One year ago, Texas equaled triumph for a Joe Gibbs Racing operation cocking back to deliver what they thought was NASCAR’s equivalent of a knockout punch. While Jimmie Johnson’s team imploded, their pit road area turning into a deleted scene from _Days Of Our Lives,_ driver Denny Hamlin won the race, crew chief Mike Ford talked some trash and the four-year title reign for Johnson’s No. 48 was left hanging by a thread. JGR, whose risky move to Toyota once cost them superstar Tony Stewart, was on the verge of handing the manufacturer their biggest piece of hardware yet. Add in Joey Logano finishing fourth that day at age 20, along with three-time season winner Kyle Busch, just 25 that Sunday, the organization posed a triple threat of twenty-something drivers peaking years from reaching their prime.
“We’re on the cusp of trying to get our first championship,” admitted Hamlin, so convinced the hardware was all but sitting in his living room. “As long as we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we should be okay.”
12 months later, it’s Texas, 2011 and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing is wondering when, if ever, things are going to start being OK once again. On the heels of Kyle Busch’s suspension, Sunday’s race could best be described as “rugged” for the three-car team whose season has tilted on a downward spiral for sometime. Hamlin was the best of the bunch; he ran 20th, two laps back and nursed his car home after longtime rival Brad Keselowski made contact with the No. 11 on pit road. Talk about what a difference a year makes; this once confident, borderline title contender spent his day on the radio sounding more like a deflated Ron Livingston from _Office Space_ than a Chase participant.
“We just fought an ill-handling car all day,” he said, ready to trash those TPS Reports and head towards a racing offseason two weeks early. “It’s probably one of the worst that we’ve had in a long time and we just couldn’t fix any of the things that we had wrong in practice. Thought when the race started we would be a little bit better, but it wasn’t better. We just — 20th is where we ran all day.”
Hamlin’s handling, of course was made conspicuously worse by Kyle Busch’s on-track absence, forcing the No. 11 team to crumble when faced with “doing it themselves.” What does that say about their chemistry now? In the meantime, parked for the weekend, perhaps suspended for the season from his No. 18 Toyota – we’ll know more on Monday – Busch spent the day on top of the pit box as an innocent bystander. Gone was the feedback Hamlin could have used in practice, the fine-tuning that comes from longtime teammates working together. Instead, all he could do was sit there sickeningly as substitute Michael McDowell tripped, fell, and stumbled his way to 33rd.
On camera, McDowell was exactly what Gibbs needed: a churchgoing, G-Rated politically correct face to start a long-term repair job for angry sponsor M&M’s. But this type of ugly result, in which McDowell was never competitive, isn’t exactly the type of audition that’ll wow the candy company on life A.B. – After Busch. A lap down early, McDowell missed pit road during a set of green-flag stops, needed to be reminded the race was 334 laps long and was outrun by the likes of rookie Andy Lally, David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil. Don’t know the names? Know their finances _combined_ don’t add up to the money M&M’s just paid to run in the back.
“We obviously were hoping for more and were hoping for a big day, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” McDowell said. “Gave it all I had and we just struggled pretty much all day long. We needed a couple of cautions so we could work on it.”
“We know the expectations. My ability is not going to change overnight. You get into a car. You haven’t worked with the crew chief (Dave Rogers). It’s still pretty tough.”
Should Busch stay on the sidelines, a 50/50 proposition at this point, it’s likely Gibbs will still give McDowell another shot. But will his team, and more importantly the sponsor have healed from the wounds their star driver left behind?
“The recent actions by Kyle Busch are not consistent with the values of M&M’s and we’re very disappointed,” the company said in a Sunday statement. “We hold those who represent our brand to a higher standard.”
What’s left in the dog-eat-dog world of NASCAR’s desperate economy are plenty of suitors looking to provide those standards elsewhere. Jack Roush, part of a Ford Racing camp that partnered with Mars for five seasons (on a Robert Yates Racing car) needs money for 2012 and would be happy to have them come on over. David Ragan, Trevor Bayne, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are all young drivers with impeccable reputations who won’t do what Busch just specialized in – rock the boat and create a national public relations nightmare. Could a sponsor shift happen? Friday night, it seemed a virtual impossibility. But this Sunday, when 55% of fans polled claimed Busch should be fired from the No. 18 ride… those are the type of numbers that make Fortune 500-style companies pay attention. Bayne, a younger version of McDowell with talent, stirred the pot further by winning the Texas Nationwide race; by far, that’s his best performance since February’s upset victory in the Daytona 500.
As it is, this Kyle Busch drama has distracted Gibbs from his other problem child, the driver who seemingly can’t get over being placed on the firing line himself. Just this August, it looked like Joey Logano would move to the bench while Carl Edwards took over the prized No. 20 Toyota. It was the boost JGR sorely needed; but for Edwards, it was merely the counteroffer necessary for Ford to give him the keys to the company. Logano, whose season has imploded in every sense of the word, became an innocent bystander that saw his 21-year-old sense of confidence shattered to smithereens.
Once compared to Jeff Gordon, a man who won the title in his third full season Logano has instead matched the No. 24 team in another way – by sitting a disastrous 24th in points. Blowing his engine this weekend, another JGR weakness (they have five such failures in 2011) is merely par for the course for a man asking for a pink slip: he has yet to sniff the top 10 since a fifth-place finish at Watkins Glen back in August.
So it goes for one of the sport’s storied franchises: with three Cup titles since the year 2000, only Hendrick Motorsports has more. But parity in today’s stock car upper class comes paired with a razor-thin margin of success and failure. Now, for the first time since 1997, JGR could finish the year without a single driver inside the top 10 in Sprint Cup points.
“Sometimes in life, you go through tough things and you don’t like it,” said Joe Gibbs when questioned about Kyle Busch’s transgressions this Saturday. “But we’re certainly going to try to work our way through this one, try to do the right thing and try to handle it the right way.”
Of course, more than ever those decisions are crucial. This team is facing an almost guaranteed overhaul in the offseason, with Denny Hamlin – Mike Ford seemingly headed for certain divorce. As for Busch, the sponsorship question looms more important than ever before; as a source told me off the record this offseason, Gibbs lives in fear just one sponsor defection takes him from three-car juggernaut to two-car “Earnhardt Ganassi 2011,” incapable of having the money or the horsepower to compete. And then, there’s Greg Zipadelli, still rumored to leave the team for the comfy confines of Stewart-Haas Racing where former driver Stewart – pushed out in favor of Toyota in 2008 – is three points from a title and on the verge of getting the last laugh. What happens to Logano without the best mechanic sitting by his side?
So while Busch may be the focus, and deservedly so, Sunday proved one man can be the catalyst for a long-term domino effect that puts hundred of hard-working employees in the line of fire. Coach Gibbs has a history of turning around the disenfranchised; but this slump, this maturity problem may be his biggest NASCAR challenge yet.
Ironically, that Texas race last November was one of Busch’s worst Chase performances. Running 32nd, two laps behind, he was exasperated on the radio to the point Joe’s son, J.D. Gibbs was asked about the star driver’s erratic behavior.
“Around that race car, when things don’t go well, I think there’s a real frustration there,” he said. “I think that’s just something that he’s going to have to continue to work on, and I think he acknowledges that, he admits that, but right when it happens it’s hard for him to control that. I think that’s just an area that in general and in life he’s going to have to address and that’s nothing new. We’ve just got to make sure it happens sooner rather than later.”
That problem, like many others within this organization was never completely corrected. And now, 12 months removed from what should have been the ascension to the top, everyone within JGR this Monday must sit and wonder just how big this snowball down the mountain is going to get.
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