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As the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup approaches, there is one team that is in full stride – Joe Gibbs Racing
The organization, which features Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, won for the fifth time in the last six races, the latest coming Sunday at Michigan International Speedway as Kenseth started from the pole, stayed there for most of the race and finished off his third victory of the season.
The recent successes have proven to be a pleasant turnaround to the JGR season that wasn’t quite going the way they wanted just several weeks ago.
''You really need to enjoy it, because about 10 races back, we were struggling, trying to get there,'' team owner Joe Gibbs said. ''You just hope now that we'll be able to hold some momentum here and head into the Chase, but it's very hard to do. In pro sports, it can come and go in a week. I think it keeps you – at least I think for all of us – it keeps us excited and after it and working hard.”
The week started on a high note as JGR entered the race with the top three qualifiers in Kenseth, Hamlin and Edwards. Hamlin finished fifth while Edwards was right behind him in sixth.
Gibbs, the veteran NASCAR team owner and former National Football League head coach of the Washington Redskins, knows to enjoy it when you get on a run such as this.
“I can't remember where we've kind of had a stretch like this over these last 10 weeks or so,” he said. “Starting at Charlotte, you know, you really want to enjoy these times. They're hard to get, and pro sports, I think that's the reason why we all love it so much. We don't know what's going to happen from week to week.”
He also knows the hard work his team put in to get the season trending upward has just started with the Chase around the corner.
“The thing that amazes me sometimes is the quick turn where you go the other way, and so we've just got to keep working hard,” Gibbs said. “I think our guys did a great job on the two packages we were going to run this year. They really went after it hard, worked hard on it, and it paid off for us. But I think our focus, you know, now with our cars is Kyle, we need to keep him up in points, and the other three cars we need to hopefully stay up where we can put ourselves in a good position when the Chase starts.”
Busch missed a majority of the season while recovery from a crash-related injury in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona, but has returned to win four races and put himself in position to make the 16-driver Chase field.
Busch arrived at Michigan in 30th place and needing to avoid any major mistakes because although he has four wins this season, a top-30 points ranking is required for eligibility into the Chase. Busch wrecked his car in practice Saturday and had to start the race from the rear of the field, but rallied for an 11th-place finish.
He's now 29th in the standings, 23 points ahead of 31st-place Cole Whitt.
''It was a success,'' Busch said afterward. ''It wasn't what we wanted. We had a really, really fast car yesterday, but I screwed up and wrecked that car. It was a winning car, maybe not the winning car. But congratulations to our teammate Matt Kenseth and the '20' bunch. It's really good times for Joe Gibbs Racing right now.”
Those good times for the team go all the way back to their shop where their efforts mean just as much to a win and their recent success.
“Well, the first thing is it's a team sport all the way,” Gibbs said. “I hate it that those guys (back at the shop) can't enjoy winner's circle and all those different departments back there that work so hard. I know we've got great people. That's what I'm really proud of. We've got a great group of people that work extremely hard and really care about what they're doing.”
That team helped Kenseth secure his 34th career victory as he led 146 of 200 laps. That was 73 percent of the race, the highest percentage by anyone in a Cup race this year. To exhibit how dominating he was, Kenseth had led a total of 147 laps all season before Sunday.
“Well, I've got to be honest, I didn't see much of the race, which was totally fine with me,’” Kenseth said. “We were up front the whole time, and that's what you want, right? You want everybody in your mirror, so I haven't got to see much of the race to be 100 percent honest with you.”