Unfortunately for Toyota’s top organization, the win came in the Sprint Unlimited, not the Daytona 500.
In all, JGR has now won the year-opening exhibition race eight times since their first victory in 2001. Even more impressive, four different drivers – Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth – have contributed wins for the team during the span.
Yet, somehow, they’ve all failed to triumph the following week in the Daytona 500.
In one of the more inexplicable trends in recent NASCAR history, former NFL coach Joe Gibbs’ teams have struggled to rise above the competition at NASCAR’s grandest track.
To date, JGR has only one triumph in the Daytona 500. The lone victory came in 1993 – the year I was born – when a young Dale Jarrett got the better of Dale Earnhardt in what has since been referred to as the “Dale and Dale Show.”
In the 23 years since that fateful day, JGR has managed only three points-paying victories at the 2.5-mile Daytona in Sprint Cup Series competition, all in the 400-mile July event.
Gibbs’ second win at Daytona didn’t come until the end of a 12-year drought, when Stewart led 151 of 160 laps in a dominant 2005 Pepsi 400 victory. Stewart would tack on another win in 2006, and Busch held off a furious charge from future teammates Carl Edwards and Kenseth to earn one of his eight wins in 2008.
However, eight years after Busch’s lone Daytona victory, and over two decades removed from Jarrett’s first Daytona 500 victory, JGR is still searching for a way back to the top of the motor sports world on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
The winless years aren’t for lack of trying. Since 1999, JGR has eight wins in the Unlimited, and another eight victories in the Can-Am Duels (formerly Gatorade and then Budweiser Duels), both of which are the most among active teams during that time period.
The team has placed three drivers in the top five in the last five years and came as close as second-place in 2014, when a dominant week for Hamlin ended one position short of greatness.
They have yet to remember the winning formula in NASCAR’s biggest race.
Maybe, this will be the year Gibbs flips the script. The organization made great steps in 2015, earning its first championship in 10 years and winning the most races in team history.
JGR showed speed in qualifying, placing Kenseth on the front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500, and all four of the team’s cars looked strong enough to win the Sprint Unlimited before Busch and Edwards crashed out.
JGR is showing the necessary speed, and they have the talent. Will this be the year they reclaim their share of Daytona glory?
After that Sprint Unlimited win, JGR fans best hope so. If not, we’ve heard this story before.