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Motorsports notebook: Star-studded Gibbs lineup deserves comparisons to Hendrick

For the second straight year, the homestretch of the Sprint Cup’s regular season involves the possibility of a new power on the rise.

The worst-kept secret in NASCAR was finally made open Tuesday when Carl Edwards made it official he was joining Joe Gibbs Racing, giving the owner his first four-car stable. He’ll join Chase regulars Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, forming what, on paper, is a star-studded roster.

It’s a really good lineup. Potentially great. Maybe even the best.

It’s the second straight season in which a team announced its

expansion to four cars, and once again, the names involved have the star power to rival resident power Hendrick Motorsports. Last year, Stewart-Haas Racing was in the spotlight after adding past champion Kurt Busch and consistent contender Kevin Harvick to a team including three-time champion Tony Stewart, with Danica Patrick poised for a potential breakthrough. This year, JGR is in that spot, and while the Stewart-Haas mix had its fair share of celebrity, Gibbs’s bunch is more capable of giving him four serious cracks at his first championship since 2005.

JGR, after all, will boast two of the past three runner-ups (Edwards in 2011, Kenseth in ’13), with all four drivers having finished a season in the top five of the standings. They have 107 combined wins, and will have missed a total of five Chases, assuming Kenseth makes it in this year, since 2007. The drivers’ styles even mesh together: Kenseth and Edwards are more consistent, always running near the front, while Hamlin and Busch are prone to bad finishes, but are also good bets to win on any track they race at.

It’s a strong lineup, but this year might not be the one to challenge Hendrick for the de facto title of NASCAR’s strongest team, not with the dominant program running stronger than it has before. Four drivers this year have three wins, and three of them (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) are Hendrick drivers. Johnson’s the defending champion, and a six-time champ overall. Gordon is leading the points and is racing like the clock’s been turned back a decade. Earnhardt Jr., long a perceived underachiever, has shed that stigma with a Daytona 500 victory and is right on Gordon’s heels in the points.

In short, an argument could be made that Hendrick’s top three are the top three drivers in the series today.

Where Gibbs could have Hendrick beat is depth. Gibbs will have four drivers that are championship contenders (even Hamlin, 20th in the standings so far this year, entered the Chase leading the points in 2012), but the fourth spot at Hendrick is a question mark. Kasey Kahne has underwhelmed during a winless season so far, and he’s currently sitting outside of the Chase picture. The team could be preparing to replace him with Nationwide hotshot Chase Elliott, but even so, that would still give Hendrick a raw fourth driver, and as drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have shown, Nationwide success doesn’t always translate easily to the major circuit.

While Hendrick’s four-car performance has played out, however, Gibbs’s can only be guessed. The names in the lineup are proven, but there’s no guarantee a full house will work. Richard Childress Racing expanded to four cars in 2009 and saw its performance dip considerably as a result. Stewart-Haas is sending two drivers to the Chase, but only Harvick has raced well consistently. Even at Hendrick, when Kahne made the Chase and climbed to fourth in 2012, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. were considerably less formidable.

Plenty remains to be seen as to how Gibbs’s strategy will play out, but there’s plenty of reason for him for him to be confident. Whether he’s surpassed Hendrick or not, he’s certainly come close.

Down on downforce

Greg Biffle isn’t a fan of the changes NASCAR has made to its cars in recent years.

Specifically, he wishes the focus was still on the person driving it.

“It’s more about the car and less about the driver when they start messing with the downforce and the aero rules and the engines,” he said. “We’re fighting, all the drivers, the majority of them are fighting to get back to ‘Let us drive them.’ ”

The Gen-6 car was the big technological innovation last year, but there were further rules changes this year as well, one being a removal of the restriction over how high a car had to be off the ground. That allows teams to put cars as close to the ground as they can to maximize the downforce they generate, and Biffle said it’s one of the adjustments that has restricted a driver’s ability to separate himself from the competition on the race track.

“Get a little downforce off of them. Make us drive them a little bit,” he said. “That’s how we pass, that’s how we have passing and side-by-side racing.”

Biffle isn’t the only driver to feel that way. NASCAR had nine teams test for potential 2015 rule changes at Michigan on Monday, and one of the tire packages tested reduced the car’s downforce and allowed the vehicles to move around and pass, and drew rave reviews.

“At the very end, they took all the downforce off and gave us all our power back and did all that and it was pretty much unanimous from the drivers. … It was awesome,” Matt Kenseth said, according to the Sporting News. “It was like going back 15 years in time or something like that. You could pass actually in the corners. … The track got really wide. It was like the track aged 10 years. It was awesome. Everybody got out with a smile on their face.”

New sponsor on board

Roush-Fenway Racing had to absorb one blow when Carl Edwards announced he was leaving the organization, then had to take another when 3M, the primary sponsor for Greg Biffle’s No. 16 car, took its money to Hendrick Motorsports to back Jeff Gordon.

One of those issues is on its way to being resolved, however, as the team announced yesterday that Ortho had signed on to take over as the sponsor for Biffle’s ride.

According to RFR President Steve Newmark, the deal should cover roughly half of next season, so the team will still be on the lookout for sponsor ship to cover the rest of the slate.

Busch bash

For Kyle and Kurt Busch, there’s a lot to be excited about with the Sprint Cup headed to Bristol for tonight’s Irwin Tools Night Race.

The siblings have long been a force at the chaotic half mile, with Kyle and Kurt owning five wins there apiece, and 10 of the last 25 victories at the track. They’ve done their damage in spurts; Kurt won four of five races there (including three in a row) from 2002-04, and then his fifth in 2006, while Kyle grabbed four in a five-race stretch from 2009-11.

With wins already this season, neither is desperate for a victory at Bristol, but a return to form would be good timing for both. Kyle has been in a serious slump, coming off of 42nd, 40th and 39th-place finishes at Pocono, Watkins Glen and Michigan, respectively. Kurt, meanwhile, has posted only three top-10s since his win at Martinsville in March, versus eight finishes of 20th or worse in that time.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

Related

Hendrick vs. Gibbs, head to head

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hendrick Motorsports 2014 lineup: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne 10 titles, 29 Chase berths, 198 race victories Joe Gibbs Racing 2015 lineup: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards 1 title, 29 Chase berths, 107 race victories … 0

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