By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
Charlotte, N.C. – Joe Gibbs knows how difficult it is to repeat as champion. Although he won three NFL Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins, none of those titles came in consecutive seasons.
“In pro sports, I think the hardest thing is to stay up (on top) because once you have a great year everybody else is pointing or looking at you,” said Gibbs, speaking on “Toyota Tuesday”, the first stop on the 34th annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour presented by Technocom.
“The other thing,” observed Gibbs, “is you have a tendency to sit back and feel pretty good about yourself, and we know, in pro sports, that’s a disaster.”
Gibbs isn’t too concerned about his team’s resting on their 2015 laurels. “Only one of our guys won a championship, so we’ve got three guys we know are going to be after it,” Gibbs said.
And his most successful driver of 2015, Kyle Busch, has already proven he can overcome disaster to get the job done. Busch captured his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title (the fourth in 25 seasons for Joe Gibbs Racing) after suffering a broken leg and broken foot and missing the first 11 races of the season.
It was like I was playing with house money,” admits Busch. “I definitely felt I ran in years past with pressure on. Last year was different. I didn’t have to win. Even at Homestead (the final race for the championship) nobody expected me to be able to win the thing.”
But he did, holding off 2014 champ Kevin Harvick, among others, for the title.
“Having a championship under my belt, I feel that’s a huge weight off my shoulders,” Busch said. “Maybe I pushed too hard for it in the past and I just didn’t let it come to me.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about whether the (Chase) format lends itself to repeat champions. I think, this year, we’ll probably see at least three different guys (among the four finalists for the title). I’d like to say I’m going to be the guy to repeat by getting back into the final four.”
Busch’s teammates, each of whom qualified for the Chase, will be among the favorites to challenge him.
“I thought it was a huge accomplishment that all four of our teams won multiple races last year,” said Matt Kenseth, who rebounded from a winless 2014 to take five checkered flags.
“Ultimately, I know that a championship for JGR, no matter who the driver is, benefits me as a driver,” said Denny Hamlin. “Obviously, for selfish reasons, I’m going to want that trophy at the end of the year and I’m going to go for it.”
Hamlin came to Tuesday’s media event wearing a blue plaid sport jacket in support of the Carolina Panthers. He’s a particularly big fan of the Charlotte team this year, given that he got 35-1 odds on the Panthers to win the Super Bowl in preseason. But he thinks the odds on him winning NASCAR’s championship are considerably better.
“I haven’t won one yet (and it’s) about to the point of frustration,” said Hamlin, who has 26 career Cup victories but has dealt with a variety of injuries in recent seasons. “How can we run as good as we have and not have a championship? But I believe in my heart that it’s coming. It starts with good health, for sure.”
It might also get a boost from JGR’s crew chief shuffle. Hamlin will be in his first season with Mike Wheeler, with whom he’s been associated for the last 12 years, and sends crew chief Dave Rogers over to Carl Edwards’ pit box.
“I was pretty happy with Dave Rogers but we’ve had a plan for many years to get me and ‘Wheels’ together, and I think this works out for everyone,” Hamlin said.
Edwards, twice a runner-up to the Sprint Cup champion, believes he could be in a better place with Rogers and, simply by having a year at JGR under his belt.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” said Edwards, who won two Cup races in 2015. “I understand the system and we should be able to get off to a better start.”
Gibbs, for one, is high on Edwards’ chances.
“Second years are always easier,” he said. “I thought for him to finish fifth (in series points) last year was special. I don’t think he felt that way, but I think he’s in a good spot. “
Then there’s Kenseth, the 2013 Cup champion, who won four races in 2015 but saw the final month of his season dissolve into controversy after he took out Joey Logano at Martinsville and drew a two-race suspension.
“There’s always something to be learned,” Kenseth said. “You try to be smarter … not that a lot of positives necessarily come from sitting out two weeks. Everyone has always given me credit for being ‘even-keeled.’ But everyone has their breaking point – when they finally lose their cool a do something a little over-the-top. Hopefully, I’m not in that situation again.”
Image: Chris Graythen/Getty Images