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NASCAR Cup Phoenix II

Joe Gibbs on the pressure of "extremely hard" playoff format

Joe Gibbs Racing is the only team to make the Championship 4 every year since the knockout format's introduction in 2014.

Coach Joe Gibbs, Martin Truex Jr, Joe Gibbs Racing, Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota Camry

This year, they had three teams make the Round of 8, but only one managed to advance into the Championship 4.

To the surprise of many, veterans Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. were eliminated while Christopher Bell won his way into the final four for the second consecutive year.

His secret weapon? Likely the crew chief sitting atop the pitbox. Adam Stevens has led his drivers to the title race in seven of the last ten years. He's won the championship twice with Kyle Busch.

"I think, first of all, Adam, our crew chief, is really something we think," explained Coach Gibbs. "We think he's special. I know Christopher would tell you that. Adam Stevens. He's just been great at directing things. Taking a young guy like Christopher, for us to be in there two years in a row, it's just a huge deal, a huge accomplishment."

Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing, MAC Tools Toyota Camry and Adam Stevens, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry

Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images

Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing, MAC Tools Toyota Camry and Adam Stevens, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry

Simply making it to the Championship 4 in the current playoff format is considered a huge accomplishment, and JGR is the only organization to make the cut every single year. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., and now Bell have all represented JGR in the title-decider.

"I think in general, if you kind of look at whose won championships, who gets into the Final 4, I think it does reward really, really good cars that had a heck of a year," said Gibbs. "You just can't get there. Our two veteran guys kind of showed how hard it is. There's so much can happen to you.

"You take Martin, puncture a tire at Kansas. How does that happen? The issues we had at Homestead. I think it's a lot to overcome. You got to really put together a great year. In particular, in the Playoffs, because you can have one bad race and put yourself in real trouble on any of those three-race segments of our playoffs."

Always a contender, no matter the format

Joe Gibbs Racing has won a Cup Series championship under the full-season points format, the original Chase for the Cup format, and the current knockout-style playoffs. Only Hendrick Motorsports has done the same. The veteran team owner spoke on how "extremely hard" the current system makes it. You could win 35 of the first 36 races, score max points and still conceivably end the year fourth in standings.

"There's so much on the line," said Gibbs, speaking on the present format. "I go all the way back to when we raced under the other format where it was just year-long, whoever had the most points won.

"Really what happened there sometimes is it's pretty much over before even the last race. I think what NASCAR did, which certainly I think increased fan effort and excitement about our Playoffs, certainly it fits with TV and everything else that takes place.

Race winner and Champion Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry M&M'

Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images

Race winner and Champion Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry M&M'

"But, man, going three races and realizing four cars are going to be dropped out, it does put a lot of pressure on everybody. It certainly does I know for me. I think at Homestead I was ready to have the big one, you know what I mean (smiling)?"

"The way it's designed right now, it does add to the pressure. I think that the fans really do enjoy it because there is that much pressure. You got three weeks to make it happen."

Truex's disappointing playoffs

Perhaps even more surprising than Bell's impressive playoff run is the disastrous playoffs his team-mate Truex endured. He entered the postseason as the regular season champion and the title favorite, only to encounter misfortunate nearly every week since then. In the last nine races, he scored just one top-ten. If not for the bonus points he earned during the regular season, Truex would have been out in the very first round.

"I don't think I've had anything like this happen to our race team since we've been in the sport 31 years," said Gibbs when reflecting on Truex's year. "In the regular season, you don't luck out in 26 races. You got to really be good.

"I felt like that we kind of worked extremely hard, particularly coming back from a year where we don't win a race. We know how good Martin is. We know how good James is, our team. We worked extremely hard. Huge disappointment a year ago.

"We made a great effort in the off-season. We came out, started right off the bat. We won with the car. We went 26 weekends. We didn't just win, it was a lopsided win. I think we're over 40 points or something difference. It shows you at that point we really felt like we were in a position to make a great run.

"You wind up with things like at Kansas. Never had that happen to us before, puncture a tire. We hit the wall in qualifying I think at Darlington. Kind of made a decision there. We thought we had things fixed and we didn't.

"It can happen in pro sports. I've experienced it in the years that I've coached or been over here. But it was really unusual. I don't remember a time like this where we struggled, yet we're as fast as we were, qualified on poles and stuff, yet could not get to the finish line with it.

"I think Homestead really hurt us, like I said. We had some issues there, for sure. I think that's the race that cost us. I was standing with the crew chiefs at Martinsville. Both of them said, It wasn't this week, it was last week.

"Yeah, I don't think you can really make sense of it in a way because it doesn't make sense. We're all kind of baffled by it, what happened to us this year with the 19.

Martin Truex Jr, Joe Gibbs Racing, Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

Martin Truex Jr, Joe Gibbs Racing, Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry

Despite the issues, Gibbs doesn't believe there is a need for significant change within the No. 19 team.

"No. I think the thing about Martin, if you're going to normally have issues and want changes, it would have started last year when we don't win a race," explained Gibbs. "Martin, I tell you, that guy comes every single week, he never second-guesses stuff. He'll be mad during the race, like anybody would be. He's got a temper, all of that plays out.

"Honestly, during the weeks after that, some of the toughest things for that guy to have experienced in a race car, he does such a great job of keeping his balance with it. He never really, that I've heard it, second-guesses things."

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