After a historic 19-win NASCAR Cup Series season in 2019 – including Kyle Busch’s second series championship – the Joe Gibbs Racing organization is still largely fine-tuning its winning form this year.
Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, won his second consecutive Daytona 500 to open the season in the same triumphant way JGR closed out the 2019 season. And since then, Hamlin won the second Darlington race after NASCAR returned to racing.
But those two races have been the only visits to Victory Lane for the stars of JGR through the opening nine races. A year ago, they had combined for six wins in the opening nine events – three from Kyle Busch (Phoenix, Auto Club, Bristol-1), two from Hamlin (Daytona 500, Texas-1) and a Richmond win by Martin Truex Jr.
Three JGR drivers – Busch, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. – qualified for the Championship 4 season finale last year. And after a rough four races of the season that found all three outside the top 10 leaving Phoenix, the trio has worked their way into the top 10 since NASCAR returned to racing at Darlington.
Truex leads the pack in sixth place in the standings while Hamlin is seventh. Kyle Busch sits in ninth. And the fourth JGR driver, Erik Jones, is in Playoff contention in 14th.
This is his first season for Truex without longtime crew chief Cole Pearn, so there is a natural learning curve for the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota with James Small taking over atop the pit box. And the break in racing did the duo good.
Through the first four races, they had an average finish of 24.5 – and didn’t crack the top 10. But in the five races back, their average finish has been 10.2, with a 20th-place effort at Bristol being the only result outside the top 10.
And there’s more good news in that Truex has a good history at this week’s Atlanta Motor Speedway venue and was the race runner-up just last spring. He leads all drivers in laps run in the top 15 at Atlanta (80.7 percent) and quality passes (883). He’s scored top-10 finishes in nine of his 21 starts.
Busch has put together top-five finishes in three of the last four races this season, and leads the Gibbs’ contingent with two wins (2008 and 2013) at Atlanta. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 21 races there, and was sixth at Atlanta last year.
Three of Hamlin’s top-five runs this year have come since NASCAR returned at Darlington, including his win at Darlington-2. He has a victory at Atlanta (2012). And he has four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 20 starts there.
Jones’ improvement since the break has mirrored that of his teammates. He’s finished in the top 10 in three of the five races since returning, and added an 11th-place result in a fourth race. He finished fifth at Darlington-2 and last weekend at Bristol.
Jones has only three Atlanta starts, but the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has never finished worse than 14th (first start in 2017). He has one top 10 in three races and was a career best seventh there last spring.