If you don’t like the way things are in NASCAR racing, stick around. They’ll change soon enough, as this cautionary tale will illustrate.
In 2015-16, Joe Gibbs Racing was the dominant team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, winning a total of 26 races.
Kyle Busch won a championship in 2015 for JGR and the team’s success last year helped earn Toyota its first Cup Manufacturers’ Championship. Heady stuff, to be sure.
By comparison, Hendrick Motorsports won just 14 races and Stewart-Haas Racing 11 in 2015-16. That means JGR won more races than Hendrick and SHR combined in that stretch. That’s stout.
But in the first seven races of 2017, the performance of the four JGR Toyotas has fallen way off.
Some key numbers tell the story.
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In the first seven races of 2016, JGR’s four drivers combined to lead 990 of 2,149 laps run, or 46.1 percent. This year, they have led only 441 of 2,142 laps run, which translates to just 20.6 percent. Kyle Busch has led 413 laps and Denny Hamlin 28. Neither Matt Kenseth nor Daniel Suarez has led at all this year. The Kenseth number is especially glaring: In 2013, he led 1,783 laps for the season.
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Last year at this time, the four JGR drivers had combined for an impressive 16 top-10 finishes. This year, they have just 10 in the first seven races, a decrease of 37.5 percent. Busch and Kenseth have three top fives each, while Suarez and Hamlin have two apiece.
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This number is dramatic — JGR’s number of top-five finishes has cratered by 75 percent, from 12 in the first seven races of last year to just three so far in 2017. In fact, JGR had as many top-five finishes in the 2016 Daytona 500 — three — as they’ve had in all seven races so far in 2017.
JGR drivers won three of the first seven races of 2016: Hamlin took the Daytona 500, while Busch won at Martinsville and Texas. And then Carl Edwards was victorious in the next two races at Bristol and Richmond, giving JGR five victories in the first nine races. This year, the team is 0-for-7.
, LAT Images www.latphoto.co.ukMatthew T. Thacker
A year ago at this time, JGR’s Busch led the points, with Edwards fourth, Hamlin eighth and Kenseth 12th. That works out to an average points position of 6.25 among the four drivers. This year, the four JGR drivers are an average of 17th in points: Busch is seventh, Hamlin 16th, Kenseth 22nd and Suarez 23rd.
So what does it all mean?
A couple of observations
Not surprisingly, the sudden departure of Edwards and then the leave of absence of his former crew chief Dave Rogers have been serious blows for the team. You don’t lose talent like that without an adjustment period.
The fact that JGR’s quasi-teammates at Furniture Row Racing are running competitively suggests the problem at JGR isn’t under the hood, because JGR and Furniture Row use the same engines.
Conversely, that does point to JGR potentially having issues with either aerodynamics or chassis setups. Or maybe a little of both.
Ford Motor Co. has stepped up hugely this season with the addition of Stewart-Haas and better results across the board. That’s cut into JGR’s chances at good finishes, too.
Still, if last year taught us anything, it’s that just because JGR is down now doesn't mean they’ll be down all year.
Hendrick Motorsports was awful all summer last year and then they suddenly found enough speed for Jimmie Johnson to win another championship and the team’s other drivers to pick up their pace, too.
Will something similar happen at JGR later this year?