Long: Phoenix shows how much work remains for Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – After three hours in a steamy car tormented by a track that has teased him before, Denny Hamlin was calm but blunt.

“We sucked.

“All of our cars suck right now,’’ the Joe Gibbs Racing driver told NASCAR Talk after his 23rd-place finish Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. “There’s (winner Kevin Harvick), there’s the Hendrick cars, and the Penske cars and everybody else. We’re everybody else right now. Especially on the short tracks. Cars don’t turn. They don’t get off the corner.’’

Hamlin says that Joe Gibbs Racing’s cars have had the problem for more than two years at this 1-mile track – where teammate Matt Kenseth saw his title hopes all but end in 2013 with an ill-handling ride. Hamlin, who won this race three years ago, has finished 19th or worse in three of the last four Phoenix starts.

It wasn’t just Gibbs’ cars that struggled Sunday. No Toyota finished better than JGR’s Carl Edwards, who was 13th. Kenseth (16th) was the only other Toyota in the top 20.

Car owner Joe Gibbs met on pit road and in the garage with team members after the race. When Gibbs walked away from his final meeting, he was asked how it was going.

“Not good,’’ Gibbs said wincing.

His team’s performance also is troubling for Toyota. Phoenix plays a key role in determining which four drivers will race for the championship at Homestead in November. Toyota’s goal is to have at least two of its drivers racing for the title.

First, Toyota drivers need to win.

This week’s race at Auto Club Speedway marks one year since Toyota’s last win at an unrestricted track (Toyota’s last overall win came 30 races ago at Talladega Superspeedway with Hamlin last May).

Toyota drivers are struggling even to challenge for the lead. They’ve combined to lead 36 of 1,107 laps run this year (3.3 percent). Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. each have led more laps than Toyota’s drivers this season.

Lack of horsepower saddled Toyota teams last year. This year, it is aerodynamics and handling.

“The cars themselves seem to be lacking a little bit of speed,’’ David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NASCAR Talk before Sunday’s race. “We’re working feverishly with our team partners to try to close that gap.’’

Hamlin, who finished fifth last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, said he saw signs of progress with the Gibbs cars earlier this season, but that disappeared Sunday.

“We were further off on speed at this time last year than what we were this year,’’ Hamlin said. “This one makes me think that we’re all just right back where we were. I don’t want to put too much bank into this one race because everybody has their bad races, but this one was kind of exceptionally bad for us.’’

Edwards and David Ragan (21st) both said they had issues with handling Sunday.

“We could fire off and be OK for 15-20 laps, but our car would just fall off a lot quicker than others,’’ Ragan said.

Edwards met with Gibbs and crew chief Darian Grubb on pit road shortly after the race. Edwards sought to look ahead rather than behind after the meeting.

“The issues that we had today are the things we’re going to solve,’’ Edwards said. “I have a sense that this organization is going tho be moving forward. I’m not too worried about it.’’

Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said the team is working on projects to remedy the handling issues, but the earliest those could be implemented could be May.

“Hopefully they will make a big dent in the deficit that we’re at right now,’’ Makar told NASCAR Talk.

Until then, Hamlin, his teammates and even Toyota could struggle to be competitive.

“We know what we got to do,’’ Hamlin said. “We’ve just got to get our cars a little bit better.’’