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Changes At Gibbs Racing Appear To Be Paying Off

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, April 23 2012

Denny Hamlin got his second victory of the season when he won the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Time was, a solitary victory at a race in mid-April at a track in the Midwest wouldn’t have produced much action on J.D. Gibbs’ satisfaction-o-meter. But following the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway Sunday, the look on Gibbs’s face indicated that the SOM needle had taken a nice jump.

Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, had just seen one of his drivers, Denny Hamlin, win by tracking down, catching and passing the Michael Waltrip Racing car of Martin Truex Jr. – a car that had looked uncatchable and unpassable for 173 late-race laps.

And in doing that, Gibbs had seen the return of better days.

“I thought it was just… impressive to watch,” Gibbs said as he sat next to Hamlin and first-year crew chief Darian Grubb after the victory.

Joe Gibbs Racing has flashed a large pile of impressive sights during its 20-year tenure in Sprint Cup. For a variety of reasons, few came in 2011.

That was a season which saw the three JGR drivers combine for only five victories but suffer through six DNFs. Joey Logano, the youngest member of the still-young JGR driving trio, went winless for a second straight season in 2011. Kyle Busch, perhaps the most talented driver in Cup who has not won a championship, did win four times but never challenged during the Chase and wound up 12 (last) in the playoffs.

The swagger is back for Denny Hamlin. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

And Hamlin, his 2011 season had to be the most disappointing of all because – if for no other reason – how close he came to winning the whole Cup bake off in 2010. With one victory in 2011 – a year after he won a series best eight – and just five top-five finishes, Hamlin had to flail like crazy just to make the Chase and once he did, flail some more to finish ninth.

What had happened to JGR, the winner of 88 Sprint Cup races and three series championships the previous 18 years?

Well, perhaps the biggest thing was engine woes. The team suffered suffered a bunch of failures last year. Broken engines were not a new phenomena at JGR, but this was: When its engines were running, they seemed to lack the horsepower of the Roush Fenway Racing Fords and Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets.

A frustrated Hamlin would tell the media after an engine failure early last year that, “For some reason, our stuff is struggling to stay together.”

After hooking up with Toyota in 2008, JGR opted to continue to build its engines in-house, just as it had when it was using Pontiac and Chevrolet power.

But the failures of 2011 prompted a 2012 decision by JGR to begin using engines built by Toyota Racing Development in its facility in Costa Mesa, Calif.

In announcing the decision last August, Gibbs said he thought that combining “resources and going down one path instead of trying to do two paths together” would solves reliability problems.

“Probably one of the hardest things that any team does in the garage is build motors,” Gibbs said at the time. “We’ve been doing it for a long time –  almost 17 years. Again, we do certain things really well. Mark (Cronquist, JGR engine builder) at the track is probably one of the sharpest guys you’ll find.

“I think Mark and his team, when it comes to horsepower, when it comes to performance, they’re really good and I think TRD does a good job from a durability standpoint. Last couple years, they’’ve been really good. I think for us, it’s just combining that.”

Indeed, TRD had been building and supplying the engines used by Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull Racing since 2007. Those engines proved themselves to be highly dependable.

The 2012 season is only eight races old. And while Busch and Logano still seem to be struggling for consistency, the Hamlin portion of the JGR operation has been clicking.

Hamlin won the second race of the season – at Phoenix – and then again Sunday at Kansas. In addition,

Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team is off to a fast start. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

he had top-six runs at Daytona (fourth) and Martinsville (sixth).

After the Kansas victory, Hamlin showed the old swagger when he took a jab at a reporter for using the term swagger.

Then, he said, “I mean, you’re always more confident when you know that you’ve got cars that are capable of winning. When you know you have cars that are capable of running 10th, you’re not as excited. You’re not as upbeat and things like that.

“But you’ve got to just take the weekend for what it is, and I personally am comfortable with myself as a driver. I know what my abilities are. I know when I have a car that’s capable of winning if you put any other driver in it. Then it’s my job to get the job done. I feel like I can race with anyone in this sport.”

It also appears that Waltrip’s team has benefitted from the JGR-TRD bond-strengthening. MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. finished second at Kansas and, along with his teammates, has been a big story in Cup this year.

After the Kansas race, the JGR and MWR drivers and teams took time to congratulate and praise each other, and their closer relationship.

Hamlin’s crew chief, Darian Grubb, who came over this year from Stewart Haas Racing, was asked if TRD has put together something like SHR has with Hendrick Motorsports.

“It’s a little bit similar but not completely because we’re not running the same chassis,” Grubb said. “We’re running the same engine package, but that’s really the only thing. The rest of it is just the crew chief relationship. (MWR crew chiefs) Chad Johnston, Brian Pattie and Rodney Childers are all good friends of mine, so having that one-on-one friendship is probably better than anything, because we actually communicate.

“We agree not to lie to each other. That’s probably the bigger thing. Being honest. I might not tell you everything but I’ll be honest if you ask a question, and that’s why we try to treat each other with respect and we know what is going to help each other, but we try to keep a few things under our hat to help each other win.”

Speaking of people, Hamlin did.

“It’s just so much about how good your communication with your crew chief is, how good your cars are, how good your pit crew is,” Hamlin said. “It’s more of a team sport now than what it’s ever been. It’s not just about the driver. It’s been a long time. Crew chiefs have won races when they don’t have the best car, but it’s been a long time since the best driver took a 15th place car and won with it based off of what he did inside the car. It’s just so hard nowadays. The cars are running so fast that it’s a lot of what happens in the shop that dictates how your weekend goes.”

There are still four months of racing left before the Chase starts. Then, two and a half months of playoffs. It’s impossible to say where JGR will end up when the 2012 season comes to an end at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but it looks like J.D. Gibbs’ satisfaction-o-meter could be in for a workout.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, April 23 2012
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