Teamwork has been critical to Joe Gibbs Racing's remarkable 2016 season, but as the title hunt heats up is the dynamic changing?
The relationship between the four JGR drivers may begin to be strained as we near the conclusion of this championship battle.
That is especially true after Martinsville with Jimmie Johnson's victory ensuring that at least one of the members of the Gibbs quartet will be eliminated in this round.
During Chase Media Day in Chicago just prior to the start of the 2016 postseason, Kyle Busch admitted to Motorsport.com that it might "get a little awkward" the closer we get to Homestead.
We worked so good together that we gave the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) car the win today
Kyle Busch after Martinsville
At Talladega, we saw three JGR drivers opt to ride in the back to protect their already secure position in the standings. By doing so, they left teammate Denny Hamlin -- who was in the most precarious position -- to fend for himself. Hamlin managed to escape elimination on a tiebreaker with Austin Dillon.
Working together ... Sometimes
This past Sunday, we still saw some Toyota camaraderie with deals being made on restarts and Martin Truex Jr. allowing both Busch and Kenseth to get a bonus point for leading a lap while he was in control of the race. However, Truex is no longer part of the championship battle. When the situation changed and Kenseth was leading Hamlin, he never allowed his teammate a free bonus point. He had to work for it.
During the closing laps of the 500-lapper, Johnson worked his way past Hamlin for the race lead, who quickly fell back into the clutches of his teammates. Instead of allowing his seemingly quicker teammates by, he held his ground -- as he should. Kenseth was no different, attacking Hamlin and aggressively fending off Busch. Brad Keselowski ended passing all three and this did not go over well with the driver of the No. 18.
“You can’t wreck each other and that’s all there is to it I guess. We worked so good together that we gave the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) car the win today," Busch said sarcastically. "That’s how good JGR is.
"We had a great M&M’s Camry and we could have been a little farther up front, but we were held up there and we couldn’t pass and if I did try to make moves or try to make a pass, I got cutoff. But we came through it with a top-five. We probably could have been about second, I don’t know if we could have got up there and caught the 48 as long as we got caught up behind all that stuff, but we had a fifth-place car today and we showed that today. (Matt) Kenseth led the most laps today I think and we were right there with him much of the day so it’s frustrating not to be higher up.”
No catching Johnson
Hamlin responded to the frustrations expressed by the reigning series champion, but he doubts any of them could have run down the No. 48.
“It’s tough to say, I think we all agreed that we would work together on restarts and try to do everything we could to be sure we didn’t screw the other guy over on restarts and stuff like that," Hamlin said. "When it comes to racing, I didn’t think that any of us really had anything for the 48 (Jimmie Johnson). Maybe the other guys thought I was holding up the line, which is very possible, I definitely was at one point. There at the end, I didn’t have anybody pressing on my rear bumper and we had a third place car.”
It won't be an all Gibbs final four
As for the fact that at least one of them is guaranteed to be knocked out in the Round of 8, Hamlin wasn't expressing too much concern.
“I don’t think it changes a whole lot honestly," Hamlin admitted. "I think that we each still have a shot, there’s just one spot taken so three of us would still be a good number to get in that final group and we’ll do everything we can to get that done.”
Carl Edwards finds himself in the Chase cellar. His accident relegated him to a 36th-place finish, 32 points adrift of the cut line for the Champion's Round. The other three are all above the cut line at the moment, but their buffer is minuscule at best.
With just three races remaining in the 2016 season, it will be interesting to see if JGR goes back to the head table in Las Vegas, or implodes before Miami.