To hear Denny Hamlin after he won at Kansas Speedway, one might have thought it was his first win of the season. Or that it was the first win of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota.
Hamlin expressed needing more speed and how it hasn’t been a dream season for Gibbs. There was also the admission of having a tough team meeting with owner Joe Gibbs following the race at Texas. He insisted the organization doesn’t have an advantage and has had a particularly slow start to the season.
For the record, Hamlin leads the series with five wins this year. He’s won twice in the last five weeks.
“By our standards and Toyota’s standards, it has been a slow start,” declared Joe Gibbs Racing team president Dave Alpern.
Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. have won for Gibbs this year. Both drivers are locked into the playoffs while teammate Kyle Busch sits halfway down the playoff grid, and Erik Jones is fighting from the outside looking in.
“Many organizations would be so lucky to have six wins halfway into a season, but coming off a 19-win season (in 2019), short of winning the first five races, this was going to be a downer season. It just was,” continued Alpern. “We won the first race (Daytona 500), but as we all know, it didn’t feel like that because that’s not where our minds were given the circumstances with Ryan (Newman).
“Yeah, it has been a little bit of a slow start by our standards for sure. I don’t think I can point to one thing other than the cyclical nature of sports.”
Nineteen wins last year were split between the four drivers. Hamlin, Truex, and Busch all made the Championship 4, and Busch won his second NASCAR Cup Series title. He had also won the regular-season title for the second consecutive year. In all, Gibbs drivers led 4,047 laps.
This season, the numbers aren’t outlandishly terrible for the Gibbs bunch. Hamlin has five wins to Truex’s one. Three of the four Gibbs drivers (Hamlin, Truex, Busch) sit inside the top 10 in the point standings, and they’ve all led over 200 laps apiece. All three also have 10 or more top-10 finishes through the first 19 races.
“I can tell you, there’s no more concern in the building than there is in a normal week,” said Alpern. “I can use the illustration — I think last year four times we finished first, second, and third, which never happens, and last year we had this dream season. Competition meetings the week after finishing first, second, and third, you would not know that we didn’t all four wreck. (They were) stressful, everyone pushing. How do we get faster? We messed up on pit road.
“I’m sitting there, and I’m the glass-half-full guy, looking around asking, ‘Didn’t we finish first, second, and third? What’s going on in here?’ So, the tone is always like that here. It’s like that now, but again it’s not like it because we’re worried, it’s because it’s push, push, push.”
Busch and Erik Jones are the winless duo, and Busch is the surprise of the group when it comes to performance and lack of dominance. It took until last week at Kansas for Busch’s No. 18 team to earn their first playoff point. The most laps he’s led in a single race is 100 at Bristol, and not since Bristol and Atlanta, races nine and 10, has he had back-to-back top-10 finishes.
The reigning series champion misses having practice to dial in his Toyota Camry, and Busch admitted his team was “struggling right now” after the All-Star Race. On that night, Busch felt it showed how his season has unfolded as he fought and fought but was never quite there. He said the team needs to be faster, too. At this point a year ago, Busch had four wins.
Then there is Jones. He is 16th in the standings but outside the playoff grid, and the perfect example of what Alpern means by the organization being “streaky” and needing to be more consistent. For the flashes of strength that Jones has had, there have been just as many mistakes and bad luck. Jones has two DNFs this year, eight top-10 finishes (the least of the Gibbs drivers), and only 34 laps led.
“Would Kyle have liked to win a race by now? Yes. Kyle’s going to win a race; I’m not worried about Kyle,” Alpern said. “The point is, yes, it’s a slow start by our standards. I think if the wins were spread out among the four teams, there wouldn’t be this impression we’re off to a slow start, and again, for the guy who’s won five times to say we’re off to a slow start means he recognizes we started off the season and we just didn’t have the speed we had week in, week out last year. From what I see the last few weeks, we have got that back. All four cars have speed, and so now it’s finishing the deal.
“We’ve had some issues on pit road with the 20; Erik can’t catch a break on the track or off the track. He’s had speed. Kyle has been fast. If Kyle doesn’t hit the wall (in Kansas), he might have been the one who won the race. And Denny again, when things are going your way, they’re going your way. We are a tick off by normal standards. We’re definitely off by last year’s standards, but we’re getting more speed, and I think we’re all feeling a lot better about the playoff run.”
And if there was any curiosity about whether COVID-19 or its subsequent restrictions have played a part, Alpern didn’t make it an excuse.
“If it were isolated to us, I would say, gosh, that’s definitely hurting us,” he said. “But every team is having to adapt to showing up the racetrack and racing.”