Monday Rundown: JGR not slowing down – ESPN
At No. 3 and up two spots last week with a bullet, Matt Kenseth was the highest-ranked driver from Joe Gibbs Racing in the most recent edition of ESPN.com’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Power Rankings.
But there is no denying the four-car team owned by the Hall of Fame NFL football coach is currently the Cup Series’ hottest organization.
Kenseth’s victory Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway — his third of the 2015 season — was JGR’s sixth win in the past eight Cup races.
All four Gibbs drivers have tentatively qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, led by Kurt Busch’s series-leading (tied with Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson) four wins in the No. 18 car. And Busch has accomplished that despite missing the first 11 races of the season because of injury.
It’s probably no coincidence that Busch’s 2015 debut at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May seemed to spark JGR’s recent hot run. Carl Edwards, new to the team this year, won that showcase event, joining Busch, Kenseth and Denny Hamlin as 2015 race winners for Gibbs.
In the spring, questions were being asked about whether JGR and Toyota could truly be competitive in a season that appeared would be dominated by Hendrick Motorsports and satellite Chevrolet team Stewart-Haas Racing and the Team Penske Fords.
SHR’s Kevin Harvick still leads the Power Rankings and is the championship favorite of many. But Gibbs, across the board, has become the Cup Series’ strongest team week in and week out.
Sunday at Michigan, the team placed all four cars in the top 11, with Hamlin fifth, Edwards sixth and Busch a points-collecting 11th.
It has everyone in the Gibbs organization quietly confident as the races tick down to this year’s Chase.
“Thinking back over the years, I can’t remember where we’ve kind of had a stretch like this over these last 10 weeks or so, starting at Charlotte,” Joe Gibbs said. “You really want to enjoy those. They’re hard to get, and I think that’s the reason why we all love pro sports so much. We don’t know what’s going to happen from week to week.
“The thing that amazes me sometimes is the quick turn where you go the other way, so we’ve just got to keep working hard. Our focus now with our cars is Kyle; we need to keep him up in points, and the other three cars we need to hopefully stay up where we can put ourselves in a good position when the Chase starts.”
Past the halfway point of the season and with the driver roster finally at full strength, the Gibbs team is really hitting its stride. Edwards was among the small group of drivers who could run with Kenseth on Sunday, but a bit of gamesmanship on a restart by Austin Dillon cost him the track position he needed to contend for the win.
“The biggest thing is that it’s just cool to be part of the JGR team right now,” said Edwards, whose entire Cup Series career prior to this year was with Roush Fenway Racing. “These Camrys are fast.
“No matter what package, the guys have been working hard — [Toyota Racing Development] and all of our guys at JGR. It’s been good.”
Kenseth was almost embarrassed to win on fuel economy at Pocono a few weeks back, but his win at Michigan was all about pure speed. He led 146 of 200 laps in the No. 20 Toyota.
Crew chief Jason Ratcliff said that unloading fast on Friday and securing pole position and the No. 1 pit stall selection was a key to Sunday’s victory.
Despite scoring his second win in the last three races and his sixth consecutive run in the Top 7, Kenseth isn’t ready to consider himself a championship favorite yet.
“It’s early to talk favorites,” Kenseth said in a victory lane interview. “There’s so much racing to do and there are 16 teams that are capable of winning races on a weekly basis, as well as a championship. It’s one week at a time like always.
“It’s been a great week, and we’ve had a great couple months. We definitely have some momentum built. The guys gave us a rocket today and gave us rockets the last couple months. We’re just going to work hard to try to keep it rolling.”
Back in 2000, when Alex Tagliani was a rookie in the CART-sanctioned Indy car series, the young French Canadian was on the brink of winning in just his third start when he spun away the lead of the Rio 400 on a late restart.
A couple of months later, Tagliani had a sizeable lead with the laps ticking down at Elkhart Lake when the gearbox of his Forsythe Racing Reynard broke.
Tagliani finally won an Indy car race — at Elkhart Lake in 2004, putting to rest a bad memory. But throughout his long open-wheel career, which carried into the unified IndyCar Series era, he never shook the tag of a hard-luck driver who never quite finished the job.
That ghost came back to haunt the 41-year-old on Saturday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where after leading 38 of the first 74 laps from pole position of the Xfinity Series Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200, Tagliani was the victim of what was admittedly the cleanest bump-and-run you’ll ever see from Regan Smith.
Tagliani took a defensive line into the Carousel corner that closes out a lap at Mid-Ohio and wasn’t prepared for the fact that Smith, a full-time Xfinity Series driver who ranks fourth in the standings and hasn’t yet confirmed a ride for 2016, was prepared to drive right through the No. 22 Team Penske Ford in his desperation to score a win.
It was a bitter blow and one that had Tagliani openly worried about whether he would get another opportunity to step in as a “road course ringer” for Penske in the Xfinity Series.
“It’s always an honor to drive for Team Penske, but I am really crushed that I could not take their car to the winner’s circle,” Tagliani said.
“It’s really unfortunate what happened at the end and knowing what I know now, I would have probably been a little less polite when I passed him earlier in the race. I made several passes all day from third and second place, and I did not put the bumper to anyone. Prior to passing Regan for the lead, I studied him for at least 10 laps to see where I could do it. He did not even try to make a clean pass on me.”
Smith was unapologetic, saying that he “did what he had to do.” He referenced the recent Xfinity Cup Series road race at Watkins Glen International, when he was spun out on a restart by Ty Dillon.
“I don’t know what I’m doing next year, yet, at this moment,” added Smith, who currently drives for JR Motorsports. “That’s the other reason for the aggressive driving — I want those wins when I can still get them.”
One observer who was unimpressed with Smith’s last-lap love tap was Tagliani’s team owner, Roger Penske, who voiced support for his driver.
“I talked to Alex on the phone and told him, to the people and in my eyes, he won the race,” Penske told Clare B. Lang in an interview on the Sirius/XM NASCAR Channel. “He had a job to do for us to get car owner points, and I think if you look at yesterday overall, Alex drove a terrific race. We had the best car and he executed.
“Really what [Smith] did, he just pushed him off the road — there was no question what happened. I guess if that’s the way these guys want to play, we’ll remember that. There will be another time.
“That, in my mind, didn’t give me the reason I’d hire a guy like Regan Smith, because he pushed a guy off on the last lap. He should have raced him clean.”
The result at Mid-Ohio did not have much effect on the Xfinity Series championship, as all of the top contenders finished in the top five. Smith remains fourth in the standings, 51 points behind leader Chris Buescher of Roush Fenway Racing, who finished fourth at Mid-Ohio. Dillon (third at Mid-Ohio) slipped past defending Xfinity champion Chase Elliott for second in the standings, 24 and 25 points off Buescher’s total. Elliott ran fifth at Mid-Ohio.
Camping World Truck Series
Kyle Busch is the kind of driver who would race seven nights a week if he could. The broken leg and broken foot he sustained earlier this year at Daytona International Speedway has forced Busch to pare back his habit of moonlighting from his day job in the Sprint Cup Series by reducing the number of Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series races on his schedule.
A week ago, Busch stayed out of the Xfinity car for the road race at Watkins Glen International, but he was penciled in for the 200-miler at Michigan International Raceway in one of his own Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyotas. Despite incurring a pit lane speeding penalty on Lap 27 of 100, Busch bounced back to score his second Truck Series win in as many starts in 2015.
“It was no big deal,” Busch said of his pit speed violation. “We just lined back up and tried to come back through and hammer it out. That actually made running the race really hairy for us. I was barely hanging on there a few times.
“Thankfully these trucks tend to put on a good show and you can draft back up on guys, use the bottom, use the top and kind of work around a bit. Our truck was fast on single-file long runs.”
Busch qualified only 10th fastest but made it to the lead by the fifth lap. He led a total of 44 laps on the way to his 44th career Truck Series victory and first in that series at Michigan.
He took the lead from Ryan Blaney on the 97th lap. Blaney finished second ahead of Busch’s KBM teammate Erik Jones.
“Just cool to finally get that monkey off my back here in the Truck Series and notch another racetrack where I’ve won in all three divisions here at Michigan,” Busch said.
Tyler Reddick finished ninth at Michigan to retain the Truck Series points lead, but sixth-place finisher Matt Crafton cut his deficit to just eight points. The hard-charging Jones is one point behind Crafton in what is shaping up as a three-driver shootout for the championship.