NASCAR At Fontana: Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlin Look Strong For Auto Club 400

After an offseason of change and uncertainty, it appeared through two races that Joe Gibbs Racing had fixed the many problems which plagued the organization throughout the 2011 season.

The exclamation point on this supposed metamorphosis was Denny Hamlin's convincing victory three weeks ago in Phoenix, one that also saw JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano finish sixth and 10th, respectively.

For Hamlin, who was still trying to put what was a frustrating and unfulfilling 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it was a monumental win on a variety of levels. That it came in what was just his second race with new crew chief Darian Grubb made it all the sweeter.

But just as things seemed to have changed for the better, the luster of what JGR accomplished through the first two events wore off. At both Las Vegas and Bristol, whether it was because of being caught up in an accident or simply not having the speed it had in the weeks prior, none of the three JGR cars finished better than 16th.

When the green flag flies on the Auto Club 400 – whether that's later today or Monday due to a rainout – JGR looks poised to put the disappointing last two weeks behind it.

"Even though we've ran subpar these last couple weeks, everyone is still in a good mood and still happy about where we're at and where we're heading," Hamlin said Friday at Auto Club Speedway. "That's something that we did lose in 2011. The morale of everyone, we needed an uplift and it seems like regardless of these last couple weeks, we knew we were going to have our struggles at the beginning of the season until we get cars built like Darian likes them and things like that."

In qualifying on Friday, Hamlin sped to the pole while Busch clocked in the second-fastest speed and secured the team's first front-row sweep since June 2003 – a span of 312 races.

"It was really a good day all around for us," Hamlin said. "We obviously showed some pretty good speed in the first practice. Even in race trim, it put us in the top five. I knew once we got to qualifying we'd have a strong car."

Winning has never been a question for JGR. After all, this is an organization which collectively has won no less than four races a season for the last seven years.

However, what it hasn't done since 2005 is win a championship – and to do that, it needs consistency.

This means salvaging bad days and turning them into good days, which is something it wasn't able to do the past couple of weeks and for the majority of last year.

But as is the case when major change has taken place, it takes time for the transformation to take effect. All of which explains JGR's early season ups and downs.

Everything the team has worked to improve on over the offseason isn't with the intent to run better now or even next week. JGR is thinking big picture and about what it needs to do to win the team's fourth Sprint Cup title – which would be the first for Toyota.

The mantra is seemingly that before you can run, you first need to walk. A lesson which Hamlin has no problem embracing at this point in the season.

"This is the first chapter and I think we've got some good things coming along the lines," Hamlin said. "We have to be patient, we need to harness our expectations for our race team for the first eight-to-10 races and then see what we have come summertime."

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