will have to win at least one and probably two of the next 12 races and make up a 76-point deficit on 20th place in the process. That will be extremely difficult. In the last four races, Hamlin has three finishes of eighth or better, yet he hasn’t cut a single point out of his gap to 20th because of a crash at Dover that left him 34th.

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Regardless, it’s game on at Michigan International Speedway, site of Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400.

Busch ran great on the old surface at MIS in 2011, finishing third in the June race and winning the August one that season. But last year, the track was repaved and Busch was just 13th and 32nd in the two races. He’s hoping to turn that around this weekend.

“We struggled on the repaved tracks last season, but we were much (better) at Pocono last weekend than we were there last year, so that gives me hope that we can do the same at Michigan this week,” said Busch. “We just have to keep working hard and chip away at it like last week. I’m hoping we can learn enough in practice that we can have a good run there this weekend.”

This track is a very good one for Hamlin: In a five-race stretch from June 2009 to June 2011, Hamlin won twice and posted four top threes at MIS. Unfortunately for Hamlin, his average finish in his last three races there was 26.7. Still, he’s optimistic.

“Michigan is definitely a place that our FedEx team has had success at in the past, winning a couple races and running up front for the most part,” said Hamlin. “It was a little tough on us last year after the repave, but hopefully we’ll have the speed to contend this weekend.”

Although the new Generation-6 cars have set numerous track records this year, that isn’t likely to be the case this weekend at MIS, where a year ago Marcos Ambrose shattered the track record with a stunning lap of 203.241 miles per hour.

“I think that the track will have less grip after this past winter, but we’re not really sure how the track has changed until we get out for practice on Friday,” said Kenseth’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff. “Our thought process for this weekend is to unload close to our Kansas setups and use that as a baseline to work from and tweak as necessary for the differences between those two tracks.”

Regardless of the speeds and setups, Hamlin knows it’s go time now if he’s to make it into the Chase.

“Obviously, we can’t afford to have bad finishes and need to get a win or two, but most importantly, we have to minimize mistakes and finish where we should,” he said. “If we take care of our business and put ourselves into position to win, that stuff will take care of itself.”
 

Tagged: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin

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