Carl Edwards was worried.
Joe Gibbs could tell as he talked on the phone with the driver Saturday while preparing to fly to Sparta, Ky., for the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
Edwards didn’t like the way the weekend had been going at the 1.5-mile track with a new lower-downforce package that had him struggling. His No. 19 Toyota recorded the 20th- and 19th-fastest speeds in practice, with the former becoming his qualifying speed because of rain.
“It was really eating at him,” Gibbs said. “I haven’t really been worried about it, because I kept waiting to say, ‘We’re going to break out of this.’ We got a great pit crew put together, we know what he can do as a driver, he has (crew chief) Darian (Grubb), we couldn’t have a better group put together. But to be truthful, the performance had been off some and I could tell reading into him he’s going, ‘gosh dang it, you know, what’s going on.'”
With his team adapting well to the new rules, Gibbs’ prediction of a breakout came true — not just for Edwards but all of his drivers.
Spearheaded by Kyle Busch’s victory, Joe Gibbs Racing made team history with all four cars finishing in the top five for the first time. The last time a Sprint Cup team accomplished the feat was Roush Fenway Racing at Michigan in August 2008. Edwards and Matt Kenseth were also a part of that accomplishment.
Kentucky marked only the seventh race this season with the regular lineup for JGR, which expanded to four Camrys by adding Edwards in the offseason. Busch had missed the first 11 Cup races recovering from injuries in an Xfinity crash at Daytona
“(We) have not been working together that long,” said Denny Hamlin (third), who finished ahead of Edwards and Kenseth. “We have only had Kyle for a few weeks now, so we’re starting to build that chemistry.
“And obviously, any time you have a driver of caliber of when Kyle came in, Matt, and now Carl, it just continues to push you to go faster and push you to do your job better, and that’s when you can feed off each other like that. That’s typically how you get to an elite level.
“So, it’s just one race, but obviously it’s a big night for Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Edwards might been the best indicator of JGR’s strength in earning only his third top 10. Edwards, who joined them after more than a decade with Roush, hasn’t contended often this year while admitting to pressuring himself into mistakes early in the year.
Thanks to a fuel mileage gamble, Edwards had won the Coke 600 in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile track, which was significant for many reasons — not the least of which that it likely secured a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth.
It snapped a streak of seven races at 1.5-mile tracks that had been won by either Kevin Harvick or Jimmie Johnson dating back to the previous race at Charlotte.
Edwards himself hadn’t won on a 1.5-mile oval since Las Vegas in 2011 and JGR’s last had been by Hamlin in the 2013 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Through five races, Chevrolet has failed to win at Kentucky, which is an oasis for JGR, having won three races at the track (Busch in ’11 and ’15; Kenseth in ’13).
Kenseth shared his enthusiasm for the race with his first tweet in 20 days.
Edwards changed his attitude toward the setup about halfway through the race. After starting 20th, he was in the top 10 by Lap 60 and would remain there the rest of the night, even leading lap during a memorable three-way battle for first with Hamlin and Busch.
“I cannot say enough positive things about this direction NASCAR is going with less downforce,” Edwards said, singing a different tune than he had to Gibbs earlier. “I felt like a race car driver tonight.”
“I could actually drive the car, I was steering and sliding, I about wrecked a few times,” Edwards continued. “You know, I felt like I was doing something, not just sitting in line.
Hamlin was even more impressive. Caught speeding while pitting for a flat tire on Lap 70, Hamlin rallied from 36th, getting his laps back through yellow flags. He eventually 13 laps before yielding to runner-up Joey Logano with 42 laps left.
Edwards said it was Hamlin, the longest tenured driver at JGR in his 10th season, whom he first went to with his frustrations following practice.
“Denny was basically my counselor the other day after practice,” Edwards said. “I went straight over and talked to him and he helped me a little bit. I think overall the group’s been working very well with TRD (Toyota Racing Development), I’m the new guy but yeah it was pretty screwed up that Denny is the counselor of the group, but anyway. It’s a good group and it’s cool to be a part of it. These guys, they really push me a lot. It’s cool when your teammates are this fast.”