You would think that Joe Gibbs Racing would be somewhat pleased with how their championship aspirations are at this point of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. They’ve combined to have won six races this year, tied most among any of the other organizations in the sport.
Team Penske has also won six times too. Stewart-Hass Racing has taken five trips to victory lane themselves. No one else has more than two.
Despite that, JGR has a reasonable amount of concern still. See, Denny Hamlin has five of those six wins. Martin Truex Jr. has the other.
Both Kyle Busch and Erik Jones remain winless through 20 races run this season. Busch, is still in a good spot in the playoff standings but only has just one victory in his last 42 overall starts. Jones, has one win in his last 74 starts.
Jones, is slipping further and further back from making the playoffs as he’s now 31 points arrears from the cutoff spot. They’ve made a lot of mistakes which have haunted him.
Now, they’re likely in a position to start pushing, to which when you’re there, more mistakes tend to happen.
“I’d say both,” Truex said on bad luck furthering bad finishes. “I think the two go together. You start not running good, you get in spots where you probably shouldn’t be, you get crashed. It’s happened to us this year. We’ve gotten wrecked six or seven times just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Seems like this sport, when it rains, it pours. When things aren’t going your way, seems like you can’t do anything right. I feel like they’ve been competitive, strong. They just have had a lot of weird things happen. I know exactly how he feels. I’ve been there many times.”
Still, even with taking the mistakes out, the drivers fear that the speed just isn’t there to realistically compete with Kevin Harvick at SHR and the three Penskes right now.
“Haven’t saw Kyle (Busch) that much,” Hamlin said of his teammate Kyle Busch who finished last in New Hampshire and is winless in 20 starts this season. “He has frustrations just like I do, just like Martin does, just like Erik does. We all have our frustrations. We just have the best results, I guess you could say.
“I think we all think that we can be better. I know for a fact that our 11 team could still be better yet. Just because we’re running well doesn’t mean that we’re happy with where we’re at.”
Hamlin, even says that team owner Joe Gibbs isn’t happy and says they all need improvement. Luckily, improvement is on the wall and we’re starting to see it.
“I mean, Joe (Gibbs) is not happy,” Hamlin continued. “Unless we’re out there winning, he deems that we all need to step up. He looks at all of us when he says ‘step up’.
“I think we did that a little bit at Kansas. Our cars were all a little bit better. We ran 2-3 here (Loudon). Who knows where Kyle would have been. 20 had a struggling day. I think we’re making baby steps.
“Changes don’t happen overnight. This is all a slow process. If you want to make your cars better, you realize you’re off, it takes months and months to get better.
“Especially with this COVID and everything, these shops work in different shifts, no one is working a full staff, no wind tunnel time. It’s hard to catch up when you are behind.
“I think we are a little behind. It’s just going to take a little more time yet to get to where we need to be. Hopefully it’s September when we really need it.”
This isn’t new for Hamlin to say either. He said he didn’t have the fastest car in his Kansas win. He’s long been asking for just a little bit of practice. Same for Busch. The defending Cup champion has even said in the races he’s finished in the top three, that he always has said they were lacking in the speed department. They’ve been lost and needing practice for direction.
Martin Truex Jr notes that maybe the tire combos and lack of practice are hurting them from making quicker gains.
“It’s really tough to say just because I felt like our issues were things that we probably could have made better with some practice I think,” Truex said. “You just got to hit it. Maybe we need to be a little bit smarter about our simulation, what setups we’re unloading at the racetrack. Maybe figure out something a little bit better with this tire this year. Seems like we’ve struggled a little bit more this year with some tire issues than some other teams.
“I speak for all the drivers at JGR when we say we kind of lack some of the feel we’re looking for in these tires. That may be part of it. Maybe they figured some things out there. We’re still kind of searching on that, I think.”
Busch, cut a tire and crashed last Sunday. While Hamlin and Truex look like contenders again, they don’t think they’re title contenders based off pace.
Toyota’s won 19 of the 36 races last year. They put three cars in the Championship 4. This year, they’ve fallen short. But, it’s not like the speed went away. It could just also be as simple as the pandemic, no practice and everyone has caught up.
“I think we’re behind a little bit maybe,” Jones said of JGR. “Obviously, we’re not as dominant as we were last year. I think anybody can point that out. I don’t think we’ve lost any speed, I think the rest of the guys have just caught up and caught onto some of the stuff that we were doing last year that made us really fast. It’s harder. You have to run your car harder.
“I think last year we always had so much speed in reserve that we were able to go out and kind of take it easy through the day and put ourselves in position to have a chance to win it seemed like all the time.
“This year, it’s definitely a little bit different. You don’t have practice optimized so sometimes you’re kind of on a razors edge of really hitting it right and really missing it. That makes it tough, but everybody is so close on speed, its really hard to pass.
“Texas was really challenging to pass. Kentucky was really challenging to pass because everybody is running really similar speeds and the PJ1 has kind of made those places one groove and it’s definitely been more of a challenge to pass with the PJ1 down. You really have to get your car handling good in the bottom grooves. Sometimes the bottom groove doesn’t come in right away either. It’s definitely harder this year.
“I don’t know that we’ve lost speed, I think everybody else has gotten a little faster. I know we’re working and we’re trying to get stuff better. It’s definitely tough with everything going on right now. You can’t really do some of the same stuff you do to try to improve your car in a normal year so it’s kind of tough to work through all that.”
With Michigan being a big track, I’d expect the win to go through the Ford camp on both days of racing this weekend.