Kyle Busch won at Pocono Raceway on Sunday. That’s not unusual. What is unusual, at least for 2018, is how close his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates came to beating him.
In fact, all four JGR drivers had solid showings at Pocono. Daniel Suarez drove the best race of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, fighting through a series of late-race restarts to finish second. Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin also spent time out front and both came away with top-10 finishes.
Compare those results to last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. While Busch was trying to fend off Kevin Harvick in the race’s closing laps, Hamlin, Jones, and Suarez were nowhere to be found. Keep in mind that JGR has dominated New Hampshire for the past few seasons, having won five of the last six races at the Magic Mile before Harvick’s victory. But when it came time to race for the win, the No. 18 was the only bullet left in Coach Gibbs’ gun.
The experiences of JGR’s four teams at New Hampshire, not Pocono, have been the standard over the last year’s worth of races. The Pocono results are more typical of JGR in 2015 or 2016, when the team had four cars that looked a lot more equal or at least did not have so much variance in performance. But in the relatively short time since then, the No. 18 team has clearly established itself as the flagship car within Joe Gibbs Racing.
Even as recently as the early part of the 2017 season, none of the JGR teams were clearly outpacing any of the others. Busch appeared to have the most speed overall, but he, like his teammates, was struggling to reach victory lane. Once Busch finally broke through at Pocono one year ago, he began to perform at a level that few drivers have been able to reach.
Here are the results of the No. 18 team compared to the other cars at JGR going back to Busch’s win at Pocono last year.
|No. 18 team||The rest of JGR|
The numbers suggest that JGR has been a good team overall, but also that Busch has been its most successful driver. While the combined efforts of his teammates may have produced a greater number of top 10s, Busch earned one in 78.4 percent of his attempts. The other JGR teams managed a top 10 in 48.6 percent of all attempts. That said, what is truly lopsided is the amount of time Busch has spent in first place, and in Victory Lane, relative to his teammates.
Now, here is a different set of results for the Joe Gibbs Racing teams. This set of races picks up where the last set left off, at the 2017 Brickyard 400, right before Busch won his first race of the year. It goes all the way back to the 2015 Coca-Cola 600 when Busch returned to competition after sustaining injuries in an XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
|No. 18 team||The rest of JGR|
Over this period, Busch’s teammates combined to beat his statistics alone in every category. That is not to say, however, that Busch wasn’t doing his part. His percentage of success in all the finish categories is still greater than those of his teammates.
So, what is it that caused Joe Gibbs Racing to become the Kyle Busch show in the last year? Busch himself obviously deserves a lot of the credit. Ever since his recovery from the Daytona injuries, Busch has seemed like a more focused and more consistently strong driver. He and crew chief Adam Stevens work exceptionally well together. Busch’s newfound focus and Stevens’ setups have allowed him to find success at tracks where he previously struggled, including Pocono.
However, it is worth suggesting that changing priorities at JGR has aided Busch’s recent rate of success.
When Busch first moved to the No. 18 car, JGR often struggled to find year-to-year consistency. He and Hamlin often performed well, particularly on the short tracks and flat tracks. But both drivers always seemed to run into misfortune in the postseason, even in years where they looked like title favorites. Busch won an impressive eight races in 2008, but a bad start to the Chase completely derailed the No. 18 team. Two years later, Hamlin took Jimmie Johnson all the way to the wire for a championship, but a series of mistakes and bad strategy ended with Hamlin coming up short. In 2012, mechanical failures spoiled a strong postseason showing for Hamlin. Even Matt Kenseth had a heartbreaking championship loss in 2013 when he joined JGR.
It always seemed as if JGR was a step or two behind Hendrick Motorsports in those years. If the team could only clean up its mistakes and improve its consistency, maybe it could rise to the top of the NASCAR mountain.
Things took a turn for the better when Gibbs brought in Carl Edwards in 2015. For two years, JGR was the most stacked team in NASCAR. It’s quartet of proven, veteran racers brought stability and consistency to the organization. Busch was the one who delivered the team’s first championship in 10 years and stayed the most productive during that time span. Yet it is unlikely that JGR would have reached the heights it did without Kenseth and Edwards.
Then, suddenly, Kenseth and Edwards were gone. Edwards walked away from NASCAR prior to the 2017 season, with Suarez taking over the No. 19. Kenseth got pushed aside at the end of the year in favor of Jones.
Joe Gibbs Racing appeared to have achieved its goal of four stable and consistently strong teams. As a result, the goal shifted to building for the future and solidifying the team’s relationship with Toyota. While the new plan called for greater investment in Furniture Row Racing, there has also been a clear strengthening of ties between JGR, Toyota, and Kyle Busch Motorsports. Busch’s Camping World Truck Series team has become the engine for Toyota’s driver development program in NASCAR. With drivers like Christopher Bell poised to follow Jones’ path to the Cup Series, KBM has a critical role in building JGR’s next superstar lineup.
Busch, therefore, offers the perfect combination of past, present, and future success of JGR. Already a veteran racer in NASCAR before his 35th birthday, Busch has the skill and the team around him to compete for wins and championships right now. But he is also paving the road for JGR and Toyota to be successful long after Busch leaves the driver’s seat.
Effectively, Busch is shouldering the most responsibility for the performance of Joe Gibbs Racing, which makes him the team’s most valuable asset. He did not have that role three years ago. Even while Busch was on his way to a championship, there was still a sense that Kenseth, Hamlin, and Edwards were more or less equally responsible for the team’s success.
Joe Gibbs Racing is no longer the council of veterans. It is the empire of Kyle Busch.