Prior to the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, there was speculation on how well Joe Gibbs Racing would perform. They made the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota and added maverick Kyle Busch to their stable for the 2008 season. Now that we have five races completed, the picture has become a little clearer heading into the final 31 races.
At the conclusion of the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, two drivers from Gibbs Racing are firmly seated in the Chase for the Cup standings, Busch and Tony Stewart. Busch is in first place 30 points ahead of Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle, while Stewart sits 126 points behind in seventh place. Denny Hamlin would not make the Chase if the season ended today and is just 27 points out of the 12th and final spot.
A closer inspection of the first five races allows additional clarification. Gibbs Racing is dependent on the make of their cars, and an assessment of Toyota's performance warrants a look.
Toyota has made significant improvements on last year's results. Through the first five races last year, Toyota had only one top-10 finish; Brian Vickers finished 10th in the Auto Club 500. This year paints a much different picture with nine drivers having at least one top-10 finish. Toyota recently dominated the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finishing one and two.
Toyota has not experienced a mechanical failure, but there have been two instances where power steering problems impacted the outcomes for both Hamlin in Atlanta and Busch last week in Bristol. Both had legitimate chances of winning their respective races. This is similar to the problem Vickers had last season where he finished fifth in the Coca-Cola 600. Addressing this repeated issue should be a priority for the Toyota engineers.
Gibbs Racing has made marked improvements over last season. Certainly a large part is having Busch, who replaced J.J. Yeley and took over the No. 18 car. The change from Chevrolet to Toyota has also factored in their improvements. Gibbs Racing is the flagship team for Toyota, which is a significant advantage for teams. Prior to the change, Gibbs Racing was playing second fiddle to Hendrick Motorsports, who were both using Chevy's. In 2007, Gibbs Racing's average finish through the first five races was 18.1. This year, their average finish has improved to 12.5. Their top-10 finishes have also doubled from four in 2007 to eight this year. More importantly, Busch won the Kobalt Tools 500. They did not post a victory in 2007 until Hamlin won the Lenox Industrial Tools 300 Race in July. The changes Gibbs Racing has underwent have generated competitive advantages they did not possess last year.
Stewart's record has also improved from last year's first five races. His average finish last year at this time was 19.0, while this year it is 13.8. His best finish is identical with two second-place finishes, both coming in the Kobalt Tools 500. Stewart has not missed a beat in adapting to the different make of automobile. His improved record this year promises to reward the fortunate fantasy owners that have Stewart on their team. Stewart's success on all types of tracks enhances his fantasy value.
Hamlin has not improved his record this year through the first five races. Hamlin's average finish at this time last year was 15.0; when compared to this year, it has dropped to 16.4. His best finish through the first five races last year was a third-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This year, it was sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway after he lost the lead with only two laps to go.
Hamlin must improve his consistency on restrictor plate tracks, which would help to elevate him into serious contention for the Sprint Cup championship. Last year, his average finish at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway was 30.7. This year, he finished 17th in his only attempt on a superspeedway (Daytona 500).
Busch has been, by all accounts, a welcomed addition to the Gibbs Racing team. His reputation for being a maverick has not caused the team problems. His move from Hendrick Motorsports to Gibbs Racing has been a win-win situation. His first-place standing at this point is no accident. He has superior racing skills and is not afraid to challenge other drivers, which are key ingredients to winning championships.
Last year at this point, Busch's average finish was 15.0. This year it is 7.4, with one win under his belt. The key to his success this year is that he is harnessing his aggressiveness and avoiding some of the recklessness he is known for. This may be from the steadying hand of Gibbs or a maturing process. Whatever the case may be, Busch has rewarded his fantasy owners and promises to continue along that venue.
Many of the fears and uncertainties that surrounded Gibbs Racing prior to the start of the season have all but been settled. Gibbs Racing has made notice that they don't want to be the runner-up to Hendrick Motorsports. They made that decision in switching to Toyota, and they proved that they can do more than just compete with Hendrick; they can beat them, something that thrills both Mr. Gibbs and Busch.
About Bob Frykholm
Frykholm has been a KFFL contributor since February 2008.
Don't miss these great reports....