That’s all that Toyota led during last weekend’s Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 at Pocono Raceway – out of 160 – and for a manufacturer that has led over half of the laps run this season, it seemed a little out of place. Even more interesting is that all 34 of those laps were led by Joe Gibbs Racing drivers. Not the little teams like BK Racing, not the JGR-affiliated Furniture Row Racing (which actually won last year’s race at the Tricky Triangle) – just the foursome of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.
Those four drivers have gone on a tear this season, winning seven of 14 races including the Daytona 500 and four in a row from Martinsville to Richmond. Add in the Sprint Unlimited and a Can-Am Duel while you’re at it. And it isn’t just one driver winning all the trophies. Busch has three wins, Edwards two while Hamlin and Kenseth each have one. They’re set Chase-wise.
But they didn’t really bring it at Pocono. In fact, it was the Chevrolet show on Monday, with Bowties leading 109 of 160 laps. Has Chevrolet turned a corner, and does it mean that Joe Gibbs Racing won’t be the favorites heading into each race? Or was this race just a fluke and the JGR/Toyota camp will be coming back with a vengeance in Michigan this week?
DON’T YOU WORRY, GIBBS FANS
Look, this is much ado about nothing. Chevrolet has long used Pocono as its personal playground – it’s won there in eight of the last 11 contests – and Toyota only has four wins there in its entire Cup existence. To say that one bad race by Toyota means it’s lost its dominance is jumping the gun way early.
This isn’t like the small, month-long tears some teams have been known to put together. JGR has been on a roll since last summer, winning 12 of the final 25 races – a nearly 50 percent mark that the team has kept up through the first third of this season. This isn’t something one bad race will kill. And if you add in Martin Truex Jr. – the hottest (and most snakebitten) driver of the year – you can add another victory to the total, a dominating romp in Charlotte that set a record for most miles led in a national series race ever.
The team has won at road courses, superspeedways, short tracks, intermediates, even Pocono – there is no weak link in the chain right now. In fact, there are only six tracks that the team hasn’t won at over the past 39 races. The Sprint Cup races on 23 tracks total. Most drivers would kill to win on 17 different tracks over their entire careers, and JGR has done it, basically, over the course of a single season.
And with Michigan, Sonoma, Daytona, Kentucky, Loudon, Indianapolis, Kentucky and Loudon coming up, it’s conceivable that JGR could add more victories to its total. It’s only when you hit Watkins Glen on the schedule do you hit a track that the team hasn’t won at during its streak, and Busch was less than a lap away from victory when he ran out of fuel last season.
To put this in perspective, let’s look at another dominating team performance from the past 10 years: Hendrick Motorsports’ 2007 season. That year, HMS won 18 of 36 races among its four teams of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears and Busch. They won on 12 of 22 tracks and placed Johnson and Gordon one-two in the points.
Similar to JGR, right? Sort of. Johnson won 10 of the races and Gordon six. They also dominated in part because they were able to get the new Car of Tomorrow under their handle faster than other teams, giving them an advantage.
Gibbs drivers are more evenly matched. Hamlin has two wins over the last 39 races. Busch has eight, Edwards four and Kenseth five. And they’ve done so driving one type of car. Sure, they’ve raced under different packages – 2015, 2016, high drag – and won in all of them. This level of dominance over multiple packages and spread out across four drivers makes JGRs streak all the more impressive than HMSs.
Gibbs isn’t going anywhere. They’ll continue to be the favorites each week until another team can wrestle that mantle away, something that will only happen over a period of time, not a single race.
So go ahead, make your bets this weekend. JGR looks like the easy money.
ALL THINGS COME TO AN END
Pocono on Sunday was not a good start for JGR as the series starts on its summer stretch of races.
Kyle Busch led a few laps before slamming the wall in turn 1 with just over 50 laps to go while Denny Hamlin struggled to 14th. And although both Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards finished 7th and 8th respectively (With Kenseth also leading 31 laps), neither really showed much speed in the second half of the race. Compare that to Hendrick Motorsports that had three cars ahead of JGR at the drop of the checkered flag on Sunday. Four if you want to count winner Kurt Busch, who’s Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolets are Hendrick built. Over half the laps on Sunday were led by a driver running Hendrick equipment. Even the two Team Penske Fords ended up finishing ahead of Kenseth.
Although JGR is still a very strong team, they have shown a lack of speed on non-plate tracks that are 2 miles or longer in length this season. Besides Pocono, when the Sprint Cup Series went to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana in March, Hendrick equipment led over 150 laps and finished 1-2. Sure Denny Hamlin finished third, but only one other Gibbs driver finished in the top 18 (Carl Edwards in 7th).
Sure Gibbs is still a force to be reckoned with on the shorter tracks on the schedule. But the next six out of eight races on the calendar are either road courses, 2-2.5 mile ovals, or Daytona. All tracks where other teams can pick up the pace at.
Although the Gibbs drivers absolutely dominated Daytona in February, they definitely lost a step or two at Talladega in April. The road course races are true wild card events that aren’t going to favor the Hendrick roster’s somewhat lackluster road course record, but Joey Logano won Watkins Glen last season and A.J. Allmendinger should always be considered a threat on the “roadies”.
Finally, there is the Harvick factor. Kevin Harvick only has one win this season. But he’s fast just about every single week and now that he is all but locked in to the Chase on points, he and crew chief Rodney Childers are going to be able to take plenty of risks over the summer months.
All-in-all, JGR isn’t going to be a bottom feeding team but the way things seem to be going over there, they could be in for a very rough summer. Sure they dominated it last season on their way to the championship, but now the field seems to be slowly but surely catching up to the Toyota’s. Kyle Busch’s momentum from just a month or so ago seems to be gone, Denny Hamlin has been too inconsistent since winning Daytona, Carl Edwards hasn’t shown much speed recently, and Matt Kenseth has faded far too often this year as races go on. Pocono proved all of that, and the momentum a good summer brings could lead to another team’s driver hoisting the Cup at Homestead.