Joe Gibbs Racing dominated the Cup Series in 2019 with 19 victories, but the early portion of the 2020 season hasn’t been as kind to the four-car team, as it’s only won twice with one driver through 10 races.
But the organization showed improvement Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, putting three of its drivers in the top five for the second time this year. Kyle Busch placed second, Martin Truex Jr. finished third and Denny Hamlin finished fifth as Kevin Harvick won the race.
For Busch, the defending series champion who has yet to win in 2020, it was his third runner-up finish of the season.
After Atlanta, does JGR feel better with where its program is through 10 races?
“I wouldn’t say entirely,” Busch said. “Atlanta is kind of its own beast. Well, Atlanta and Homestead are pretty significant high downforce tracks, and we tend to run well here. Truex definitely tends to run well here. He did last year, and I think Denny has won here (once in Cup), so it’s a place that we should have good results at, and it’s nice to come out of here with a good solid run, run up front all day long and have a good outing. Hopefully we can keep that momentum rolling.”
For Truex, it was his first top-five finish of the year and came after he led 65 laps. He also swept the first two stages. In his first season with crew chief James Small, Truex entered Atlanta without any stage wins this year.
“It’s definitely encouraging,” Truex said. “We’ve had a really strong season as far as being competitive and getting tons of stage points, and we’ve been kind of lacking on our finishes a little bit. So it felt good to get that top five out of the way. I wish we could have won. I felt like through the first two stages we had a dominant car, and then the track changed and we didn’t keep up with it. That’s just part of this racing, so we need to do a better job of that.”
Truex attributed part of JGR’s early season struggles to there being no practice since NASCAR returned to racing on May 17.
“I think it’s been a little bit tough not having practice and things like that to hit it right,” Truex said. “I think our cars are close. I don’t think we’re dominant. I think there’s some really fast cars out there that we’re trying to catch up to. We really have to do all the little things right to be able to put ourselves in position to win races, and we’ve done that. We’ve been in position a few times this season, and things didn’t go the way we needed them to, and when you’re not a dominant car, you’re not just going to blow by through the field when you have issues. We definitely know we need to get better.”
When it comes to preparing for a race, Truex said there’s only so much that can be done with simulation.
“There’s so many assumptions in there,” Truex said. “We dominated the Coke 600, went back three days later and we could barely run 25th at the start of the race.
“That’s just where the practice thing comes in. You go back to the racetrack with your best guess of what you think is going to work, and it’s not always what you think it’s going to be. You give a great driver and crew chief and engineer and team an hour to work on a race car, they’re going to get it better.”
Hamlin, who owns the team’s two wins this year, earned his fifth top five of the year after experiencing his “worst run” of the day to end the race.
“Pretty encouraged by that and it looked like all of our cars were running a little bit better,” Hamlin said. “Hopefully this is a good sign for us.”