It was a day of tandems at the Dover International Speedway on Sunday. For the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing camp, it was Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray suffering seemingly identical rear suspension failures within five laps of each other. For Penske Racing teammates Sam Hornish Jr. and Kurt Busch, it was suffering hard wrecks at the hands of blown tires, and the inevitable frustration they bring; Hornish exclaimed “I am so done with this” after his first of multiple brushes with the wall, while Busch told his crew they would pit when the next right-front tire blew on his Dodge.
But it was a day on the other end of the spectrum for Joe Gibbs Racing’s title hopeful tandem of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, who on a Sunday that saw the No. 48 team on their “A” game from the drop of the green flag, scored the win, two spots in the top five and actually made up ground on the prohibitive favorite to win a fifth consecutive Cup. This afternoon, coming at the Monster Mile of all venues, saw JGR’s 1-2 punch score two top-five finishes, pass two gut checks and send one strong message to the No. 48 team and the rest of the Sprint Cup field as to how far they’ve come as drivers and a team. It was a statement day for Joe Gibbs Racing, at a track that barely seven months ago put the nail in their collective coffin for 2009.
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This past September at the Dover International Speedway defined what was a shortfall year for the Gibbs tandem of Hamlin and Busch. Busch, the proverbial favorite to unseat Jimmie Johnson after scoring eight wins in the first 22 races of 2008, was racing for more on Saturday than he was on Sunday en route to a Nationwide Series championship, an overpowering venture he would later admit took away from his Cup team’s title effort.
As for Hamlin, riding a wave of momentum after a win at his home track in Richmond, that all fell apart with what was supposed to be a 200-lap excursion on Saturday. After being forced to a back-up car he had not practiced for Saturday’s Nationwide race (Matt DiBenedetto wrecked the primary car while practicing so Hamlin could focus on a struggling Cup car), Hamlin wrecked himself racing Brad Keselowski late in the event, an incident that led to a scuffle on pit road between the two. Hamlin, noticeably frustrated by the event, never recovered the next day and limped to a 22nd-place finish, one that ended his chances for a Chase run before they even got started.
Extracurricular activity got the best of JGR’s vaunted 1-2 punch, and Johnson rode off into the sunset… again.
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As race day dawned in Dover this Sunday, the same scenario seemed destined to play out, with Kyle’s mind on matters outside the Cup Series and Hamlin involved in another incident; Busch had been public in making comments that he wanted to defend his Nationwide Series title and that it was not his decision to run a partial schedule, while Hamlin had instigated fellow Cup driver Clint Bowyer to the point that he wrecked Hamlin under caution in Nationwide competition on Saturday.
But something different happened this Sunday. Busch’s post-race remarks made after a dominating Nationwide Series win the day before about the Cup Series being in fact more important than pulling double-duty across two series proved to be more than just empty words, but instead a frame of mind that he, however reluctantly, appears to be accepting. And as for Hamlin, rather than confronting Bowyer on pit road the way he did Keselowski last fall, instead issued what amounted to be a mea culpa for a post-race interview, shaking off having a shot at a minor league trophy taken away and instead moving on to Sunday.
The difference in how the JGR tandem handled themselves and their respective challenges heading into Sunday was staggering. And the results this Sunday showed, with the two drivers’ respective days playing out as an almost mirror image.
The two started with a bang, as each passed two cars on the first lap. But as the run went on, the duo started to fade. The rear end of Busch’s car would not dig into the track and was not handling the drops into the center of the corners well, while Hamlin’s car was “just f****** loose.” Busch would fall to as far as fourth, Hamlin 14th.
Busch eventually was able to move up to second, Hamlin knocking on the door of the top 10 after about 150 laps. The climb was slow but steady for both, minus the on-radio temper tantrums of seasons past that would have made even Robby Gordon blush. For Hamlin, he was 11th by lap 180. By lap 240, he cracked the top five for the first time in the race. And though pit stops would cycle him back to 16th at one point, Hamlin never lost track of the top five once his team turned the corner on getting his No. 11 tightened up on pit stops under a lap 226 caution. The result for Hamlin was a fourth-place finish, tying his career-best and marking his first top 10 on the Monster’s concrete banks since the spring of 2007.
As for Busch, he proved to be one of only two cars that had the horses to keep up with a No. 48 that was on a rail from the drop of the green. And where AJ Allmendinger fell short, unable to capitalize on a lap 103 charge that saw him close to within a few car lengths of Johnson before succumbing to pit-road issues, Busch came through. After the race’s first restart following a caution on lap 55, Busch proved to have a better car on the short run than Johnson. And pit stop after pit stop, Busch proved able to stay with Johnson a little while longer, able to race him a little bit harder. So when Busch took the lead on lap 292, he held it for 61 circuits before Johnson finally got it back.
And the progressive improvement, the continual pressure put on the No. 48, paid off. During green-flag pit stops on lap 362, Busch’s crew got the best of Johnson’s by a nose… and Johnson sped on pit road trying to make it up. Mr. Cool and Collected was bested by Kyle Busch, who rode off into the sunset on his own this Sunday, scoring his second win in the last three Cup races and moving to second in the Cup points standings.
It didn’t matter how many times Busch got the best of Johnson on a restart, only to have Johnson pass him back a few laps later. It didn’t matter how many times Johnson’s crew held serve with Busch’s on pit road. Busch didn’t get flustered. He got better. He kept coming. And he got the best of the No. 48 team on a day where they were at their best, at a track among Johnson’s best.
Instead of leaving Dover victims of the hunt, Hamlin and Busch left Delaware this time smack in the thick of it. JGR is riding a wave of momentum they haven’t seen since Busch set the Cup Series on fire in his debut season with the No. 18 team in 2008, having won five of the last seven Cup races. Their drivers are facing the same challenges that derailed them less than a year ago, and overcoming them. And on Sunday they took the best punch from NASCAR’s Goliath, only to rise up and ask for more.
It’s way too early to affirm Rick Hendrick’s undoubtedly self-serving statement that JGR has caught his own camp. And Dover is only one race of 26 that will get us to the Chase. But in the words of grand marshal Richard Petty, them cats have definitely got the scent.