JGR begins 20th season with high hopes for a title
The presentation at Joe Gibbs Racing last month began as a rambling remembrance of the race team's humble beginnings.
As the audience grew restless, and eyes began to glaze over, the program began to feel like an episode of ''This is Your Life,'' for owner Joe Gibbs. Unbeknownst to the former Washington Redskins coach, that's exactly what his team had planned to help honor Gibbs as he begins his 20th season in NASCAR.
A steady stream of current and former employees were called out to the podium to share their stories about ''Coach.'' Gibbs had been unaware of how detailed a program his staff had planned, but he had a ball laughing at the memories accumulated since he launched a one-car race team back with Dale Jarrett behind the wheel in 1992.
Gibbs has collected 88 wins and three titles in NASCAR's elite Cup Series, another 58 wins and one championship in the second-tier Nationwide Series. His organization has swelled to over 400 employees and three full-time entries in the Cup Series.
And, as JGR heads into the unofficial start of its anniversary season - the exhibition Budweiser Shootout is Saturday night - Gibbs and his staff believe they have three title contenders this year.
''For us to wind up here today, it's a real thrill,'' Gibbs said. ''For me, personally, I think we've got our best years ahead of us.''
Nobody doubts that based on the strength of JGR heading into the season.
Denny Hamlin seems to have snapped out of the depression he carried into the offseason after losing last year's championship to Jimmie Johnson in the season finale. Kyle Busch, still glowing from his New Year's Eve wedding, is hoping married life mellows out the meltdowns that have plagued his potential.
And young Joey Logano, entering his third full season in NASCAR's highest level, has shown enough improvement that he's genuinely considered a contender for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
''I feel like there's a lot of ways that people try to razz you or try to get into your head, but you have to forget about that stuff and know what's important,'' Busch said. ''We're trying to look forward at making the most of this year and try to bring home a championship for JGR in their 20th year.''
JGR's last championship came in 2005, when Tony Stewart won his second title. He left the organization three years later to form his own race team, and Gibbs drivers have tried hard to fill Stewart's void.
Hamlin has come the closest, flipping a switch in 2009 and to ratchet up his performance and go into last year as a popular pick to dethrone Johnson. Despite a career year that saw eight wins and gave him a 15-point lead over Johnson headed into the finale, Hamlin fell short and settled for second in the final standings.
It stung, badly, and Hamlin moped his way through December.
He vowed to clean the slate before arriving in Daytona, and all signs point to Hamlin making another run at the championship.
''I think this year, I'm more anxious than I was in any of the years in the past, but I'm also more calm about it,'' Hamlin said. ''I just have an understanding for how things work now. I understand that you can't panic in the first three or four races. You've got to just work your way into the season.''
In some ways, it mirrors Busch's thinking.
He admits he's probably been his own worst enemy in pursuit of a championship, a bid that seemingly gets derailed each year by one of his many on-track explosions or off-track eruptions.
Although Busch has won 15 races in the three years he's been with Gibbs, he's yet to finish higher than eighth in the standings.
''I think this can be a fresh start,'' he said. ''I'm married now, and while I don't think that's going to be the big calming effect everyone seems to think it will be, I don't disagree that I have sometimes stood in my own way. We have all the tools to reach our potential, it's just a matter of not letting anything get in the way.''
For the first time since Stewart left, the team is solid top to bottom.
Logano made enormous strides in the final few months of last season. He began to take a stand against on-track bullying from veteran drivers, and his communication with crew chief Greg Zipadelli improved. And, Logano was on mathematical pace to win the season-opening Daytona 500 after finishes of seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth and third heading into the season finale.
An incident with Juan Pablo Montoya prevented Logano from getting the second-place finish he needed to continue the trend, but it also toughened him up again for what could be a very bumpy ride toward a Chase berth.
''We are definitely coming in here with a lot of confidence and the feeling that we can do it for sure. We definitely want to do it, there's no reason why we can't do it,'' Logano said.