As the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season prepared to kick off, there appeared to be much optimism surrounding Joe Gibbs Racing.
Coming off a disappointing 2014 season, JGR expanded to a four-car team with the addition of Carl Edwards from Roush Fenway Racing. The team also shuffled the driver-crew chief lineup, with Jason Ratcliff and Matt Kenseth the only duo to carry over from the 2014 season.
However, JGR’s hopes took a major blow before the Sprint Cup season officially got underway when Kyle Busch injured his right leg and left foot in the season-opening XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
Article continues below ...
Busch entered the season eager to work with former XFINITY Series crew chief Adam Stevens, who was then forced to come up with an alternative plan of action while his driver recovered.
Yet the No. 18 team was not the only one from the JGR stable to stumble out of the gate.
Looking to repeat Kenseth’s successful first year at the organization, Edwards did not get off to a strong start. Through the first 11 races of the season, the team led by crew chief Darian Grubb scored only one top-10 finish and was mired in 18th in the series standings.
Denny Hamlin was able to earn a spot in the Chase early with a win at Martinsville Speedway, while Kenseth was able to do the same at Bristol Motor Speedway in April.
One month later, Busch made his return to action for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race – incredibly finishing sixth. One week later, Edwards earned his first win of the season in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and punched his ticket to the Chase.
Still, the four Gibbs cars were not the best in the field, with that honor going to Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and Furniture Row Racing.
However, as the season reached June, things began turning around for the entire JGR organization. At Pocono in June, three of the four JGR cars were in the top 10. Kenseth was fourth at Michigan and Hamlin third at Daytona. At Sonoma Raceway, with Kyle Busch earning his first win of the season in just his fifth race back in the car. Kensth was fourth at Michigan and Hamlin third at Daytona.
When the series hit Kentucky Speedway with the low-downforce aerodynamic package, things kicked into high gear. Busch earned his second victory of the season, leading a JGR charge in which Hamlin finished third, Edwards fourth and Kenseth fifth.
Busch would go on to win the next two races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In an amazing run, Busch nearly won four consecutive races before running out of fuel while leading on the last lap at Pocono Raceway. Busch’s misfortune worked to Kenseth’s advantage, however, as Kenseth overtook the lead and earned his second victory of the season.
A conservative second-place finish at Watkins Glen International moved Busch into the top 30 in the standings, a requirement if he wants to be a part of the 16-driver Chase field.
So as the series hit Michigan International Speedway this weekend with only four races left before the start of the Chase, the four Gibbs cars are hitting their stride, contending for wins each week regardless of the rules package in place for particular races.
"It’s amazing," Edwards said of JGR’s turnaround over the summer months. "I will tell you what’s cool and it’s one of the first things I noticed when I started at JGR, and it’s just how well everyone works together. Everyone within the shop works together, the drivers work together, the crew chiefs work together — TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and Toyota, they’re there every day. It’s a constant push for speed all the time."
Another big part of that equation has been the fact Busch is back in full swing with the team both at the track and in the race shop. During the recovery process at the beginning of the season, Busch would often visit the shop to offer what he could, but since being back in the car full time, things have simply meshed within the walls of JGR.
"It’s never one thing for sure, but having Kyle back for sure is a big advantage," Kenseth said after winning the pole Friday at Michigan. "I always feel like the better your teammates are, the better you run, the harder you work and the better it makes you. It lifts all of our performance and effort and all that stuff up, I feel like. Certainly a big boost to the organization when Kyle got back, but just a little bit of everything."
While Busch has impacted the team’s overall performance, Kenseth pointed out that the struggles dated back to last season. Coming off a 12-win season in 2013, JGR was limited to just two victories in 2014 and often struggled for speed. Disappointed with the overall efforts, Kenseth contended the team has worked diligently to move beyond that.
"I think last year it was obvious that we were a little behind and we’ve been working hard to get out of that and keep getting better," he said. "We’re definitely on the right track, and we’ve been pretty fast with all the different aero packages, which is a great sign. … Just have to keep moving forward and hope to continue to move forward and keep getting better here and be good in September when it really counts."
For Edwards, that charge forward begins at the top of the organization and trickles all the way down.
"With leadership like Coach (Joe Gibbs, team owner) and all the good people there — I think the anomaly there would be to run poorly," he said. "That would be the rare thing. I don’t see how you can beat a group like that all the time; they’re just amazing people."