DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 02: (L-R) Joey Logano, driver of the #20 The Home Depot Toyota, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate All Battery Center Toyota and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, talk on the grid prior to the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke ZERO 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway on July 2, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
JGR looks as strong as ever after two races, marking a dramatic turnaround for the team from 2011.
When your team principal is a three-time Super Bowl-winning coach and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, excellence will be the standard you are measured against.
That's the case at Joe Gibbs Racing, where 2011 saw a few accomplishments for the team – but certainly not enough when compared to the group's lofty expectations.
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin won a combined five races and both made the Chase, but neither was a factor when it mattered the most. And their teammate, Joey Logano, was a virtual nonfactor throughout 36-race schedule, registering just six top-10 finishes and ending the year a woeful 24th in points.
Busch was done in by incidents on and off the track (which ultimately forced NASCAR's hand as they parked him for a race), Hamlin's season was undone by his failure to put the disappointing way he lost the championship a year prior behind him and Logano had problems communicating with former crew chief Greg Zipadelli, trying to fill the enormous shoes left by the man he replaced in the No. 20 Home Depot, Tony Stewart.
Another obstacle that prevented the team from reaching its goal of bringing home its first championship since 2005 was the continued unreliability of its engines, as JGR cars blew motors during eight races in 2011.
For a team which prides itself on continuity, hard decisions were made in the offseason to shake JGR out of its doldrums.
First was the announcement that the JGR engine department would merge with Toyota Racing Development, with TRD supplying the team with its engines beginning with the 2012 season.
This was followed by the departures of two mainstays of JGR – crew chiefs Mike Ford and the aforementioned Zipadelli.
Ford's relationship with Hamlin had soured considerably due to the way the 2010 season had ended, while Zipadelli was never able to develop the rapport with Logano the way he had with Stewart.
Despite each having impeccable credentials – Ford had won 17 races with Hamlin and having made the Chase each of their six full seasons together, while Zipadelli had won two championships and 34 races in his 13-year tenure at JGR – it was in the best interest for everyone involved if Ford and Zipadelli moved on.
Enter Jason Ratcliff to take over for Logano, and Darian Grubb – who came over from Stewart-Haas Racing to lead Hamlin's No. 11 team after winning the 2011 championship.
So far, Ratcliff has allowed Logano to have something he didn't have before: A voice. For the first time in his Sprint Cup career, Logano feels empowered and not afraid ask for the changes he feels are needed to make his Toyota Camry go faster.
"It's hard to put it in words," Logano said Tuesday during a teleconference with reporters. "But you can just kind of feel the difference. My attitude's different. I feel like I walk around with a lot more confidence in myself. That carries through the whole team."
Two races into the season Logano has posted consecutive top-10 finishes. For a driver who nearly found himself out of a ride at the end of last year, it is the exact start he needed to show he continued to deserve a ride with one of NASCAR's upper-echelon teams.
"I think the big thing is attitude," Logano said. "I feel like my whole team has the attitude right now to go out there and win races, make the Chase and make this happen right now. Everybody has picked up their game a lot. I'm excited about that. And it comes along with a lot of new things. Obviously with a new crew chief with Jason, it ended up bringing some new life. Changes things up a lot. It's kind of like a restart button."
As strong as Logano started the year, Hamlin has been even better.
Brimming with confidence, he finished a career-best fourth in the Daytona 500 and then followed that up with a convincing win last Sunday in Phoenix. As such, the 31-year-old driver finds himself the points leader heading into this weekend's race at Las Vegas.
It's a remarkable turnaround for a driver and team some felt wouldn't make the Chase. Hamlin, instead of wallowing in past disappointments, is now looking forward to future rewards.
"(Grubb) comes in with a lot of knowledge," Hamlin said after his recent victory. "... The way he helps get all the guys surrounded about one goal, and that's the biggest thing that I've noticed is how tuned he is with the race team, and obviously we've got everyone behind us within our 11 team, and JGR right now believing in the thought process that Darian has.
"Obviously, when he has faith in me that he feels like he can win a championship with me, after all the choices he had in the offseason, that gives me a lot of confidence, and those two are just meshing well right now."
The one team that didn't make a crew chief change was Busch's 18 team. As it has been throughout his career, Busch's hopes rest on whether he can harness his talent and continue to mature.
Thus far, the results are positive. His one-race suspension seems to have showed Busch that he needs the sport more than it needs him.
Long regarded as one of the premier talents in all of motorsports, this may finally be the year where everything comes together for the man who has won a combined 104 races in NASCAR's three national touring series.
Add everything together with the revamped JGR – a mature Busch, two drivers who have found their confidence and engines that no longer fail – and it's not too farfetched to say it could very well equate to the organization winning its fourth Sprint Cup championship.
"We had a tough, long, hard year last year, and going through all that, and this year to come out of the box the way we have has just been awesome," Gibbs said Sunday following Hamlin's win. "I think our crew chiefs just seem to have a great chemistry now, and Darian and their relationship is still growing, but I think we're really excited about this. I've got a great – a very good feeling about this year, so hopefully we can continue."