LOUDON, N.H. – It took half a season, but NASCAR’s newest Dream Team seems in the midst of a full realization entering Sunday’s 5-hour Energy 301.
After putting all four drivers in the top five (led by race winner Kyle Busch) for the first time last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway, Joe Gibbs Racing will start nearly as strong at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Carl Edwards, who joined JGR this year in its expansion to a fourth Toyota, will lead the field to green with his first pole position in almost two years, and teammates Busch (fourth), Denny Hamlin (fifth) and Matt Kenseth (eighth) will be just behind.
These results hardly seemed possible only a month ago. Edwards admittedly pressed himself into mistakes in his transition from Roush Fenway Racing (where he spent the first decade of his Sprint Cup career), Busch missed the first 11 races because of injuries from his Xfinity crash at Daytona, and Hamlin and Kenseth both struggled with the handling of their Camrys (particularly during a disastrous outing at Phoenix, where Hamlin proclaimed their cars “sucked”).
But the past two weekends, the JGR teams have been simpatico, exhibiting a rapport reminiscent of when Edwards and four other Roush drivers (Kenseth, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle) all won and made the Chase in 2005
“It feels to me like we’re in this sweet spot that I’ve only been in a couple times in my time in this sport where all of us are fast, and we’re all pushing one another, but we’re sharing information and it’s really neat,” Edwards said. “It’s fun to have teammates like I have that motivate me and push me and challenge me, but we all do it and at the same time celebrate each other’s successes. It’s really cool, and I think there will be a lot of good things to come. I do recognize that Kentucky is a standalone event, and this track is really unique so this might not continue, but for now it’s really fun.”
Other storylines to watch heading into New Hampshire:
—Under pressure: Two teams experienced bizarre left-rear tire problems that left their cars stranded on track during practice. A Goodyear official said it was a setup-related mishap that waylaid Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Chevrolet while Ryan Newman’s No. 31 Chevy apparently ran over debris.
Though it certainly doesn’t seem to be widespread, it’s worth monitoring given that Jimmie Johnson suffered two tire failures in the first 15 laps of this race a year ago (Goodyear attributed those woes to air pressure).
–The other Toyota: David Ragan qualified a season-best third at a track that conjures good memories for his Michael Waltrip Racing team. Brian Vickers scored an emotional victory at the 1.058-mile oval two years ago, raising spirits for a repeat. “It’s still encouraging for our team,” Ragan said. “You see the pictures (of the celebration) walking around the shop, and that gives you some confidence. A lot of guys on our pit crew were part of that team that went to victory lane. Absolutely, that’s something that we can build some confidence from.”
—Slower Chevys: Only two drivers (Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson) from the bow-tie brigade cracked the top 10 in qualifying, which perhaps isn’t so surprising given that it’s been three years since a Chevrolet (Kasey Kahne) reached victory lane at NHMS.
—Lost weekend? Jeff Gordon qualified a mediocre 23rd Friday, had a fender bender with Clint Bowyer in the garage during first practice Saturday and lost a significant amount of track time while the team made repairs. What else could go wrong? “I don’t want to say it can’t get worse, but I know it can,” said Gordon, who has three wins at New Hampshire but none since 1998. “But hopefully this will all pay off for us (Sunday).”