By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
The crowning achievement of Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2016 season may also be its biggest problem.
But it’s a problem the organization is happy to have.
When defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch earned a return trip to the Championship 4 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a second-place finish at Phoenix, JGR became the first organization in the three-year history of the Chase’s elimination format to put more than one driver in the final race with a chance to win the title.
Carl Edwards already was assured of his place in the Championship 4, thanks to a victory at Texas on Nov. 6, but the status of his three teammates was uncertain until the final laps at Phoenix.
Matt Kenseth seemed likely to transfer until a late wreck that also involved Busch and Alex Bowman knocked him out of the Championship 4. A decision to stay out on old tires didn’t provide Denny Hamlin the impetus he needed to make the final four.
That left Busch to claw his way back into title contention with a runner-up finish. And that left JGR with the difficult task of allocating its resources between two drivers, two Toyotas and two teams—equally eager to claim NASCAR’s top prize on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC; nascar.com/tickets).
It’s a problem Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t have. Come Sunday, all the energy of that organization will focus on securing a record-tying seventh championship for Chevrolet driver Jimmie Johnson.
Similarly, Ford driver Joey Logano will have the full attention of Team Penske as he tries to add a Sprint Cup title to the IndyCar crown owner Roger Penske achieved in the organization’s 50th year of competition in auto racing.
Joe Gibbs Racing, on the other hand, will have to balance the competitive desires of Edwards, who has never won a Sprint Cup championship, and Busch, who could become the first driver other than Johnson to defend the championship in this century.
“Going into Phoenix last week, we were actually having to prepare for the possibility of having three cars in at Homestead, which obviously puts a huge strain on an organization, to have to put an effort forward that is equal for all three teams versus two or one,” said Jimmy Makar, Senior vice president for JGR.
“Yeah, it’s definitely harder to do, but you know, it’s a great position to be in to have to do this extra work, so we actually were able to reorganize on Sunday night. The guys were actually back here at the shop Sunday evening after the race in Phoenix–the guys here at the shop–juggling cars around for primaries and backup cars for all four teams to make sure we had the best cars for the two guys running for the Chase, and everything fell in a pecking order of the big picture in mind.”
Edwards, for instance, will have the car that won the Texas race as a backup at Homestead.
“We’re going to have the best bullets, so to speak, for the two guys that are in the Chase,” Makar said.
Johnson undoubtedly will have the best Hendrick Motorsports has to offer, especially since his Round of 8 victory at Martinsville has given the No. 48 team three weeks to prepare for the finale.
The way Hendrick general manager Doug Duchardt sees it, the team has another huge asset in its arsenal—Johnson himself.
“I think one of the aspects of Jimmie that’s underestimated is how strong his mental toughness is,” Duchardt said. “He savors these opportunities. He looks forward to challenging himself and being prepared for this, and so Jimmie is just the kid from El Cajon that’s California cool.
“I never see him flustered in these situations. He embraces it. He’s looking forward to it, and Jimmie at Homestead is really not much different than Jimmie in Daytona. He’s pretty even keel through the season. He’s been through it before. He’s been in these situations multiple times, and I know that he’s looking forward to strapping in at Homestead and getting after it.”
It would be a mistake, however, to discount Logano’s chances. The driver of the No. 22 Ford seized his opportunity at the end of the Phoenix race and won the event to advance to the Championship 4.
“I think that he was really fired up after that win,” said Travis Geisler, NASCAR competition director for Team Penske. “It was a hard-fought race. If you noticed, we were pretty good on short runs. He was able to kind of get out, make some track position, but then, as the run went on, we faded, and it really became a struggle.
“I think at one point there we were out of it, and it was kind of looking a little bleak as to how we were going to get ourselves back in it. I think to kind of come back from that as a team, execute really well on pit road, put together a really good race … I think that momentum is something you can’t replace, especially with somebody going for their first championship.”