The Chase field is set and the race for championship is on. Not a lot of real surprises in the Chase and not very much drama in the final regular season race of 2015. I guess they can’t all be barnburners.
However, it’s time we begin making our picks for the Chase grid, narrowing down the field from 16, to 12, to eight and eventually the final four… and then the final champion. I struggled with this last year when this Chase grid was first introduced and I’m not sure I’ve settled on anyone in particular just yet for 2015.
However, I think I know which team I might wind up choosing from: Joe Gibbs Racing.
I know that a win at Richmond doesn’t always translate to a championship. Just ask Brad Keselowski from last season. All the same, the dominance from JGR leading up to and at Richmond makes them almost unquestionably the favorite heading into the final 10-race stretch.
Eventual race winner Matt Kenseth pulled through for his fourth victory of the season, tying Jimmie Johnson and JGR teammate Kyle Busch for the most wins. Busch has four victories despite running less than half as many races as anyone else due to an injury in the Daytona Xfinity race in February.
All told, JGR led 375 laps on Saturday night at Richmond: 325 from Kenseth, nine from Busch and 14 from Hamlin. Though Edwards was not able to lead any, at one point during the race JGR held the top four positions, and the only racing that was going on up front was between the four teammates.
This dominance was not isolated to one race. JGR has won 11 of the 26 races this season, including eight of the last 11. In that time span, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano are the only drivers outside of the JGR stable who have been able to visit Victory Lane. Now all four drivers are in the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a ton of momentum and speed on their side.
“I think it’s a total team,” said team owner Joe Gibbs after Richmond. “Everybody back at the race shop, JD, all of our team. I feel bad for everybody there because they can’t celebrate with us. They’re not in the winner’s circle. As Jason will tell you, we have so many people working in the different departments there. It’s really their victory.”
However, 2015 has not been all sunshine and roses for this race team. At the beginning of the season, JGR revealed that President of JGR and Gibbs’s son JD had medical issues that were affecting brain and speech function and that his at-track presence would be diminished as a result.
As mentioned before, Busch participated in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in the NXS and made a huge impact with the inside wall late in the race, fracturing his lower right leg and left foot in the process. The injury knocked him out of the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup Series season.
Hamlin also recently sustained an injury, a torn ACL while playing basketball — a repeat injury to one sustained in 2010.
Edwards was brand new to the team in 2015 and struggled at the beginning of the season to keep up and get acclimated.
This all followed up a 2014 season that saw the organization go to Victory Lane only two times, once with Busch and once with Hamlin.
“Things weren’t going well for us early this year,” said Gibbs. “We all said that ’14 was one of our toughest years. In life you go through some tough stuff. But also I think in going through some of those tough times, it can really build character, and you get a chance to study everybody. That’s one of the best times to study people, as we know, because human nature being what it is, we have a tough time dealing with adversity.”
Now it seems that all of those struggles have come full circle and the team is heading into the Chase as arguably the strongest in the garage area. So while I’m sure I will be filling out a Chase Grid sometime this week struggling to decide how to narrow down the field to the eventual champion, I’m still undecided… but right now I’m heavily leaning towards someone from the JGR camp. You’d be crazy not to.