DARLINGTON, S.C. -- For Joey Logano, the shoe was finally on the other foot.
After notching 18 NASCAR Nationwide Series victories with Joe Gibbs Racing over the last five seasons, Logano knows all too well the embarrassment of riches that the team possesses on the circuit -- even more so, the near-monopoly it has at Darlington Raceway.
Friday night, the Penske Racing convert was the only non-Gibbs driver in the top five, trying to make an uphill climb against his former team at one of its best tracks.
"It ticks me off," Logano said with a trademark laugh. "I saw all four of 'em up front all day and we're working our guts out trying to catch up to them right now."
The whole field shared the same sentiment in the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200, where Joe Gibbs-owned cars took four of the top five spots at the checkered flag. Kyle Busch was smiling in Victory Lane after his fifth win in nine races this season, with teammates Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers second and third to complete an all-JGR podium. Only Logano in fourth place broke up the Gibbs stranglehold, just ahead of Matt Kenseth's JGR Toyota.
There was an overwhelming sense it would be a Gibbs type of night after Friday afternoon qualifying. Once time trials were over, a full sweep of the first two rows was complete with Busch, Sadler, Kenseth and Vickers sitting 1-2-3-4.
The Gibbs teams battled some adversity during the 200.8-mile sprint, most notably a mid-race spin for Sadler and a botched pit stop for Vickers, but at the end of the night, the finishing order was remarkably similar to the starting lineup in the seventh Joe Gibbs Racing victory in the series in the last eight Darlington races.
"I think JGR's stats really speak for themselves. They've won I don't know how many races they've won in a row and run up front all the time," said Sadler, who has adjusted to the team's set-ups after joining the Toyota organization in the offseason. "They do drive a little bit different, to be honest with you. I just think that's between me and the race team. I sure as hell wouldn't tell you if I knew exactly what the difference was."
If anyone notices the difference a year makes, it's Busch. The winningest driver in the Nationwide Series returned to the JGR fold after one season as an owner-driver with his Kyle Busch Motorsports outfit. The drop-off was dramatic: after seasons of (in order) 10, nine, 13 and eight wins primarily in Gibbs' equipment, Busch went winless in 22 races last year under the KBM banner.
This season for Busch, it's been a matter of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
"It's kind of deceiving when you're driving the (Gibbs) stuff just exactly how good it is and how smart these guys are," Busch said Friday after his 56th career Nationwide victory. "When I'm racing the car around there I'm like, 'Oh, this ain't bad, it can't be that hard to up-start an organization and come out here and beat JGR.' Obviously, that's not the case. Certainly these guys are pretty smart and do an awful lot of great things to make cars go fast.
"It was an unfortunate year last year and I led a lot of laps, I was competitive, especially toward the end of the year -- my worst finish was 10th and that was at Montreal through the wreckfest -- just unfortunately never made it to Victory Lane. That was sort of demoralizing if you will. It's great to be back this year, it's great to be working with Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and being in a JGR car with JGR engines and everything like that."
JR Motorsports driver Regan Smith, last weekend's winner at Talladega Superspeedway, remained the Nationwide points leader after a seventh-place finish Friday night, but admitted that his team still had its work cut out for it to gain on the Gibbs operation at Darlington.
"I think that our car was as good as a couple of their cars throughout the course of the night, but when it all boiled down to it at the end of the race, they were able to pour it on there and all four of their cars finished ahead of us," Smith said.
"It's a solid night for those guys and we're going to keep digging. It's nights like this where we can sit back and say we're going to keep working hard because we've obviously got some things at different tracks that we can figure out."
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