Joe Gibbs Racing’s sizzling performance in the second half of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season looks like it’s carried over to 2016.
The Huntersville, North Carolina-based racing team placed three drivers in the top five of the Daytona 500 – winner Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch (third) and Carl Edwards (fifth). Matt Kenseth (14th) led 40 laps until Hamlin forced him up the track on the race’s final go-around. Martin Truex Jr. of JGR technical partner Furniture Row Racing finished second.
Since Kyle Busch’s victory at Kentucky in July of last year, JGR has won 11 of the last 20 NSCS races. Don’t expect Gibbs’ fearsome foursome of drivers to slow down in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on FOX) where NASCAR will debut its 2016 lower downforce aerodynamics package.
The 2016 aero package is similar, although not identical to the one used at Kentucky and Darlington last season – two races that JGR excelled in. Busch won at Kentucky last year, followed by Hamlin in third, Edwards in fourth and Kenseth in fifth. At Darlington, Edwards won, Hamlin took third and Busch placed seventh.
Lowering the downforce makes the car harder to handle, which increases the importance of driver skill and the potential for passing.
“We’ve been working on this package since last year when we ran (a similar one) at a handful of races, so I feel good about where we’re at coming into the weekend,” said Kenseth, who has never won at Atlanta, but owns the top average finish (8.6) and third-best driver rating (97.9) among active drivers there.
The most likely JGR driver to win on Sunday is Edwards. He leads the Gibbs quartet with three wins at AMS and has posted a top-five finish in nine of his 18 starts at the 1.54-mile track.
“I enjoy the worn out pavement a lot,” Edwards said about the Hampton, Georgia, speedway. “The paving company who can figure out how to mimic that with new pavement, that would be really cool. When the pavement is old and worn out and has character, it just makes the racing so much fun. Atlanta is like that. It’s just perfect racing.”
Hamlin won at Atlanta in 2012 and Busch took the checkered flag there in 2013. Hamlin ranks fourth among active drivers with a 97.2 driver rating at Atlanta while Busch claims the fourth-best average finish there (15.9).
“It’s going to be a crazy race,” Busch said. “There are going to be cars sliding all over the place. It’s a unique race track by itself without a low-downforce package, but it’s going to be even more so this year with the way the aero rules are.
“Restarts are hectic, groove changes are crazy, and having less aero on the race car – I think – is going to lead to more driver-crew-chief-type relationships, the better ones, to showcase their talents.”
Suárez, Wallace hope to continue strong sophomore start at Atlanta
If Daytona is any indication, there will be no sophomore slump for 2015 NASCAR XFINITY Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award winner Daniel Suárez and runner-up Darrell Wallace Jr.
Wallace finished sixth in last Saturday’s PowerShares QQQ 300 at the “Birthplace of Speed,” while Suárez placed eighth.
There’s only been one race, but Wallace and Suárez rank second and fourth, respectively, in the XFINITY Series standings entering the Heads Up Georgia 250 on Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway (1:30 p.m. on FS1.)
Although Suárez (fifth) and Wallace (seventh) had solid finishes in the final 2015 standings in the series where names are made, both NASCAR Next and NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduates have higher hopes for this season.
“We have to show everybody ‘He has a legitimate shot at winning this (championship),'” Wallace said. “We struggled last year being consistent. We had one or two races where it was back-to-back ok, but then we had a spurt of three races that were bad. We have to minimize those bad races and really put ourselves in a situation where if we win early, we kind of relax and kind of go through a test plan, a game plan, to set us up for the (NASCAR XFINITY Series) Chase.”
Suárez echoed similar sentiments, noting the importance of winning with the Chase format being implemented into the XFINITY Series.
“Our expectations are a little bit higher than last year. We knew that last year was a learning process in many ways – the race tracks, the people, the series. Right now, we know what to expect. We have to go out there, be strong, be competitive and win some races.”
Crafton attempts to continue dominance on Intermediate Tracks
In the normally unpredictable NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, there has been one common trend the last few years. When the trucks travel to an intermediate track, Matt Crafton regularly appears atop the leaderboard.
Dating back to the beginning of the 2014 NCWTS season, Crafton has finished in the top 10 in 16 of the last 17 races at tracks spanning 1.5 to 1.54 miles. During that stretch, Crafton has earned six wins and three runner-ups. He’s finished second or better in 53 percent of the events at intermediate ovals over the last two seasons.
Crafton will make his first start of the season at an intermediate track in Saturday’s Great Clips 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1) where he is the defending race winner.
“Atlanta is by far, hands down, my favorite race track that we go to. I love Atlanta,” said Crafton, who boasts one win, four top fives and eight top 10s in 14 starts there. “You get so much tire fall-off from the beginning of a run, to the end. It’s incredible. You can run around there for the first two laps wide open, and then after that, when you get 15-20 laps into it, your hanging on for dear life, and screaming you need tires. Then, you still have to go another 20 laps after that.
“Atlanta definitely separates the field, for sure.”
Race Weekend Guide
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Race: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Sunday, Feb. 28 at 1 p.m. ET
Tune-in: FOX, PRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 500.5 miles (325 laps)
What to Watch for: Denny Hamlin attempts to join Matt Kenseth (2009) as the second driver since 2000 to win the first two races of a season. … NASCAR debuts its 2016 lower downforce aerodynamics package. … Hometown favorite Chase Elliott returns to Georgia to make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at Atlanta Motor Speedway. … Jimmie Johnson tries to tie Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time list with his 76th career victory. … Ty Dillon will start in the No. 14 Chevrolet as the substitute for Tony Stewart. … Joey Logano goes for his first national series win at Atlanta Motor Speedway where he starred in grassroots racing as a youth.
NASCAR XFINITY Series
Race: Heads Up Georgia 250
Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Feb. 27 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Tune-in: FS1, PRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 251.02 miles (163 laps)
What to Watch for: Elliott Sadler tries to build on his standings lead after finishing fourth at Daytona. He sits three points ahead of second-place Darrell Wallace Jr. … Atlanta native Brandon Jones makes his first NASCAR XFINITY Series start at the 1.54-mile track after placing seventh at Daytona. … Pre-season Sunoco Rookie of the Year favorite Erik Jones attempts to rebound from his 31st-place finish at Daytona. … If a full-time XFINITY Series driver wins at Atlanta, he will virtually earn a berth in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase playoffs.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Race: Great Clips 200
Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Feb. 27 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 200.2 miles (130 laps)
What to Watch for: NASCAR Next members Cole Custer and William Byron make their intermediate track debuts. … Johnny Sauter goes for his second straight win after winning at Daytona in his first start for GMS Racing. … Georgia natives John Wes Townley, Austin Hill, Reed Sorenson and Korbin Forrister will all compete at their home track.