While it’s early to draw conclusions about the course of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season two races in, Joe Gibbs Racing has made an initial statement that its 2011 doldrums may be over.
The three-car Toyota outfit aims to cash in on the modest momentum in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a track where JGR has only won once in 35 efforts. But based on the early dividends that the team’s offseason changes have paid so far, Vegas odds may be tipping toward Gibbs.
Phoenix race winner Denny Hamlin sits atop the series standings after opening the year with consecutive top-five finishes. Joey Logano has parlayed two straight top-10 finishes into eighth place in the standings, and Kyle Busch — who won at his hometown track in 2009 — ranks ninth.
For Hamlin and Logano, new crew chiefs have helped steady the ship after subpar finishes last season. Hamlin, who made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field but tailed off dramatically in the 10-race playoff, now has title-winning crew chief Darian Grubb on his pit box.
The fast start has done wonders for Hamlin’s morale, which took a beating as the No. 11 team limped to the end of last season. But he’s tempering his optimism heading to Vegas, where he hasn’t led a lap in six Sprint Cup races.
“You never know what can happen next week,” Hamlin said after winning at Phoenix. “We’re at a totally different racetrack again, and it looks like really the first five racetracks that we go to are all dramatically different in a lot of different ways.Â So now our next step is to be competitive on a mile and a half racetrack.
“It’s going to kind of give us the make-up and see where we need to work within our program the first five races, see where our strong suits are, see where we are weak and need to improve.”
Logano, who had his worst finish in 24th place in the standings last year, now has guidance from crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who has two NASCAR Nationwide Series crowns in his portfolio. Logano has already felt the impact.
“Everybody has picked up their game a lot. I’m excited about that,” Logano said. “And it comes along with a lot of new things. Obviously with a new crew chief with Jason, (it) ended up bringing some new life. Changes things up a lot. It’s kind of like a restart button.
“It’s hard to put it in words. But you can just kind of feel the difference. My attitude’s different. I feel like I walk around with a lot more confidence in myself. That carries through the whole team. As soon as the driver is real confident . . . It goes vice versa, too. When someone loses confidence, it’s contagious.”
MARTIN TO DRIVE FOR NEW NATIONWIDE COACH
Mark Martin has spent the majority of his 30-year NASCAR career driving for two of the sport’s most successful car owners — Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick. In Saturday’s Sam’s Town 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he’ll add a third to his resume.
Martin will pilot the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in an intriguing subplot that could shake up the NASCAR Nationwide Series all-time win list. Martin’s 49 wins rank second, two behind all-time leader Kyle Busch, who drove Gibbs’ cars to 40 of his 51 Nationwide victories.
In the offseason, Busch announced that he would pair with his brother, Kurt, to campaign Nationwide Series entries out of his own shop, Kyle Busch Motorsports. Brian Scott filled the void for Gibbs in the first two races of the season, but the door was open for Martin in a one-race deal at Las Vegas.
The team indicated in a January news release that it would seek more opportunities to put the veteran driver in the No. 18 seat this season. If that comes to pass, the battle atop the all-time Nationwide win list could become a lively, active fight.
“This is exciting. No organization has been better in the Nationwide Series over the past three or four seasons . . .,” Martin said. “Maybe I can pick up a few more races and try to catch Kyle and get my record back again.”