Has Joe Gibbs Racing Closed The Gap on Hendrick Motorsports?
In about any given NASCAR season, there are the dominant teams, the dependable finishers, and the questionable units that are on the brink of survival in the Sprint Cup Series.
For the past 15 years, the one team that the competition has been chasing for victories and championships has been Hendrick Motorsports, an organization which has greatly changed the landscape of stock car racing in terms of performances in about any aspect of the sport, from the pit crew to driver's physical fitness regime.
Powerhouse units like Richard Childress Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, and Robert Yates Racing suddenly had their superstar drivers chasing a "kid" who competed like a skilled veteran with savvy and intelligence. The likes of Dale Earnhardt, Ernie Irvan, and Mark Martin had to step it up against Jeff Gordon, a 20-something outsider that truly put Rick Hendrick's dream into reality with dominant seasons behind the wheel of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.
Time's passed since those glorious seasons since 1995 and the story's not quite the same as before. Yes, Hendrick Motorsports is still the team to beat, with Gordon's protege and teammate Jimmie Johnson rewriting his way into the history books by winning four consecutive titles (2006-'09). Establishing himself as NASCAR's main target, the El Cajon, Calif. native has been the mean to beat, not only for titles, but race victories.
However, there's been a new challenger in the Cup scene and their stock has been on the rise since those titles in 2000 with Bobby Labonte and 2002 and '05 at the hands of Tony Stewart. Housing arguably three of the finest young talents in all of NASCAR, Joe Gibbs Racing has announced its presence as a formidable obstacle in Hendrick's path for an unprecedented fifth championship.
With Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano sitting second, third, and 17th in the points standings after 14 races, the triumvirate are on the attack and ready to bring the Football Hall of Fame coach's legacy to the forefront in motorsports with a fourth title for the now successful car owner.
Busch has been on the rise since 2001, touted by racing journalists and scouts as one of the hottest prospects who would tear up the scene in NASCAR. Nine years later, the Las Vegas hero has lived up to that potential, with only a title necessary to cement the 25-year-old's place as the strongest member of Gibbs' triple threat.
Hamlin's in the midst of what appears to be his best season yet, with four wins and six top-10 finishes (which happen to be all top-fives). Taking the checkered flag at Martinsville, Texas, Darlington and Pocono, the man behind the No. 11 FedEx Toyota's keeping true to his word as the team to dethrone Jimmie Johnson from his dynasty run.
Meanwhile, Logano has scored a pair of top-fives and five top-10's, which are respectable numbers for the sophomore driver originally from Middletown, CT. Despite his run-in with Kevin Harvick last Sunday at Pocono, it appears as if the 20-year-old talent may knock on the door for some wins as the season winds down, solidly running in the top-15 and gaining the handle at some of the series' toughest tracks.
Arguably Toyota's strongest NASCAR Cup team on the circuit, rest assured, Gibbs' trio of talents have the potential to truly upstage and upset the dominant Chevrolet powers of Hendrick Motorsports. With age and time on their side, which isn't something favorable to NASCAR's strongest group, it'll be sooner than later when it comes to the foreign auto make taking home its first Cup title trophy.
Of course, the season is still young and the summer months tend to favor Hendrick's operation, with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson having previously won at every facility that's part of the schedule before the Chase. Johnson's been struggling as of late, but his Chad Knaus-led efforts have soundly responded to adversity much like the Los Angeles Lakers' reliance on Derek Fisher during crunch time.
Gordon has shown flashes of brilliance from yesteryear, although the win column is as naked as Commander Spock's romantic score sheet (Pon Farr, anyone?). More than motivated to succeed, thanks mostly due to his daughter Ella and his wife Ingrid's pregnancy, it may not be too long before the No. 24's colors adorn Victory Lane.
For now and certainly for the upcoming years, the Bowtie Brigade may want to pay attention to the Nos. 11, 18, and 20 teams.
Do they have the potential to upstage the favorites in NASCAR?
It's just a matter of the Gibbs collective's ability to keep on attacking and winning, which translates to bonus points and the eyes of the 38 other teams competing on the track. Embodying all the qualities that Gibbs' successful Washington Redskins teams have carried in the past, that same dedication and devotion can be seen with stock car racing's best chance for a new champion.