Carl Edwards had to win eventually. In the first seven races of the season, they finished in the top five three times and six times in the top 10. Leading laps and running up front were common traits of the No. 19 team during almost every race and it seemed like the biggest competition for that team was their own teammates. Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 and Kyle Busch won the two Sprint Cup Series races prior to Bristol, but Edwards had made a run at Victory Lane himself on more than one occasion up to this point.
Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Edwards started from the pole. No pole-sitter had won a race yet this season, despite the fact that track position continues to be at a premium (the low-downforce package notwithstanding). He had three previous victories at this track, so it wasn’t unlikely, but this season’s trends weren’t necessarily in his favor.
Edwards was hot right out of the gate. He led 39 of the first 42 laps and hung around the front essentially the entire race. Clearly, the No. 19 car was going to be a force to be reckoned with, but could they hang on to the end?
Edwards went on to lead 276 of the 500 laps en route to his first victory of the season and third victory with Joe Gibbs Racing since joining the organization in 2015.
However, it certainly didn’t come easy. Though Edwards wound up leading the most laps, teammate Matt Kenseth was arguably just as strong as Edwards, leading 142 laps before a blown right-front tire sent him behind the wall. Though he wound up finishing the race, Kenseth was 40 laps down and therefore no longer a factor.
In fact, JGR teammate Busch also suffered the same tire failure, one of many right front tire failures for this team this season and in this race particularly. All eyes turned to Edwards as not one, but two of his teammates went behind the wall for the exact same issue – an issue that has plagued the team many times this season.
“I have the best teammates in the business, and if they can have trouble, I can surely have trouble,” Edwards said post-race. “I was nervous about it, but Dave [Rogers, crew chief] did a good job of talking to me about how hard we were pushing the tires and what we had going on there, so I felt pretty comfortable after talking to Dave after a couple stops.”
“We just keep blowing right front tires, I don’t know why,” Kenseth said while behind the wall as his car was being worked on. “The first one was a little confusing, I knew I blew a right front, but I thought they were telling me it wasn’t flat so I was a little confused.
“This one just blew a lot earlier and the angle was a lot worse hitting the wall. I was encouraged again today even though we don’t have the result. I have a smile on my face and we’ll go to Richmond and try again.”
“I’m not sure what started it, but we were a little snug early on in the first run of the race,” Busch said of his own tire woes. “As the car would run more and more laps it would get tighter and tighter, that’s the weirdest thing that I’ve felt all day and all weekend we haven’t had that problem. Not sure what happened.”
Edwards was just as baffled as his teammates, but offered a way of explanation as to why it was impacting this team in particular.
“Well, it’s just everybody pushes it,” Edwards said. “The whole sport, everybody pushes everything to the edge, and we don’t know — while we don’t know what happened, could have been debris or could have been anything, we’ll just go back and look at it and learn from it. Fortunately Kyle has a win, and our cars are up front every week, so hopefully it doesn’t hurt us too bad.”
Edwards has been extremely complimentary of his team and teammates. Despite the fact that the next highest finishing JGR car was Hamlin in 20th, maintained that stance after the win.
“I’ve spent more time with Dave and the guys this year and in the off-season than I ever have in my career,” Edwards explained. “When Dave says this is a real team effort and Coach says it’s a team effort, it’s true. I’ve never been around a group that really brings everyone together as much as Coach does at JGR, from the sponsors to the families to everybody that builds the cars, to guys that are on the road and guys that jump over the wall.
“There is no more close-knit team in sports probably, so it’s really cool to be a part of it. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve had a great time getting to know Dave, and it’s really just fun to be a part of something like this, and the fact that we’re running well, that’s just icing on the cake. It’s really neat.”
Rogers, a longtime veteran crew chief of the JGR organization, added to that, citing the people as the reason he has stuck around so long.
“Coach taught me long ago that it’s all about people, and that’s why I’m having so much fun,” Rogers said. “This [No.] 19 team is full of good people. Everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing. I’ve been there 18 years or so, and I mean, it’s just — there’s good people everywhere.
“But this team, this [No.] 19 team, the pit crew, the road crew, everyone gets along so good and Carl treats us with a lot of respect,” he continued. “He keeps a level head when we have down days like Martinsville. He doesn’t get too excited when we have good days like
today. So that even keel just lets you perform at your best, and you’re always having fun when you’re performing at your best.”
Gibbs, who has been in the post-race media center conferences several times this season with his drivers, also believes that the chemistry between Edwards, Rogers and various other members of the race team is the reason they made it to Victory Lane today and why the organization as a whole continues to have success.
“I feel so good about where we are with crew chief and driver,” Gibbs explained. “I’ll say this, when you put a crew chief with a driver, you’re never sure. We’ve all seen in this sport, you have dream relationships there, and something — because really those relationships are going to be tested for whatever reason. You’re going to have some real bad days, and it’s not going to go well, and whether somebody kind of starts turning on somebody or something, it’s so hard.
“The thrill for me right now is all four of our crew chiefs came out of that XFINITY program at one point, and I think what’s happened there, they’ve had a chance to be with the drivers, and you look at Adam [Stevens] last year, everything that happened there. Dave has been a mainstay, he and Jason [Ratcliff]. They’ve worked so hard to build our XFINITY Series program, and they got wheels, went back down and spent a year back down there.”
Can this “dream relationship” take Edwards, Rogers and the No. 19 team all the way to Homestead this season?
It’s still way too early to tell. However, this Bristol win virtually locks the team into the postseason, meaning that the only JGR car yet to win this year is Kenseth. Bad luck or not, that team has to win eventually, and it’s extremely likely that all four JGR cars will be in the Chase in the fall.
If that’s going to happen, though, Edwards may want to work on his backflip. It looked a little rough on Sunday.
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