An odd season for Joe Gibbs Racing takes a brighter turn

  • Team owner Joe Gibbs watches crew members work on a car during practice in February for the Daytona 500. AP file

  • Driver Martin Truex Jr. (bottom right) leads the pack going into the first turn of the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series race at NHMS in Loudon on Sunday. AP

  • Cars steer through Turn 1 as fans watch from the stands during the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series Overton’s 301 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday. AP

Monitor staff
Sunday, July 16, 2017

In the NHL, the team that wins the conference series declines to hoist the trophy. It’s bad luck. The only trophy that matters – the Stanley Cup – is still in waiting.

Denny Hamlin celebrated in Victory Lane with his pit team after winning the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, but he declined to hold the lobster traditionally handed to the race winner in Loudon.

His decision wasn’t made in quite the same vein as what is done by hockey players, but his comments following the race made one thing clear: There is much progress to be made for Hamlin and the rest of the Joe Gibbs Racing squad.

“I’m not going to think that this fixed everything,” Hamlin said, flanked by his crew chief, Michael Wheeler, and team owner Joe Gibbs following the race. “I still think that we have some work to do to be guys that contend for a win every single week. We’re getting there. We really, really are getting there. But we still have some work to do.”

As the first Joe Gibbs driver to win a race this season, Hamlin alleviated some of the stress weighing on the four-car team as the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series regular season begins to wind down. 

The Gibbs lineup was slow to start the season. After a hot 2016 where the team combined for 12 wins led by Kyle Busch’s four, the Gibbs group seemed to be running on worn tires to open the new year. Eighteen races passed and neither Busch, Hamlin, Daniel Suarez or Matt Kenseth had a win to show for it. 

With only eight races left on the calendar, time and opportunities were running out for a Gibbs driver to lock-up a position in the playoffs. Busch seemed the most suited to get there first with seven top-fives and three poles this year, but the 18 hasn’t been able to get over the hump and lead a race to the checkered flag.

Busch’s frustrations kicked into a higher gear Sunday as he was caught speeding down pit road twice with less than 65 laps to go. The first penalty cost him the lead. The second cost him a top-10 finish. Busch wasn’t available for comment after the race.

Gibbs, on the other hand, wasn’t so frustrated. He watched all four of his Toyotas finish in the top-15.

Suarez, a rookie behind the wheel of the 19 vacated by Carl Edwards this season, matched his career-best sixth-place finish that he first reached at Dover.

Kenseth finished fourth and made a few bids for the lead in the closing laps. He entered Sunday as winner of two of the previous three races at Loudon. 

“We love coming to Loudon,” Gibbs said. “For whatever reason, this has been a favorite place for our drivers (and) crew chiefs. … Certainly anything about this place has been good for us.”

The days leading up to Sunday’s race may have felt a little awkward. JGR announced last week that Kenseth, age 45, will not return to the team next season. Erik Jones will move over from Furniture Row Racing, a team allied with JGR, and fill the seat in the 20. 

Jones has been a driver in development for Gibbs, but the team didn’t anticipate he would develop so quickly. Jones, with five top-10s this season, is the leading rookie in the Cup series standings at 17 – one spot ahead of Suarez.

“We had a plan and things kept coming up and kept changing,” Gibbs said. “It puts you in a situation where you have to make a tough decision. We did not want to do that. Certainly didn’t want to do something to upset Matt. He’s been a great partner for us. Our drivers, everybody said ‘We don’t want to race against him.’ I think that’s what’s going to happen.”

Many have speculated that next seat for Kenseth could be in a Hendrick car as Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads for retirement. But Rick Hendrick, who might be saving that seat for rising star William Byron, wouldn’t show his cards when reporters brought up that prospect this weekend.

“Too early,” Hendrick told the Associated Press.

Not a thing has felt normal this season at JGR. Seeing Hamlin in Victory Lane on Sunday certainly helped. 

“We were positioning ourselves pretty good in the regular season points to try to get in the playoffs, but obviously this is a bonus to lock yourself in,” said Hamlin, now with 30 wins in the Cup series. “We’ve been steadily getting better as the summer has gone on, and we need to continue to stay on that trend of getting better.”

Hamlin now has three wins on the Magic Mile. He’ll try for a fourth in September when NASCAR returns to Loudon for the second race of the playoffs. That race will move to Las Vegas beginning in 2018.

If he’s back in Victory Lane, the lobster will likely be denied a second time. It’s nothing personal to the lobster or to the people of New England. Clearly, Hamlin is not a fan of the region’s iconic delicacy.

“I have a lobster phobia and I don’t know why,” he said. “Put it back in the water and let it live.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)