After a Sprint Cup season dominated by Hendrick and Ford, JGR is quietly catching up.
For Kyle Busch, it was a bad case of déjà vu at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday.
On Saturday, his view of the checkered flag came from the front of his windshield as Brad Keselowski crossed the finish line 1.880-seconds of his No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Fast forward to Sunday, the car numbers changed but the results were the same. And if Justin Allgaier doesn’t wreck three laps before the finish forcing the Camping World RV Sales 301 to 305, the margin of victory would have been much greater than 0.750-seconds.
I thought we really gained on it. I felt like all three cars were top-five race cars today. I feel like we’re definitely moving in the right direction.
When Busch was asked whether anyone in the field had a car comparable to Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford, he replied, “Oh, no. No, I don't think anybody did".
"Denny (Hamlin) was the best Gibbs car, so he probably had a better shot at him than any of us did, but it seemed like he stalled out in third there on that last run trying to get up there," Busch said. “We started so far back, I think we were 11th and 12th or something like that on that restart there with that long run, and Denny made some good ground. I couldn't do that."
"But, unfortunately they felt like they were too short and had to pit.”
The gamble paid off for Busch. Jeff Gordon who was running second prior to the green-white-checkered ran out of gas on Lap 300. Kevin Harvick, who had worked his way up to third, followed suit moments later. That set up a battle between Keselowski and Busch – but the No. 18 fell just short.
Busch was blown away by the front grip Keselowski enjoyed with his Ford – particularly through the corners. While it’s not clear whether his Penske teammate Joey Logano would have been there at the end remains to be seen since he was collected in a wreck with Morgan Shepherd 211 laps into the contest.
But as whole, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization held its own.
Busch won the pole and led the first 62 laps of the race followed by two stints from Denny Hamlin in the subsequent 27 circuits. Hamlin finished eighth. Matt Kenseth took the point from Kyle Larson on Lap 127. Had it not been for debris on his grille and issues with his in car radio, Kenseth, who finished fourth, might have been a stronger contender.
Still, from where he started the weekend, the veteran felt his team showed marked improvement.
“I thought we really gained on it,” Kenseth said. “Denny and them guys really helped us a lot this week. I felt like all three cars were top-five race cars today. I feel like we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”
The first third of the season was dominated by Hendrick Motorsports - or Hendrick powered cars. In the first 15 races of 2014, nine cars with HMS engines went to Victory Lane.
Fords have swept the last four races - a milestone which has not occurred in the Cup series since 2001.
While Kenseth has yet to win a race this season, all three Gibbs cars are comfortable in the range of qualifying for the Chase to the Sprint Cup. Although the teams have been inconsistent this season, they've started trending up. Busch has Fontana win and two finishes of second in the last three races. Hamlin won at Talladega and has two solid top 10s in the last two events.
Busch credited the intel Hamlin gathered from a Goodyear tire test at Richmond International Raceway last week as elevating JGR’s overall effort in Loudon. While he doesn’t believe Gibbs’ short track program is as strong as it’s been historically in the past, Busch believes they’re gaining on it.
“We haven't seen the 11 (Hamlin) and the 18 (Busch) winning at as many short tracks like we used to be so dominant at,” Busch said. “Today was just a true testament to teamwork, and what we did with our race car was somewhat try to mirror what the 11 was doing this weekend and put some of their stuff in.
“Real proud of the effort there that we had somewhat similar race cars - all three of us did for that matter. I think we were second, third, fourth for a part of the race because there was only one car that was lights out on the rest.
“We'll get there hopefully. It's not quite time to get ready to have to go for the Chase, but it's about that time, so we've got a few weeks.”