JOLIET, Ill. -- The lobby at the Joe Gibbs Racing facility in North Carolina is a testament to the success of its owner. There are mementos from Gibbs' three Super Bowl triumphs as head coach of the Washington Redskins, and a trio of NASCAR championship trophies won by former drivers Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart. The man they call "Coach" has won a lot, and won across two very disparate pursuits, and visitors are reminded of that the instant they walk through the glass doors.
There are few things, though, you don't see encased next to all those rings and awards.
Like the suspension piece that came unhooked and ended Kyle Busch's pursuit of the 2008 NASCAR title.
Or the electrical part that failed last season, taking Denny Hamlin's championship hopes along with it.
More than anything else, those two items -- the first a heim joint that busted at New Hampshire, the second a master control switch that fell off at Martinsville -- have come to define JGR's recent history in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, which for one of the sport's elite organizations has too often become a frustrating effort in crisis management. Each fall the team's success on the race track gives way to questions about quality control, with memories of Busch's star-crossed 2008 campaign -- where he won eight races only to have three consecutive weeks of mechanical issues sideline him in the Chase -- still fresh in the mind.
The fate last year of Hamlin, in the thick of the title hunt until his master control switch shook loose in the 33rd of 36 points events, only serves to reinforce it all. But this year JGR enters the Chase as strong as it's been since Stewart's glory days with the organization, with Matt Kenseth and Busch occupying the first and third seeds, respectively, as the playoff opens Sunday at 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway -- just the kind of intermediate track on which Gibbs has enjoyed so much success already this season.
It all shapes up as a golden opportunity for JGR to rewrite its recent history in the Chase, which hasn't produced a championship for the organization since Stewart's last title there in 2005. That is, if one of those nagging failures doesn't get in the way first.
"I hope we've learned some things from our past," said Jimmy Makar, JRG's vice president for racing operations. "We've figured out a couple of different ways to lose a championship, but we know how to win them, too. We've won with Bobby and Tony both. So I think we're as strong as ever leading into this one. Our cars are competitive. We struggled on some of the big 2-mile tracks, and we don't have any more of those to worry about. The mile-and-a-halfs are where we seem to have a little bit of a handle on what's going on. So I'm excited. We keep ourselves in contention, we have a really good shot."
On paper, it certainly seems that way. In his first year with the organization, Kenseth has enjoyed perhaps his best season ever to this point, leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ranks with five victories. One year after missing the Chase, Busch has rebounded with a vengeance, winning four times and posting 11 top-fives. The only omission is Hamlin, whose year was sidetracked after he broke a back vertebra in a final-lap crash at Fontana in March, forcing him to sit out most of five races and miss the Chase for the first time in his career.
From a reliability standpoint, the biggest question surrounding the Gibbs organization for much of this year has concerned its engines, which are made by Toyota Racing Development. After a spate of failures earlier this season -- including notable ones by Kenseth and Busch in the Daytona 500 -- TRD cut back on horsepower in favor of reliability, gradually balancing the two. Prior to last weekend's controversial regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway, Kenseth and Busch had combined to win three times in four weeks, although that span did see failures by Hamlin and another Toyota driver, Clint Bowyer, at Atlanta.
In total, though, the JGR teams enter the Chase in the wake of one of their stronger stretches of the season, which buoys its drivers' confidence in the organization's quality control.
"I feel comfortable with it," Busch said. "We've certainly had some issues. Last year, I went through a lot of quality control issues on my team, and the other teams didn't for whatever reason. So, I guess I put that on God's fate. Whatever he's going to have in store for us this year. Truthfully, there's nothing I can put my hands on and touch that's going to make a difference. It's going to be about what happens. We'll play it out as it comes to us. Why I say all of that is because we've had really, really good races. Our worst finish of us running at the end of a race is 11th or 12th. Throw away Richmond -- that don't count. But the other races have been 30th or worse, and that's been (when) things that have happened to us. I feel like our cars are really good."
"I think you go out and try to do the best you can at all the things that you can control, and there's a lot of things you just can't control," Kenseth added. "There's a lot of parts and pieces that I can't control. I think you go out and everything that you can do something about, you try to do to the very best of your ability. I know everybody else on the team is doing that as well. There's certain things you just can't control, and to worry about those things and stress about those things really isn't productive, and really takes your time away from trying to be the best you can at the things you can control."
The rest falls to people like Makar, who has implemented a system that analyzes potential failures and ranks them in terms of importance, from something relatively innocuous to larger problems capable of knocking a driver out of a race. Although the TRD engines have experienced their ups and downs this year, JGR hasn't suffered anything catastrophic like Busch's brake rotor failure last year at Pocono, or Hamlin's master switch breakdown a year ago at Martinsville. While anything can still happen over 10 races, Makar feels positive about where the organization stands in terms of part reliability.
"I feel real comfortable with that," he said. "We've put a lot of procedures and things in place to try and eliminate failures and bigger problems and things of that nature. You're still dealing with human beings, and everybody's got to go out and do their jobs, but I feel like there should be no reason for a part failure. We don't have anything going on that would make me believe that would potentially be a problem."
Which would certainly remove a potential hurdle in front of Busch or Kenseth, who along with five-time champion and No. 2 Chase seed Jimmie Johnson have emerged as the favorites to win this championship. At 41 and with a title to his credit from his days at Roush Fenway Racing, Kenseth brings a large degree of leadership and experience to a team that's had a youthful lineup since Stewart left to form his own team in 2009. Makar likes the combination of two drivers from two different generations who go about things in two different ways, which has produced nine race wins between them at this point.
"Both of them are just doing really well," he said. "They're on their game, they're doing the things it takes. We just need to keep the cars in contention, not have any problems. Our engine issues we've had come and go during the year, it sounds like TRD has their hands around it. But the engine deal is something you always worry about no matter where you are, because we push the things to such limits. But I think we're in pretty good shape. Beating ourselves, that's the thing I worry about more than us not being able to compete and be there."
Which, in the end, may very well be what determines JGR's fate over the course of this Chase, as it has in seasons past. While the first 26 races certainly offer promise, any mistakes are magnified in the final 10. And those mistakes will have to be minimized if a Gibbs driver is to break through and deliver the organization's first premier-series championship in eight years.
"That's to be seen," Busch said. "We've got to prove ourselves first."
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