Joe Gibbs Racing struggles to find the handle on Pocono’s new pavement

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When it comes to Toyota’s success at Pocono Raceway, Joe Gibbs Racing is the only game in town at the 2.5-mile track.

In 111 starts by 16 drivers at Pocono, the manufacturer has won only three times. Denny Hamlin won in 2009 and ’10 with Toyota (and swept the 2006 races with Chevrolet) while former JGR team member Joey Logano won in 2012.

But since Logano’s win, the races have been dominated by five consecutive victories by the Chevrolets of Hendrick Motorsports.

JGR’s current lineup of drivers — Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards — have combined for six wins at the three-turn track. Hamlin has four, and Edwards won twice with Roush Fenway Racing in 2005 and 2008.

All of those wins came before the track was repaved after the 2011 season.

“It’s one of the most challenging and really the hardest racetrack on our schedule before they paved it because of how bumpy it was … and every corner was different,” Hamlin said in a release. “Now it’s just become one of those new-asphalt, hard-tire racetracks where track position is total key, and you have to have the fastest car. Once you get out front there, you can really do some work.”

While Hamlin knows his way around Pocono with an average finish of 11.9 in 18 starts, the results haven’t been as sterling for Busch (18.8 average finish) and Kenseth (16.0).

“Pocono used to be a place I didn’t look forward to going to, but lately I’ve been looking forward to it more than I used to,” said Busch, whose best finishes since the repave are sixth and eighth in 2013. “(Crew chief) Adam (Stevens) seems to be able to catch on to places pretty quickly, but we also have our teammates to lean on with Denny (Hamlin) being so good there.”

Sunday’s race will mark the third Cup start with Stevens as the crew chief of the No. 18 Toyota and Busch behind the wheel. Busch, who missed the first 11 points races this season because of injuries suffered in a crash during the Xfinity season opener at Daytona, has finished in the top five at Pocono four times (once with Chevrolet) but not since a second and a third in 2011.

“I think the repave set us back a bit – even Denny – but we had two top-10s there a few years ago and would like to turn those into top-fives and maybe have a shot at a win there,” said Busch, who started on the pole position at Pocono in 2010. “So far since I’ve been back this year, Adam, along with everyone on the M&M’s Crispy team and JGR have done a good job of giving me solid race cars, and it has given me plenty of confidence, even though the finishes haven’t been as good as how we’ve run.”

Before Kenseth joined JGR in 2013, his best Pocono results were three top-five finishes between 2000-06. He has 10 top-10 finishes but none since his final year with Roush Fenway Racing in 2012. Since joining JGR, he has failed to finish better than 22nd in his last five Pocono races, including a DNF for a crash in the second 2014 race.

“Pocono has always been one of the most challenging race tracks on the circuit for me,” Kenseth said. “I’m not sure that I’ve ever really gotten a great handle on that track yet, but I have some teammates that have run really well there in the past since I believe that both Denny and Carl have won races. Those guys have run well there, so I try to lean on my teammates as much as possible as we prepare for this weekend in order to constantly improve at Pocono.”

This will be Edwards’ first race at Pocono with JGR and Toyota power. He and his No. 19 broke through with a win two weeks ago in the Coca-Cola 600. Edwards is seeking his first top 10 at Pocono since 2012 and first top five since 2010.

“We want to try some new things and we want to swing for the fences and have some fun,” Edwards said. “It’s a good track and has been good to me. (I) have had some wins there and have run really well at the track a number of times. With my win a couple weeks ago, I can enjoy the restarts a little more. They are crazy. We are going to have four- or five-wide down in Turn 1 and Turn 2 on those restarts. It will be fun to be aggressive and not worry as much.”