Joe Gibbs Racing foursome poised to run for Chase’s Championship 4 Round

 

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 14:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, talks to team owner Joe Gibbs in the garage area during practice for the 57th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 14: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, talks to team owner Joe Gibbs in the garage area during practice for the 57th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Could team owner Joe Gibbs’ fondest dream become Joe Gibbs Racing’s worst nightmare?

Would it really benefit the organization if all four JGR drivers — Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards — happened to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

Is there any way it could actually happen?

“Obviously you’d love that,” Gibbs said Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, after Kenseth gave JGR its seventh victory in nine NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and the organization’s 11th in the 26-race regular season. “But that’s a dream. It’s hard for a dream to come true.

“I don’t think anybody here is realistically thinking about that as a possibility. I think there’s so many good cars in there. We were just talking about the 4 car (reigning champion Kevin Harvick), the 22 (2014 finalist Joey Logano), the 2 (2012 champion Brad Keselowski). All those cars are capable of winning a championship — period.”

Busch, who qualified for the Chase despite missing the first 11 Cup races of the season because of injury, is delighted JGR is the only organization to put four cars in the Chase, but he acknowledges a four-car Gibbs finale at Homestead would complicate matters.

“I know Joe Gibbs would look at it and say that he can be considered another NASCAR champion if all four cars make it to Homestead with a chance for the championship,” Busch told the NASCAR Wire Service at Richmond. “But I’ll tell you what — all four of these teams would absolutely hate that.

“I just think it would be so awkward that we wouldn’t know how to work together. We wouldn’t know if we were supposed to work together or if we weren’t supposed to work together… But I’ll tell you what. Joe Gibbs wouldn’t care. He’d be happy as a clam.”

Busch’s return from a broken right leg and left foot suffered in the season-opening NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway helped form a critical mass that galvanized the entire team.

The driver of the No. 18 Toyota won at Sonoma in late June, starting a string of 11 races in which JGR drivers would record eight victories, a dominant run interrupted only by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s restrictor-plate victory at Daytona and Joey Logano’s triumphs at Watkins Glen and Bristol.

“Of course, Kyle coming back from a serious injury, to be able to do what he’s done, that was a huge deal for us this year,” Gibbs said.

Coming off a lackluster 2014 season that produced but two victories, JGR shuffled its crew chief lineup, pairing Darian Grubb with newbie Edwards, moving Dave Rogers to Hamlin’s No. 11 Camry, keeping Jason Ratcliff with Kenseth and promoting XFINITY Series crew chief Adam Stevens to the leadership of Busch’s Cup crew.

To Busch, the personnel moves made a huge difference. And when Busch returned, Stevens was fully engaged with a driver of prodigious talent whose input and feedback are invaluable assets to the entire competitive effort.

“I think the biggest thing is all the crew chief swapping going on, and bringing Adam Stevens in and some new fresh faces and engineers and some different ideas that maybe we haven’t quite used in years past,” Busch said.

“I think all of that kind of goes together, and it’s made us a tougher group to be competitive at the race track.”

That there is even talk of an all-Gibbs championship battle at Homestead is simply a testament to the strength the organization has shown throughout the summer.

Is it realistic? Probably not. Hendrick Motorsports put all four of its drivers in the Chase last year. None made it to the season finale.

But it’s also unrealistic to believe that same fate will befall JGR this year. The team’s confidence, as reflected by Busch, is at an all-time high. Entering the Chase, Busch and Kenseth are tied for the series lead with Jimmie Johnson at four victories each.

Kenseth has won two of the last four Cup races. He and Busch finished 1-2 at Richmond. A week earlier, Edwards and Hamlin were first and third, respectively, at Darlington.

“Got to get to Homestead — that’s how we look at it,” Busch summed up his Chase objective. “And in all realism and honesty, I don’t feel like it should be that hard to make it to Homestead. Sometimes I feel like we make it harder on ourselves than we actually should, or than it actually is.

“We just need to do our part. We just need to do what got us here, continue to run well and make good decisions, both in the garage area and on the race track, and finish these races out the way we know how to.”

Between the Darlington and Richmond races, Hamlin tore the ACL in his right knee, but he led 14 laps and finished sixth at Richmond. Though the knee will require surgery in the off-season, Hamlin said the pain didn’t bother him in the car and shouldn’t faze him in the Chase races.

“I wasn’t limited in the car at all,” Hamlin said. “Just you really don’t notice anything until you stop, and that’s the biggest thing. As soon as I stopped, it’s just feeling the throbbing, feeling your heart beating in your knee. Just tightened up there towards the end, but we just didn’t have a fast enough car to win.”

The bottom line, though, is that all four Gibbs cars are capable of winning at any time, on any track.

And, yes, Joe Gibbs would be thrilled if all four of his cars were still in the running in the season finale, but perhaps not as elated as the manufacturer that supports his cars — Toyota. A strong presence in the Cup series since 2007, Toyota has yet to win a championship at NASCAR’s highest level.

Heading for Homestead with a title guaranteed would be a dream come true for the manufacturer as well as for Gibbs — even if it happened to complicate the lives of the four drivers, all of whom are chasing a goal only one of them can achieve.

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