Last season at this time, Joe Gibbs Racing was the organization all other teams were chasing after the organization’s four teams won five of the first nine races.
In fact, JGR was joined by Furniture Row Racing in an alliance between two Toyota teams that basically put five JGR Camrys on the starting grid at each stop on the schedule. Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth went on to win 11 races, and Furniture Row’s Martin Truex Jr. won four races, making it the dominant make of car in the series.
Gibbs and Toyota dominated the series but came up short in the championship Chase as Jimmie Johnson was able to win his seventh series title in a Chevrolet.
All of the success that Gibbs achieved last year did not make for a smooth off-season as the biggest move of the entire Monster Energy Series off-season took place when Carl Edwards announced he was leaving the sport just before the start of this season. Gibbs had to scramble to fill the seat and looked in-house to defending Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez.
Sunday at Richmond was supposed to be the stop on the schedule where JGR could right the ship and get back to its winning ways. The weekend started off just that way as Matt Kenseth won the pole on Friday and it seemed that the organization had found some of the speed that had been lacking to begin the 2017 season. The newfound speed was across the board as Kenseth, Busch and rookie Suarez advanced through Friday’s qualifying to make it to the third qualifying round that sits the top-12 starting spots. Busch started seventh, Suarez 11th and Hamlin 16th.
Kenseth took advantage of his starting position to lead all 100 laps of the first stage. It was his first stage win of the season and he followed that up by leading 63 laps in the second stage before Brad Keselowski passed him to lead the final 37 laps on his way to claiming his first stage win of the season. Kenseth’s performance in the first two stages was backed up by his teammate Hamlin, who finished fifth in the first stage and advanced one position to fourth in the second stage.
While Kenseth and Hamlin were both running up front, Busch climbed into the top 10 and appeared to have a car that could win. He was caught speeding during a pit stop that left him to restart the race from the rear, but he quickly worked his way back up through the field and became a contender as the number of laps began to go off the board.
Both Hamlin and Busch were in the top five when a series of late race caution flags dictated the outcome of the race. On lap 368 when the caution came out, Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were up front but decided to stay out while Hamlin and Busch came in for fresh tires. Their advantage with newer tires only lasted nine laps as the caution waved once again on lap 377. All the cars running up front came down into the pits for their final set of Goodyear Eagles, setting up a sprint to the finish. On the way into the pits, Busch missed the commitment square on pit road, which resulted in him once again being moved to the rear of the field on the restart.
Hamlin restarted near the front, but Logano got a great jump on the restart and took the lead while he was battling with Keselowski. The race ended with a one-two finish for teammates Logano and Keselowski with Hamlin coming home third. Afterward Hamlin said that JGR’s only hope for the Richmond win was to be on a different tire strategy than the Penske cars. Hamlin and JGR leave Richmond knowing they made some gains, but still looking for the speed they needed to capture the organization’s first win of the season.
Event: GEICO 500
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile tri-oval, 33o of banking in the turns)
Date: May 7, 2 p.m.
Defending Champion: Brad Keselowski