Did You Notice? … Joe Gibbs Racing has a shot to send three of its four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers into the 2019 Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway? It’s a feat that’s never been accomplished by any organization since the current format came into play in 2014.
JGR currently holds the record as the only team to get multiple drivers in during the same year (Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch in 2016). Unlike other teams we’ve seen in this spot in the Round of 8, they also start with an edge heading to this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway. Martin Truex Jr., Busch and Denny Hamlin are 1-2-3 in the standings. Each holds at least a nine-point edge over fifth-place Kevin Harvick. This trio has arguably been the best group all year, combining to win nearly half (15) of the 32 races.
But for JGR, its great regular season track record has fallen short when it matters most. The organization has earned six of 20 spots in the five Championship 4 races held thus far; that’s the most of any organization. But Kyle Busch, in 2015, was the only JGR driver to cash in and win the title. Yes, Truex won in 2017, but that was with a JGR-affiliated program, Furniture Row Racing. One could argue FRR was one of the most independent satellite organizations out there, setting up shop way out in Colorado. The team made the most of the JGR information it paid for, then went out and beat its Toyota rivals fair and square.
So JGR decided to pounce once FRR sponsor 5-Hour Energy bailed for 2019, bringing Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn in house. They haven’t missed a beat and sparked the four-car JGR team to arguably its most consistent effort across the board. Even Erik Jones, a first-round playoff casualty, won a race and put himself in position to advance before failing post-race inspection at Richmond Raceway.
It leaves expectations high for a team that’s established itself as NASCAR’s best. It’s taken Toyota across the finish line, earning two of the past three manufacturer’s titles. Toyota holds a 40-point edge in 2019 with four races to go; JGR and one-car Leavine Family Racing are their only full-time teams. It started the year 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500, won two additional crown jewel races (Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500) and captured three of six playoff races.
So why hasn’t that surge corroborated with more championships? Jimmie Johnson paid off Hendrick Motorsports’ time atop the sport with five straight from 2006-2010. Jeff Gordon earned three in four years for HMS in the mid-1990s, long before words like Chase and playoffs became a NASCAR reality. Is the current format really that hard for a team like JGR to get on a similar roll?
In some ways, yes. The 2016 title came down to a late block gone wrong by Edwards; a better restart would have arguably earned him top honors. The following year, they let their own client beat them in Truex. Last season was a master stroke by Joey Logano to peak at the right time. His Martinsville upset sparked just enough strength to power past Busch, among others, in the Homestead finale.
But we’ve also seen JR Motorsports win two straight NASCAR Xfinity Series titles under this format. It can be done, even more so when you earn 75% of the spots in the field. The pressure is on JGR, Busch, Hamlin and Truex to do exactly that going forward.
Looking ahead, Hamlin won Texas Motor Speedway in the spring while Busch won at Phoenix Raceway. And as for Martinsville this weekend? JGR has won the last four short track events, with Truex winning two. It’s time for them to back up that track record where NASCAR is trying to make it count: the 10-race postseason.
Did You Notice? … Martinsville has not had back-to-back Cup Series wins by the same Cup driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2012-2013? Its fall race, in particular, has a history of late-race contact and unpredictable behavior. Consider…
2015: Jeff Gordon wins a wild race, the last of his Cup career, when Matt Kenseth knocks out Logano while leading. Kenseth enacts revenge after Logano spun him out to cost him a chance to win at Kansas Speedway in the Round of 12.
2016: Johnson wins the most bland of the 500-lap races lately but doesn’t lead for the first time until 92 laps remaining. He ruins JGR’s first bid to put all four of its cars in the Championship 4.
2018: Truex looks like he’s in position to win until Logano pulled a bump-and-run maneuver on the last lap. He wouldn’t have had a chance at the title without that victory.
Those surprising endings may give Elliott a boost if you’re looking for an upset pick. He’s the only driver that raced within a country mile of Brad Keselowski while finishing second this spring. This track also seems to owe him one after Hamlin’s bumper robbed him of a 2017 victory. But don’t count out someone like Ryan Blaney (fourth in the spring) either. Blaney’s three wins thus far have been bizarre circumstances, from late-race pit strategy at Pocono Raceway to right place, right time when the top two spun at the Charlotte ROVAL.
If you’re going to get an upset that changes the Championship 4… Martinsville’s the place.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Front Row Motorsports looks to be one of the few rides left available for 2020. The big question is will it consider Daniel Hemric or will the slumping Richard Childress Racing driver be forced to take a step back? The Kansas Speedway pole winner has struggled so much in-race he’s actually lost the Rookie of the Year lead to Ryan Preece. Just two points separate them with four races left in what’s a great under-the-radar battle if you’re tired of playoff talk.
- The last four races for Daniel Suarez: 34th after wrecking, 14th, 32nd (DNF, crash), 32nd (DNF, crash). No wonder his 2020 status with Stewart-Haas Racing is suddenly under greater scrutiny. He might have more riding on the final four races than any other driver not in the postseason field.