As Kyle Busch basks in the glory of being the toast of the town as this year’s NASCAR Cup Series champion, his two fellow title-contending Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are looking ahead.
“I think we’ll be better,” said Martin Truex Jr. “First half of the year, we were hit and miss; we weren’t consistent. We worked really hard throughout the summer on that, and obviously, it showed when the playoffs started. Three playoff wins is the most we’ve ever had as a group. So it was a learning year. There was a lot going on behind the scenes.
“I guess, in the end, the results made it look like it was an easy transition, but it wasn’t. I think if you asked Cole [Pearn, crew chief] and James [Small, chief engineer] and those guys, they’ll tell you it was a challenge, and there’s still things we’re figuring out. So I think we can do better. I think we can be better. I think we can win more races and hopefully put ourselves in a position to try to win another championship.”
Truex finished second to Busch in the finale and the title hunt, although he led the series with seven wins. But the job of ‘figuring out’ the missing pieces has taken on a new dimension this week with Pearn’s surprise departure. There might be soul-searching to do, but now there’s a crew chief search to go along with it.
Denny Hamlin also has improvement on his mind for 2020. After going winless in 2018, he and new crew chief Chris Gabehart exploded with six wins this season, including the Daytona 500 and a must-win at ISM Raceway to advance to the title race.
“We definitely can improve,” said Hamlin, who finished fourth in the championship behind Kevin Harvick. “I thought [in] the second half of the season we became an elite team that battled for race wins every single week, and that was a great accomplishment — winning when we had to in Phoenix. A lot of things were really going well, and I’m looking forward to knowing that everything is going to be kind of the same next year – the rules and things like that – since everything development-wise is on hold for the new car.
“I’m pretty confident that between myself and my crew chief, we’re going to be pretty strong next year for sure.”
Both Truex and Hamlin can point to pit strategy as a factor in their championship defeats.
At the Homestead finale, Truex had rebounded from the front tires being put on the wrong side of the car to find himself back in contention. But staying out longer on the final round of pit stops put Truex behind again, and there was no late caution to close the gap.
How long did it take to get over Homestead?
“I don’t know – I’ll tell you when I get over it, because I’m not yet,” Truex admitted. “It’s a big deal. Work all year long to put yourself in that position, and when it doesn’t turn out the way you’d hope, it’s tough. A lot of people put a lot of effort into it, and it’s not something that goes away It takes time.
“Honestly, I’m still sour about finishing second last year, too. Two years in a row finishing second hurts, but you have to learn from it. You move on, but you never forget it.”
Hamlin’s Toyota overheated because of a piece of tape. He later admitted that Gabehart was surprised he didn’t ask more questions about it at the time. But Hamlin’s attitude is that whatever Gabehart does, he does for a reason. So why dig into a piece of tape being put onto the grille.
“I can’t go back,” said Hamlin. “If I know more, maybe it just makes me feel crappy for half a day or day. I don’t care. I can’t go back and fix it, and he can’t go back and fix it.”
Truex still takes pride in his 2019 campaign despite coming up short in the championship. However, he admitted early in the year his No. 19 Toyota team was searching, trying to figure out the new rules – especially the 550-horsepower package.
“A lot to be proud of for sure,” said Truex of his season. “To go to a new team, a lot of things were familiar to us, but anytime you go to a new team and deal with so many new people, especially an organization the size of JGR, there’s going to be challenges with people and trying to get everybody on the same page and figure out their systems and all those kinds of things. A lot to be proud of with seven wins, and [it] felt like we were in position to win at Homestead, and obviously, things didn’t go the way we needed them to.
“But [it was] an amazing season. Our first short track win. Three short track wins altogether, and just being consistently competitive on all sorts of different racetracks, and then being in the mix right down to the end. I think that’s a lot to be proud of. I’d say there’s a lot of people that didn’t see us being one of the dominant cars at JGR in our first year, and we were, so I think that’s really special and speaks volumes about Cole and all our guys. We’ve got an amazing team, and can’t wait for the future together and see what we can continue to do as we build.”
After learning how to identify and work on his weakness, Hamlin looks to carry that over into next year. And he’s still looking at capturing many more trophies.
“We won some big races and won a lot of races,” he said. “And I just don’t see that stopping anytime in the near future.”