LONG POND, Pa. – It’s an old habit. So much so that even in the best moments a thought remains about what could happen next.
Joe Gibbs experienced his share of sleepless nights as a Super Bowl-winning coach of the Washington Redskins. His NASCAR Sprint Cup team’s recent run – four consecutive victories and six in the last 10 points races – brings about similar feelings of what could happen next.
“What keeps you going in pro sports is the nervous part of how easy it is to fall back and have other people up front and you trying to catch them,’’ said Gibbs, searching for his first Cup title since 2005 with Tony Stewart.
Gibbs experienced that nervousness Sunday after watching Kyle Busch take the lead when Joey Logano ran out of fuel three laps from the finish only to see Busch run out of fuel on the last lap. As has been the case lately, there was another Gibbs car near the front. This time it was Matt Kenseth, who collected his second victory of the season and gave Toyota its first four-race winning streak in Cup.
This recent run of victories for JGR comes after struggles by the organization last year – only two Cup wins after winning 12 times in 2013 – and the start of this year.
“I think as late as March, I think (Gibbs) was still yelling at us in meetings, and ever since he yelled at us that last meeting, we’ve all been running better,’’ Kenseth said.
After struggles at Phoenix in March led Denny Hamlin to say “all of our cars suck right now,’’ the organization has steadily improved building toward a turnaround that became evident in May when Hamlin won the Sprint All-Star race and Carl Edwards captured the Coca-Cola 600.
Yes, Edwards won via fuel strategy and Kenseth won Sunday the same way. While they might not have been the strongest cars in those races, they had teammates in position to challenge for the win. Kenseth and Hamlin combined to lead 79 of 400 laps at Charlotte. Busch led 19 laps Sunday but ran near the front much of the race.
This success comes as Edwards has become acclimated to the organization and put less pressure on himself than what he was earlier in the season. The turnaround also happened with Busch’s return at Charlotte.
“That’s elevated all of our games again,’’ Kenseth said of Busch’s return.
Still, Gibbs remains cautious, as is his nature.
“I’ve always been real nervous about being in pro sports, and I think it keeps you humble, and you’re never more than one race away from getting pounded,’’ Gibbs said.
Kenseth’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff understands how his boss feels with five races left until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins next month.
“We’re headed in the right direction,’’ Ratcliff said. “Each and every week you’re not going to come out here and just grab these victories. This worked really well for Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole over the last several weeks, but we’ve got to keep after it. The prize is still there, and we know in the next 10 weeks we’ve got to step it up a few notches because the other group is, so we’ll be ready.’’
Gibbs’ rise comes as Hendrick Motorsports has shown a dip in performance. Although Jeff Gordon (third), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fourth) and Jimmie Johnson (sixth) each scored top-10 finishes, only Johnson showed he was a top-five car throughout the race.
“Hopefully we can just continue to make gains and get ourselves in the Chase, and we’ve seen in the past where anything can happen when that Chase starts,’’ Gordon said.
Anything often has happened to Gibbs’ drivers in the Chase. So it is understandable that Gibbs has a sense of nervousness, but with the way his team is running now, it has become the leading candidate to win the title.
Five weeks from now? All of that could change. It’s why even during this stretch, Gibbs is mindful of the challenges ahead.