Joe Gibbs Racing teams need a big-time improvement over dismal 2011 effort to contend for 2012 Cup crown
Joe Gibbs Racing has lots of potential.
They have Kyle Busch -- arguably the most talented pure racer on the track each week. Whatever you put him in, he's capable of winning in it. He's going to go down in history as one of the winningest drivers in NASCAR history -- yet he does not have a Cup title yet.
They have Denny Hamlin, who came oh-so-close to stopping Jimmie Johnson's fifth title in 2010, then went on a tailspin in 2011 and became the latest driver to have a slump after nearly claiming the title.
They have Joey Logano, aka "sliced bread", who was supposed to be NASCAR's next superstar when he came into the sport at age 18 a few years back -- um, that hasn't exactly worked out.
So what gives? In addition to three talented drivers, they have an owner in Joe Gibbs who is capable of winning championships in both football (he has 3 rings) and NASCAR (he has won 3 Cups, one with Bobby Labonte, two with Tony Stewart.)
Coach Gibbs no doubt has thought about this longer than I have, and yet somehow the results are not there on a level as consistent as you see with some of the other teams that compete regularly for the title. 2011 was a horrorshow for the team, which finished 9th, 12th and 24th in the final 2011 points standings.
It's all about coming through in the clutch, aka the Chase, and that's just not JGR's forte. Kyle Busch always self-destructs, especially this year -- when he went and got himself suspended from a Chase race due to some silly retribution in a Truck race, and wasn't doing much in the Chase before that. Will Kyle calm down in 2012 and finally contend for a title? I'll believe it when I see it. Something about the Chase format doesn't agree with him, and despite his boatload of talent there's no guarantee he'll ever win a title or even come close to it.
Hamlin had his one moment in the sun, and he blew it. He got too cocky when he had a lead on Johnson, then couldn't handle the pressure the final two races and psyched himself out of a Cup title. This year he tanked it, and who knows if he'll be fully back to his potential in 2012. He's got talent, obviously, he just needs to get his head straight and put that talent to proper use.
Now Logano is a whole different animal. He has the unfortunate background of being being viewed as the next big thing. So when he doesn't immediately live up to that, he is dissed as a failure. I say hold up, the kid is in his early 20s, has a huge potential, and if it hadn't been so much hype around him he might be viewed quite differently. 2012 opens a whole new year of challenges for him, as his crew chief Greg Zipadelli is gone and he'll have to work with someone new (Jason Ratcliff, who led the #18 JGR Nationwide team to a ton of wins, mostly with Kyle Busch driving). If he and Ratcliff can find a good bond, the key to any team's success, there's hope he can rebound from his terrible 2011 and get closer to being a Chase-worthy team. I said from the start of his career that Logano will be a great driver, and I stick by that. Given time, he will be elite.
There is no magic bullet here. All the Gibbs drivers have their own situations they need to overcome. Obviously, the team providing good quality equipment will help them on their quest to get back to Cup contention. But each driver will have to find that special something that Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards found in 2011 if they want to be a title contender in 2012.
Kyle might back off his Nationwide and Truck series schedules and focus more on Cup, a wise move, as lately this extracurricular work has just gotten him into trouble. Denny's work with a sports psychologist hopefully will pay off more in 2012 than it did in 2011, and he'll have champion crew chief Darian Grubb leading his effort this year -- not a bad addition. And Joey just needs to make the leap we've been waiting for.
It may or may not happen, but one thing is for sure; 2012 will most definitely be an improvement for JGR, which had a hell of an off year in 2011.
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