Last spring in the CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Joe Gibbs Racing struggled. The organization’s best finish was a modest 13th by Carl Edwards.
In that race, Matt Kenseth finished 16th, David Ragan (driving in relief of the injured Kyle Busch) finished 18th, and Denny Hamlin finished 23rd. A frustrated Hamlin told NBC Sports after that race: “All of our cars suck right now.”
“When I came over to JGR, it kind of shocked me how I didn’t realize how much JGR had struggled at Phoenix,” Edwards said Friday at PIR.
Trouble can be a catalyst for improvement, and last spring’s Phoenix race was a big part of the reason for the domination of Gibbs later in the season.
“Everyone worked really hard and I think you saw from, I guess it must have been from this point on, it was a lot of forward momentum,” Edwards said. “A lot of improvement at Joe Gibbs Racing. I think we won with basically every package that NASCAR presented last year. We won at all sorts of types of tracks. But, overall I just think it’s just the team effort.”
Added Busch, who rallied from his season-opening injury to win his first career Sprint Cup championship: “We had to redo our sim model and stuff like that. But also getting the crew chiefs a little more zoned in around the package of what the shop engineers wanted us to run and them to kind of understand all that. I think it’s been better since. That’s kind of a useful thing for sure. It’s been better, and we’ve learned, and I guess we’re still kind of on that path.”
By the time the series returned to PIR in November, Edwards had a shot at winning before rain drenched the track. He was running fourth when half of the field decided to pit and other half stayed out. The race did not go green again and he finished 12th.
Edwards spent about 85 percent of the fall race inside the top five. Busch raced inside the top 10 for all but three laps and there were similar performances by Hamlin and Erik Jones, who was standing in for Kenseth while the regular driver of the No. 20 sat out a two-race suspension.
“I was also really proud of how we finished the year, and if it weren’t for that rain, I’d like to think that we’d have had a shot at competing for the championship there at Homestead,” Edwards said. ”So, yeah, as bad as it was, it also reminded me that ‘Hey, we were that close to getting a championship.”
Ultimately, it was teamwork that created this change in direction.
“I saw the attitude heading to Phoenix last year (fall) and it was all hands on deck and that was what was pretty interesting when we sat in meetings,” Edwards said. “It was, ‘Hey, we have to fix what’s wrong. We have to get faster.’ And, it’s pretty intense.
Busch agreed that Joe Gibbs Racing is working the way multi-car teams should.
“There’s some things that are the same and there’s definitely some things that are different,” Busch said regarding the similar setups on all JGR cars. “I think you’re going to have that every week unless someone just feels like they’re really off like us last week.
“We were really off for a while there, so we just bolted in (Kenseth’s setup) and it seemed to be pretty good for us in the race.”
Busch finished fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and was leading with six laps to go.
The addition of an alliance with the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team and Martin Truex Jr. also has been instrumental in the progress.
“When you have five crew chiefs going at the race car five different ways and learning as it goes along, you learn different things quicker,” Busch said.
“I definitely feel like the 78 has been a bit of a help this year. They’ve been doing a good job with us and giving some good information. There was some things in Atlanta we actually took from the 78 and helped us run better.”
The formula is working. The Gibbs team swept the top three positions in qualification on Friday with Busch on the pole, Edwards second, and Hamlin third. Kenseth is only three positions back in sixth and Truex will line up directly behind him in eighth.