NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. overcomes early penalty, wins at Richmond

Martin Truex Jr. clinched his spot in the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with a win at Richmond Raceway.

Joe Gibbs was always known for earning big wins near Virginia as an NFL head coach in Washington. That trend carried over on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Truex, driver of Gibbs’ No. 19 Toyota Camry, led the final 51 laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400 en route to his fourth victory of the Cup Series season and his first since the first race at Darlington in May. Gibbs Toyotas have won each of the first two Cup Series postseason races of 2021 after Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 won at Darlington’s opener last weekend.

Hamlin, winner of the first two stages of the races, finished second while Christopher Bell’s No. 20 allowed Gibbs vehicles to sweep the top three spots. Fellow playoff drivers Chase Elliott and Joey Logano rounded out the top five.

Truex Goes From First to Last to First

Truex began the 31st victory of his Cup Series career on the front row but was quickly forced to the back. NASCAR officials determined that he jumped the start, passing Hamlin (the de facto pole-sitter after Kyle Larson had to start from the back) as the field took the green flag. The No. 19 was forced to serve a pass-through penalty, though he was able to stay on the lead lap. Truex made his way back to the top 10 by lap 70 of 400 and took his first lead of the day nearly 200 laps later.

The Mayetta, NJ native didn’t agree with NASCAR’s judgment but opted to look at the early infraction from an optimistic lens.

“Two laps after I pitted or whatever, I was like, this is ridiculous, but I’m already last now, so there’s nothing I can do except for go forward,” Truex said after the race. “I don’t really understand what you’re supposed to do in that situation. I let the 11 get a nose out in front of me to get the launch first. I wasn’t going to jump him, and then he spun the tires and stopped. What am I supposed to do, stand on the brakes, and crash the field behind me? It’s ridiculous, but yeah, I got over it fairly quickly because that’s what it was, and we had to go forward.”

Truex historically struggled at Richmond prior to commandeering Gibbs’ No. 19 in 2019, earning only three top five finishes in his first 26 visits. Over five starts at JGR, Truex has finished no worse than fifth at the short track and has visited victory lane three times. Truex claimed that there has been no official turning of the corner, believing his Richmond revolution was an endeavor several years in the making.

Nothing really clicked. It wasn’t like one thing we did. It was just kind of a work in progress more than anything,” Truex said. “I’ve always felt good at this racetrack and had some really good runs years ago in other cars with other teams. Honestly, it’s more just great equipment, a great approach to the racetrack…Once we got in Gibbs cars and I guess 2016 is when we really turned the corner on being one of the guys to beat every time we come here.”

In that aforementioned September 2016 event, Truex, then driving the No. 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, united with his future teammate Hamlin to lead 382 of 407 laps but missed out on the win in an overtime finish. Since then, Truex has been the driver to beat at Richmond: over the last 11 events, he has completed all but one lap at the 0.75-mile, D-shaped oval.

“We certainly gave a few away here in the past, and to have three is pretty awesome. Feeling lucky to have great equipment, and always look forward to coming here.”

Buschwhacked

Unlike last week’s postseason carnage at Darlington, playoff drivers mostly stayed out of trouble at Richmond on Saturday. Postseason contenders took up all but one spot in the top ten (Ross Chastain was the lone outlier in 7th) and 13 of the first 15 slots.

Alas, Kurt Busch ran into trouble early on. His No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was running third when he lost his left-rear tire at lap 40, shortly after a strong pit stop during a competition caution period. Busch was the only driver who failed to finish the race, relegating him to a last-place finish in 37th. He goes into next week’s race at Bristol as the last of the dozen drivers eligible for the second round of the playoffs, trapped in a tie with Alex Bowman.

“Had a damn good car, feeling deflated by how it all went down,” Busch said on Twitter in response to his bad luck at Richmond. “I thought Virginia is for lovers, but not feeling the love right now. On to Bristol baby, and we know what we gotta do…let’s win!”

Bristol is certainly the place for Busch to secure a much-needed win: he was won a career-best six races at The Last Great Coliseum, second-best amongst active drivers behind his brother Kyle (8).

In terms of other playoff struggles, William Byron finished a lap down in 19th, placing him 18 points away from the 12th seed. A late speeding penalty on pit road relegated Michael McDowell’s No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford to 28th. The Daytona 500 champion is undoubtedly stuck in a must-win situation, as he’s 38 points away after the penalty and a wreck at Darlington last week.

The 5 moves to the 12

After matching fourth-place finishes in the first two stages, it was determined that Kyle Larson had earned enough points to clinch a spot in the second round of the postseason. Larson and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team already had a sizable advantage in terms of advancement prospects through a series-best five wins and the regular season championship. He finished the day in sixth.

Up Next

The NASCAR Cup Series moves onto Bristol Motor Speedway next Saturday night for the final race of the first round of the playoffs (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Bristol’s famed asphalt will reappear, as the track was covered in dirt for the annual spring event, won by Joey Logano in March. Kevin Harvick won last year’s late summer event on the asphalt, uniting with runner-up Kyle Busch to lead 385 of 500 laps.

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series stays home in Charlotte for the running of the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of the year. The event is 400 laps long around the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway and is one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races. Sunday’s race is also the only race on the schedule with four stages instead of three.

Kyle Larson won Saturday’s qualifying and will lead the field to green at about 6:05 pm. Here are three drivers to watch:

Martin Truex Jr. (+550)

Charlotte Motor Speedway has always been one of Martin Truex Jr.’s best tracks, especially of late. Truex Jr. has three wins at the circuit, and all have come within the last five seasons. He has an average finish of 13.6 at Charlotte with 7 top-5s and 13 top-10s.

With wins at Phoenix, Martinsville, and Darlington, Truex Jr. is just one of two drivers with more than one win this season. The other driver with multiple wins is Alex Bowman, winning twice. Truex Jr. is having one of his dominant seasons this year, so expect him to contend in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday.

William Byron (+1600)

William Byron has thrived under new Crew Chief Rudy Fugle this season and is having a career year. Byron has placed in the top-10 in 11 of 14 races this season, including 11 of the last 12. He’s currently second in Cup Series points, only trailing the winless Denny Hamlin.

At Charlotte, Byron has just one combined top-10 in NASCAR’s three premier series, that coming in the 2019 Coca-Cola 600. However, his 1.5-mile track performance is improving over time under Rudy Fugle and he’s showing that he can win just about anywhere. Be sure to watch Byron on Sunday.

Kurt Busch (+5000)

Kurt Busch hasn’t performed well this season but he’s looking for a bounce-back performance on Sunday in Charlotte. He has just 2 top-10s in 14 starts this year and is currently 18th in the Cup Series points standings.

In 39 starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Busch has one victory: The 2010 Coca-Cola 600. He has an average finish of 17.1 at the track along with 8 top-5s and 15 top-10s. Busch has been very consistent at this track over his career, so expect him to have a chance on Sunday.

 

NASCAR: Martin Truex dominates NASCAR’s throwback visit to Darlington

Martin Truex Jr. won his third race of the NASCAR Cup Series season by leading 248 of 293 laps at the Goodyear 400.

For his throwback endeavor at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, Martin Truex Jr. drove a black car inspired by his championship triumphs throughout NASCAR’s national series. He fully lived up to the billing in the actual event.

Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led 248 of 293 laps in NASCAR’s annual celebration of turning back the clock, pacing a series of retro paint schemes to earn his third victory of the season at the Goodyear 400. Kyle Larson finished second, followed by Kyle Busch, William Byron, and Denny Hamlin.

Sunday’s win was the 30th of Truex’s career and his third this Cup Series season through a dozen events, having also won at Phoenix and Martinsville. He is currently the only driver in the Cup Series with multiple visits to victory lane with 24 races remaining on the docket. Each of his 2021 victories has come under a 750-horsepower, low-downforce race setup package. The package will bookend the ten-race NASCAR Cup Series postseason slate this fall, returning to Darlington in September and ending back in Phoenix two months later.

“Love low downforce, so I’m gonna say, I love it,” Truex said with a smile after the race. “I feel like, especially this year, with all three races that we won in with this package, the guys and girls at JGR doing a great job…it really was just a fun day, a big challenge, and I just got to give it out to my guys for giving me a great car and doing all the real things right.”

Truex started fourth on Sunday and first took the lead at lap 22 from his teammate Busch and proceeded to lead all but 23 laps afterward. To commemorate NASCAR’s annual “throwback” race, Truex drove a matte black Camry, a nod to his championship season driving a similarly colored Toyota for now-defunct Furniture Row Racing in 2017.

“I think it definitely had some good old Furniture Row, flat black mojo in it,” Truex said. “It was really fun, (but) I don’t know if it’s a statement (win). In this sport, you get judged week-to-week. If we go and run 10th next weekend, they’re gonna say okay, you know, the 19 is down, they’re not that good anymore. We just tried to try to take it week-to-week and have fun.”

“Our guys are doing a great job right now and when your cars are fast, things are clicking, and you know you’re having fun this is the coolest job in the world. When when you’re struggling, it’s probably the most difficult, because all the fingers get pointed at us. We’re going to enjoy it and just keep working hard.”

Truex held a healthy lead for almost all of the race’s latter stages, opening up a lead as wide as 14 seconds while winning the first two stages. Late in the race, Kyle Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet got to Truex’s bumper after the final cycle of green flag pit stops with circa 40 laps to go. Truex withstood the late challenge and rebuilt his lead to 2.5 seconds when the checkered flag waved. Joe Gibbs Racing has now earned wins in consecutive events, with Busch winning at Kansas last weekend. Hamlin is winless but continues to lead the points standings, while Christopher Bell is likewise on the playoff grid through a win at the Daytona road course. Bell was running in the top five before a lost tire relegated him to 14th.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action at Dover International Speedway for the Drydene 400 next Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Byron’s fourth-place finish gives him top ten finishes in ten consecutive races.

 

  • The early portions of the race, particularly the openings of the first two stages, were marred by wrecks that took out some notable names early. Aric Almirola lasted only five laps before his day ended, while Kurt Busch and Cole Custer were each eliminated in separate incidents at the start of stage two.

 

  • Erik Jones (18th) saw his streak of consecutive top ten finishes at Darlington end at six, done in by a late unscheduled pit stop that put him off the lead lap.

For full standings, click here

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Buschy McBusch Race 400

After an eventful Talladega race, the NASCAR Cup Series makes a stop in the Midwest at Kansas Motor Speedway. The race will last 267 laps, equivalent to 400 miles. Last week’s winner Brad Keselowski rolls off from the pole position while last fall’s winner Joey Logano starts 29th after a crash at Talladega. Here are three drivers to watch on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr. (+650)

To no one’s surprise, Martin Truex Jr. has had a lot of success at Kansas Speedway. Living up to his name of “Mile and a Half Martin”, Truex Jr. has two wins and 12 top-10s in 25 starts on the circuit. Both of his wins came in 2017, the year he won the Cup Series Championship.

2021 has so far been kind to the Truex Jr. and the No. 19 team. With wins at Phoenix and Martinsville, Truex Jr. is the only Cup Series driver with multiple wins on the season and is currently 2nd in points. Expect Truex Jr. to run up front on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin (+600)

Much like Truex Jr., Kansas has been kind to Denny Hamlin over his career. He’s won three times at the track with 8 top-5s and an average finish of 14.5. Hamlin is also the winner of two of the last three races at Kansas.

Although Hamlin’s had massive success this season, he still hasn’t pulled out a victory. With top-10s in 8 of 10 races, Hamlin holds a nearly 90-point lead in the standings with many close calls and stage points this season. Sunday would be a great time for Hamlin to finally break through and secure his first victory of the season.

Chase Elliott (+800)

Someone who’s struggled a bit this season is defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. He’s managed just 4 top-10s so far, however, he remains in 8th in the standings due to stage points.

Elliott’s had a good bit of success at Kansas, winning once with 6 top-10s in 10 starts at the track. He has an average finish of 11th and doesn’t have any DNFs. Don’t be surprised if Elliott breaks through for a big victory on Sunday.

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400

After a fun clash at Martinsville, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to the other side of Virginia for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. Sunday’s event consists of 400 laps around the 0.75-mile circuit, evening out to be a 300-mile race. Here are three drivers to watch in the 9th race of the season.

Martin Truex Jr. (+350)

Fresh off a win at Martinsville, Martin Truex Jr. is one of the biggest names to look out for on Sunday. Sitting second in points, he’s the only Cup Series driver to have won multiple events this season.

At Richmond, Truex Jr. only has two career wins, but both of them came within the last three races there. He has 6 top-5s and 12 top-10s at Richmond with an average finish of 17th. Truex Jr. rolls off on the poll, so expect him to contend for the victory.

Kyle Busch (+800)

Richmond has always been one of Kyle Busch’s top tracks over his storied career. With six wins and an average finish of 7th, running up front isn’t anything new for him there.

Coming into this weekend’s race, Busch is looking to secure his first win of the 2021 season. After just one win last season, Busch is looking to put an end to his cold spell and silence the haters with a victory under new crew chief Ben Beshore.

Brad Keselowski (+400)

Brad Keselowski has had a lot of success at Richmond over his career, especially of late. He won last fall’s event and has placed in the top-10 in seven of the last eight races at Richmond. Keselowski’s average finish 12th with 12 top-10 finishes.

Similar to Busch, Keselowski is looking to secure his first victory of the 2021 season. He hasn’t finished within the top-10 since Phoenix, however, he’s currently ninth in points. Expect Keselowski to run up front on Sunday.

NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. survives Martinsville for second win in 2021

Truex survived several caution flags and a battle with a teammate to become the NASCAR Cup Series’ first two-time winner in 2021.

New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr. became the first two-time winner on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series circuit on Sunday, taking home the Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. The race began on Saturday night, but all but 43 laps were pushed to Sunday due to inclement weather.

Truex survived a seemingly endless barrage of caution flags to earn the victory, which featured a final pass of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin with 15 laps to go to secure the win. The No. 19 Toyota previously won at Phoenix and has earned a win at Martinsville in each of the past three seasons.

Defending series and Martinsville champion Chase Elliott finished second ahead of Hamlin, who led a race-best 274 laps. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five.

Truex’s No. 19 was a rare clean vehicle in a race that featured 15 caution flags, all but five coming after the midway mark at lap 250. The most carnage occurred on lap 387 when a get-together between Kyle Busch and Chris Buescher blocked the entry into turn two caused major damage and ended the days of Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Brad Keselowski, and Michael McDowell. An ensuing red flag paused the race for just over 20 minutes.

The constant restarts allowed Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota, a strong short-run vehicle, to jump out to the lead on restarts, a gambit that allowed him to lead a race-best 276 laps. Truex gained the lead after the final caution of the day (Chase Briscoe’s spin in turn three) led to pit stops, but Hamlin quickly assumed it back.

But as the final 42 laps went green, Truex eventually realized that his car would be able to outperform the tightening No. 11. He eventually made the victorious pass with 16 laps to go and earned the win by a 1.9-second margin.

It was part of a strong day for Joe Gibbs Racing, which placed all four of its Cup vehicles in the top ten. Christopher Bell, another 2020 winner at the Daytona road course, finished seventh and led nine laps while Busch recovered to place tenth. In the Xfinity Series conclusion that ran before the Cup event, Gibbs had four cars in the top seven.

Truex’s victory continues a dominant stretch on short tracks. He has now won five of the last eleven events at short tracks (less than a mile long) and is one of two active drivers with at least three wins at Martinsville (the other being his teammate Hamlin with five). The win was also the 29th of Truex’s Cup Series career, breaking a tie with Carl Edwards and Hall of Famer Rex White.

NASCAR will return to Martinsville in October, as its fall event will serve as the penultimate race of the season.

A prime opportunity awaits for Truex to continue his short-track dominance. The series descends upon Richmond Raceway next Sunday for the Toyota Owners 400 (3 p.m. ET, Fox). Truex’s No. 19 team swept the pair of Richmond events during the 2019 season.

Race Notes

  • Ryan Blaney won the first stages, lasting 130 laps each. Blaney was in contention all day and led 157 laps, but a pit road miscue during the final stops relegated him to the rear of the field. The No. 12 Team Penske Ford recovered to finish 11th.

 

  • Pit strategy allowed Bubba Wallace to lead a career-best 23 laps. His No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota hovered around the top ten for a good portion of the latter stages, but late contract relegated him to a 16th-place finish.

 

  • Suarez, relegated to a 32nd-place finish after the wreck, endured a brutal weekend. The No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet was relegated to the rear of the field and lost crew chief Travis Mack after an illegal ballast issue was discovered during prerace inspection on Saturday.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Saturday’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500

Denny Hemlin

After an off week, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Saturday for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Beginning at 7:30 pm, it’ll be the first night race of the season and just the second in the track’s history. The event is 500 laps and 263 miles long with Joey Logano leading the field to green. Here are three drivers to watch in Saturday’s race.

Denny Hamlin

Over his career, Denny Hamlin has always performed well at Martinsville. He’s won there five times in the Cup Series and won three straight races there from 2009-2010. Hamlin’s average finish at Martinsville is an impressive 9.9 with 70% of his starts at the track resulting in a top-10.

Through seven races this season, Hamlin leads the points standings despite not yet winning a race. He already has six top-10s and his worst finish of the season is just 11th. Expect Hamlin to contend for the victory on Saturday.

Martin Truex Jr.

At one point, short track racing was an Achilles heel for Martin Truex Jr. But now, after winning two of the last three races at Martinsville, Truex Jr. has asserted himself as one of the best short track racers in the sport. He has 7 top-5s at the track and 13 top-10s for an average finish of 17th.

Truex Jr. secured his first win of the 2021 season a few weeks ago at Phoenix, and he’s looking for more. After winning just one race in 2020, the 40-year-old wants to bounce back in 2021 and become the first driver with multiple victories this season. Truex Jr. should most certainly run up front on Saturday.

Aric Almirola

2021 has been a season to forget thus far for Aric Almirola. Currently 28th in points, the 37-year-old has failed to place in the top-10 in this year with his best finish being 11th at Phoenix.

Historically at Martinsville, Almirola has been up and down. He has four top-5 finishes in his career, however, his average finish is 22nd thanks in part to several accidents and car failures throughout the years. To turn his season around, Almirola needs a strong run on Saturday, and he has the potential to do so.

NASCAR: NJ native Martin Truex Jr. wins at Phoenix

Martin Truex Jr. won the NASCAR Cup Series event at Phoenix Raceway, which will also host the season finale in February.

A strong restart with 25 laps to go allowed Martin Truex Jr. to take home a victory at the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday afternoon. Phoenix will also host the season finale in November. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota recovered from an early brush with the wall to visit victory lane for the first time since the visit to Martinsville last June (a 29-race drought).

Truex, a Mayetta Township, NJ native, becomes the fifth different race-winner this season, earning the 28th victory of his Cup Series career. Joey Logano, who led a race-best 143 laps, came home second while Denny Hamlin finished third. Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski and defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.

“Huge boost, huge confidence,” Truex said of the win. “If we would have come here last year in the final four, I would have been not very confident. Last year we struggled here for some reason. It’s never been our greatest track, I’ll say that. It’s always been just okay. I’ve never come here with a really warm, fuzzy feeling that we’re going to go there and win, we’re going to go there and be really, really strong and lead laps.”

“That was definitely a nice surprise today. Really just hats off to all the guys for the hard work. Everybody that builds the cars, puts in all the effort back at JGR, Toyota.”

The victory was of a come-from-behind effort for Truex, who made contact with the wall on lap 12 of 312 while battling Ryan Blaney for position in the top five. Truex was thus relegated to a 17th-place finish at the end of the first 75-lap stage (won by Blaney) but recovered well enough to finish in the runner-up slot behind Logano after the second.

Strong adjustments on pit stops, headed by crew chief James Small, allowed the No. 19 to get back into contention. This marks Small’s second season and second victory atop Truex’s pit box, coming home seventh last year.

“We worked really hard. We’ve got a great team,” Truex said of his No. 19 crew. “It seemed like for whatever reason, it was always little things that were biting us. We were always so close, always second or third. I don’t know how many times we’ve been second, third, fourth, top five since we won last year at Martinsville. It’s been a bunch.”

Truex first took the lead on lap 224, ending the dominance of Logano. The No. 22 Team Penske Ford dominated for a majority of the afternoon, leading a race-high 143 laps after finishing no worse than 10th in the last four visits to Phoenix. Logano had also won the previous spring race at Phoenix last March, the last race held prior to the coronavirus-induced pause.

Logano gained back the lead after a series of strong pit stops. Truex gained a shot at the win during one final yellow flag at lap 283, when his JGR teammate Kyle Busch spun after contact with Ross Chastain. Having just passed Keselowski for second before the yellow, Truex started next to Logano on what became the final restart and drove to his first win of the season. He became the fifth different winner in five Cup events this year. It also marks his first career win at Phoenix after a runner-up finish in 2019.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • During his postrace comments, Truex confirmed that he would run the Camping World Truck Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt incarnation. Several drivers will join him as the Cup Series prepares to go dirt racing for the first time in over five decades. Truex will drive a Toyota Tundra for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

 

  • Kyle Larson, last week’s winner at Las Vegas, overcame starting at the rear of the field and two speeding penalties to finish seventh.

 

  • All three Team Penske cars finished in the top ten for the second consecutive weeks, as Blaney brought the No. 12 Ford home 10th.

 

  • Among those who failed to finish were Anthony Alfredo and Cody Ware, each of whom were involved in an accident on lap 89. Timmy Hill and Josh Bilicki likewise left early due to mechanical issues.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch for this weekend in the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube

The NASCAR Cup Series begins their two-race West Coast swing on Sunday, stopping in Las Vegas for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube. Sunday’s event will be 267 laps around the 1.5 mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the second intermediate track of the season. Here are three drivers to watch:

Matt DiBenedetto

There’s no other way to say it, but Matt DiBenedetto has gotten off to a horrific start in 2021. DiBenedetto sits 34th in the standings with just 14 points earned through three races.

However, DiBenedetto has a great chance to turn his misfortunes around this weekend. Last season, DiBenedetto finished 2nd in both Las Vegas races, as Fords have run strong there the past few seasons. With DiBenedetto far behind in points and looking for a new ride next season, he must have a strong run this weekend. He also has the chance to win his first race, something that would be career-changing.

Joey Logano

Joey Logano has gotten off to a solid start in 2021. He’s registered 14th, 2nd, and 25th place finishes to open up his 13th full-time season. Logano’s accumulated a lot of stage points in the first two races of the season, putting him 3rd in points.

A win this weekend would be Logano’s third straight in the Las Vegas spring race. He’s placed in the top-5 six times over his career, meaning he’s shown to consistently run up front there. With a victory, Logano would punch his ticket to the playoffs and potentially assume first place in the standings.

Martin Truex Jr.

They don’t call him mile and a half Martin for no reason.

Over the past seven seasons, Martin Truex Jr. has been one of the strongest on the NASCAR circuit at intermediate tracks. 16 of his 27 Cup Series wins have come on intermediate tracks, including two wins at Las Vegas.

Coming into this weekend, Truex Jr. sits ninth in points after a 3rd place finish at Homestead-Miami. After a down year in 2020, Truex Jr. should be a major threat to put up his first victory of the season.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Joe Gibbs Racing

Championships won and championships missed unite at JGR, whose drivers experienced a roller-coaster 2020 season.

2021 Joe Gibbs Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Denny Hamlin 11 Chris Gabehart FedEx
Kyle Busch 18 Ben Beshore M&M’s/Skittles/Snickers/Pedigree
Martin Truex Jr. 19 James Small Bass Pro Shops/Auto-Owners Insurance/DeWalt
Christopher Bell 20 Adam Stevens Stanley/DeWalt/Irwin/Rheem/Craftsman

History

Legendary NFL head coach Joe Gibbs opted for another championship venture during his days coaching football in Washington. As he closed in on his third and final Super Bowl title, Gibbs was starting his own NASCAR squad, starting things off with future champion Dale Jarrett. After Jarrett and another trophy-hoister in the making, Bobby Labonte, piloted the original No. 18 car to 10 wins over its first seven seasons, Gibbs expanded to a two-car operation, welcoming in the hot-headed but talented Tony Stewart to the No. 20. In the first year of the Labonte-Stewart tandem, the former finished second behind Jarrett, then driving for Robert Yates Racing, before winning a title of his own in 2000. Stewart would take home the championship two years, the first of two such celebrations in Gibbs’ No. 20 (the other coming in 2005).

The original Nos. 18 and 20 cars are now respectively piloted by Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell. Busch has brought home two further Cup Series championships (2015, 2019).

A third car, the No. 11, arrived in 2004 as a part-time unit before Denny Hamlin earned full-time duties just over a year later by closing out the 2005 campaign with five top 20 finishes in the final seven races. The gambit immediately paid off with a third-place finish in the final standings, the best by any Cup rookie in the modern era (since 1972). Hamlin has since gone on to win 44 races in Gibbs’ equipment, including three Daytona 500s (including the most recent two), and, with the exception of an injury-marred 2013, has finished no worse than 12th in the final standings.

Gibbs would often field a fourth car for research and development before that unit eventually became the No. 19 Toyota, originally driven by Carl Edwards in 2015-16. Edwards retired weeks before the 2017 Daytona 500, first leaving the Camry to Daniel Suarez for two seasons before championship driver Martin Truex Jr. came over after the shutdown of Furniture Row Racing.

2020 in Review

The closest Gibbs ever came to an undefeated season was the 1991-92 NFL campaign, winning his first 11 games en route to Super Bowl XXVI. Hamlin tried hard to duplicate the feat after the coronavirus-induced pause, winning seven races and running at the front of the standings with Kevin Harvick all season. Following a 28th-place finish at Indianapolis in July, Hamlin finished outside of the Top 20 in just one of the final 20 races. He advanced to the final four at Phoenix for the second straight season but came home fourth in the standings despite a run in the top five.

Despite Hamlin’s success, the biggest story at Gibbs was by far the Kyle Busch saga. The No. 18’s title defense did not as planned, as a topsy-turvy season often denied him victories through factors beyond his control. Busch eventually was able to score a win at Texas in the 34th weekend of the season.

Truex was relatively quiet in his second year in the No. 19 car after picking up seven wins and a runner-up posting the year prior. He earned a single, yet dominant, victory at the summer race at Martinsville and his 23 top tens led all Gibbs drivers (third in NASCAR overall). Despite a summer stretch where he earned a streak of nine top fives in ten races, Truex missed out on the championship quartet after a tough race at the penultimate event back at Martinsville.

Bell, the 2017 Camping World Truck Series champion, got his Cup feet wet in the No. 95 at now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, which shut down after last season despite a technical alliance with Gibbs. Erik Jones piloted the No. 20 car in each of the past three seasons, finishing no better than 15th and winning two races.

Meet the Drivers

Denny Hamlin

Experience: 16th full season
Career Cup Victories: 57 (last: Texas, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 8th
Best standings finish: 2015, 2019

There’s nothing wrong with going down in the same sentences as the legendary Mark Martin, whom Hamlin passed on the all-time wins list last season. But those comparisons are going to grow in a pejorative light if Hamlin continues to miss out on a title, unfair as they may be. Based on his on-track output, Hamlin may be closer to a title than ever before. Since Chris Gabehart took over as crew chief in 2019, Hamlin has won 13 races.

“Chris (has done) a great job of getting the most out of me each and every week,” Hamlin said prior to descending upon Daytona. “When he came in, a lot of it was me working on the driving aspect and giving him the free reign to go and do whatever he needed to do with the race car and us trusting each other. I think that whatever has happened, it’s clicked and it’s worked well, and we’ve gotten a lot of success from that.”

Undeterred by another close finish, Hamlin has kept busy this offseason. In addition to starring in a widely-aired Domino’s commercial, Hamlin has been busy running 23XI Racing alongside NBA legend Michael Jordan and competitor Bubba Wallace. Hamlin has been instrumental in the team’s formation but has assured fans of his No. 11 that his day-to-day involvement with 23XI (which will hold a technical alliance with JGR) is on hold for the time being. Hamlin solidified his commitment to the No. 11 with a newly granted extension.

“I’m really looking forward to going to the race track and then concentrating on one thing and that’s being a race car driver and getting the most out of it,” Hamlin said. “For myself, I felt like February 1 was the date and where I’m kind of done on the day to day for 23X1 and I just think that now my focus is really on the No. 11 FedEx team and how we can win a lot of races and win a championship. That’s where ultimately is going to be the best thing for me, in the long run, to continue to be successful.”

Kyle Busch

Experience: 17th full season
Career Cup Victories: 
2020 finish: 4th
Best standings finish: 2nd (2010)

By all accounts, there are many teams in NASCAR that would make ridiculous sacrifices to earn Busch’s 2020 ledger (1 win, 14 top fives, 20 top tens). But Busch knows that there’s far more expected of him. Following Jimmie Johnson’s retirement, Busch is the only active multiple-champion on the Cup level.

To kickstart 2021, the No. 18’s personnel underwent a bit of a reboot. A good bunch of Busch’s crew shifted over to the No. 20 inherited by Bell, including pit boss Adam Stevens, who helped Busch win each of his Cup Series titles. Busch’s Camry will carry the familiar, colorful insignias of M&M’s and Mars, Incorporated’s confectionaries, but he feels it’s a complete shift. He compared the shift to his original Gibbs arrival in 2008, when he moved into the No. 18 after his first three Cup seasons with Hendrick Motorsports. Busch would go on to earn his first eight wins in a Gibbs vehicle that season.

“I kind of feel like I got fired from the 18 car and moved over to the 20 guys,” Busch said. “There’s this whole thing mentally in my head that I kind of got fired and rehired. Maybe that’ll hold true with how it looked in 2007 to 2008 from Hendrick to Gibbs. And I went off and won eight races. It’s a new challenge, it’s a whole group, but looking forward to it.”

Engineer Ben Beshore will take over as Busch’s crew chief, having overseen four Busch wins at the Xfinity level in 2019. Beshore matched the output in a full season with Harrison Burton. The collaboration got off to a good start this week, as Busch took advantage of a battle for the lead gone awry between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to win the Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course on Tuesday night.

“We’ve had a lot of success together. We kind of know the language we’re both speaking,” Beshore said after the Clash victory. “To be able to start the year with some momentum, some positive momentum, get a win right off the bat here, it’s awesome. Especially with a lot of new team members on the car, just getting everybody tied together, pulling in the same direction. I think it’s huge.”

Martin Truex Jr. 

Experience: 16th full season
Career Cup Victories: 27 (last: Martinsville summer, 2020)
2020 finish: 7th
Best standings finish: 2017 Champion

Truex was another driver with a very consistent season that went somewhat by the wayside because we’ve grown accustomed to much bigger things. Going into last year, Truex had won 19 races over the prior three campaigns, winning the 2017 title and finishing in the runner-up slot in the other two seasons. Last season was Truex’s first without crew chief Cole Pearn since 2014. The Mayetta, NJ native had won all but two of his 26 Cup Series races with Pearn in town. Eventually, Truex found a rapport with new boss James Small, leading to their summer endeavors.

JGR brass obviously feels the collaboration is working. Truex and Small will work a second season together and Truex, 40, was recently signed to an extension that will keep him in the No. 19 Toyota.

“We’re always fired up and we are working hard to be better at things,” Truex said what was and what’s to come at JGR. “Last year did not go the way that we wanted. We had a lot of close calls and had some races we probably should have won, and things didn’t go the way we needed to, or we screwed them up. That always makes you angry and makes you want to go back and redo it or retry it. I think we are better prepared this year for sure as a unit.”

Christopher Bell

Experience: 2nd season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 20th
Best standings finish: 20th (2020)

Bell, the 2020 Camping World Truck Series champion, didn’t live up to his massive potential in his first season, probably due to underfunded equipment over at LFR. He did, however, put up some strong efforts in his debut. His 20th-place posting was the best by any LFR driver and he tied Matt DiBenedetto’s team record with seven top tens. Bell’s best finish was a third-place showing at Texas behind Busch. He now returns to Gibbs after placing their Xfinity program in the top five in 2018 and 2019 with Stevens as his crew chief. The pair got off to a strong start at the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday, as Bell earned a runner-up result in a photo-finish with Aric Almirola.

Despite his familiarity and prior success in a Gibbs vehicle, Bell feels like there’s some pressure to perform in his return to the organization.

“I’m in a difficult position, no doubt about it,” Bell said. Whenever you drive for Joe Gibbs Racing or any top organization, I think that the expectations are to be a championship contender. Coach provides all of the resources needed to have four championship-caliber teams and that is what the goal is. Anything short of that is not good enough.”

Outlook

JGR is an organization where each of its four drivers is more than capable of making the postseason, and they should be well expected to do so in 2021. The biggest question mark will probably be Bell, if only because he has yet to consistently prove himself at the Cup level yet. Either way, there’s no reason to believe that this team shouldn’t be contending for a championship.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags