Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin aren’t buying what their team owner and competition director are selling about Joe Gibbs Racing being NASCAR Cup Series championship underdogs.
“(The championship) Being here in Phoenix, I don’t agree with that,” Truex said. “I think this is our kind of racetrack, but we’ll see. They’ve won more races. [Kyle] Larson, obviously, has won more. The 9 [Chase Elliott] hasn’t won on an oval all year; he’s only won on road courses.
“I definitely don’t think we’re underdogs.”
JGR competition director Wally Brown made the underdog comment first earlier this week. To Brown, the two Gibbs of Truex and Denny Hamlin are underdogs to Hendrick Motorsports because, he frankly conceded, the Hendrick cars are faster. It’s a two-on-two fight as Larson and Elliott carry the Hendrick banner into Sunday’s finale (2 p.m. ET, NBC).
A day after Brown’s assessment, Joe Gibbs agreed with it because the facts show his Toyotas have chased the Hendrick Chevys all year. But Gibbs added that the great thing about sports is the fight takes place on the field or, in this case, the racetrack and he’s eager to see it play out Sunday afternoon.
“I think all four of these cars this weekend will have a chance to win this,” said Gibbs.
What makes Truex so confident — and make no mistake, he exuded plenty of confidence during Championship 4 media sessions — begins with how well he ran at Phoenix in the spring. Truex didn’t dominate the race, as he led 64 laps en route to winning, but it was how good his car felt that gave him the most optimism.
“That was the best car I’ve ever had here in my whole career; I’ve been coming here since 2004,” said Truex. “The car felt really good. It did a lot of really good things, and if we can make that happen again, and hopefully, have even more speed, we’re going to be tough to handle.”
One crucial variable is the 750-horsepower aero package. This season, all four of Truex’s wins have been on 750 tracks: Phoenix I, Martinsville I, Darlington I, Richmond II. While Brown said the organization is an underdog, he did admit there is also confidence in its chances because the title race is decided with 750hp.
“I feel great about our opportunity and winning here in the spring,” said Truex. “750 tracks have really been strong (for us) this year.”
Adding plausibility to Truex’s claims is that statically, Hamlin is the fastest driver on the 750hp tracks. One of Hamlin’s two wins (Darlington II) came with 750hp, and he’s led 1,101 laps in the 750-spec races.
Hamlin was in the championship race at Phoenix last year, but upon reflection, he’s admitted he didn’t feel he had a strong shot because the Gibbs’ high-horsepower, low-downforce package was second-best to its low-horsepower, high-downforce stuff. It’s the reverse this season and as a result, Hamlin’s confidence is higher.
“We were obviously not in the same ballpark last year, but this year we’re very, very confident considering our short track performance on those types of tracks,” he said.
So, no, Hamlin, like his teammate, doesn’t think Joe Gibbs Racing is the underdog.
“Well, we haven’t won as many races as they have,” said Hamlin of Hendrick Motorsports. “But this championship is decided on this racetrack, not any of the others.”