clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

NASCAR Pocono Windows 10 400 preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports playing catch-up to Joe Gibbs Racing

Having recovered from slow start to the season, Joe Gibbs Racing has emerged as NASCAR’s team to beat.

The dominance exhibited by Joe Gibbs Racing has been pervasive in recent weeks. It has been so overwhelming that the competition has little choice but to acknowledge the obvious while scrambling to formulate a counterattack.

Following a slow start to the season, when wins and consistent high finishes were largely absent, JGR's four-car fleet of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth has evolved into NASCAR's standard-bearers. And its supremacy goes beyond Busch having won three consecutive races and four of the past five.

"The Gibbs guys have found some things, found some speed," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday at Pocono Raceway. "They were struggling last year, maybe at the start of this season, but they look really good now."

When Busch won July 11 at Kentucky Speedway, each of his teammates finished fifth or better. The next week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a similar story unfolded, with Busch celebrating in Victory Lane as Kenseth and Edwards also turned in strong top-10 runs.

"We're not on top of the mountain any more. (JGR) found some speed and we need to combat that."-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Further proof of JGR's emergence as NASCAR's dominant powerhouse, and perhaps the most telling, came a week ago in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A flat 2.5-mile track requiring a powerful engine and an aerodynamic package that can handle high speeds and sweeping corners, Indianapolis was no match for JGR's Toyotas.

Led by Busch's third win in a row, Hamlin and Kenseth placed fifth and seventh, respectively. Edwards, who led 20 laps, was running second before getting loose on a restart with 14 laps remaining and falling to 13th.

That speed has carried over to Pocono Raceway, where Busch captured the No. 1 spot in qualifying Friday, marking the third straight race a JGR driver has taken the pole.

"We're rolling," said Edwards, the pole-sitter at both New Hampshire and Indianapolis. "We've got fast cars and it's fun."

JGR's ascension has come at the expense of NASCAR's customary mainstay at the front of the field, Hendrick Motorsports. Over the past three races, Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne have combined to lead a mere two laps. The team's last non-restrictor-plate win occurred eight races ago at Dover International Speedway. And Johnson's victory came not because he had the better car, but byway of strategy and track position.

Just as Indianapolis firmly signified JGR's superiority, it highlighted the malaise currently inflicting Rick Hendrick's customarily preeminent juggernaut. Even before being involved in crashes of their own creation, Gordon and Earnhardt were largely noncompetitive, while Johnson (finished 15th) and Kahne (24th) slogged through the afternoon.

"Last week was really frustrating," Earnhardt said. "I don't think we have been too thrilled over the last month about how things have gone for us. From Rick on down you get the impression that things need to be better and everybody needs to work harder.

"(JGR) worked hard to get there. We've got to continue to work hard. ... We feel like we should show up with the resources we have and be the best team here every week.  If we are second that is not good enough.  If we are 20th that is not good enough, we are going to work hard."

No one associated with Hendrick is panicking about the reversal of fortunes. All involved understand the cyclical nature of NASCAR, in which a team hits on something and gives the appearance of holding an indissoluble advantage.

"We're not on top of the mountain any more -- by ourselves, at least," Earnhardt said. "(JGR) found some speed and we need to combat that with speed of our own."

In this instance, Earnhardt says JGR's engines are producing greater horsepower than Hendrick's Chevrolets. To close the performance gap, Earnhardt's No. 88 team held a meeting Tuesday involving all pertinent personnel. Discussed specifically were ways to progress.

"We all lay everything on the table," Earnhardt said. "Anybody got a problem, anybody see where we can do better, do different and improve. There is a lot of communication. We just didn't go home pissed off and then just show up to Pocono hoping everything was fine."

Although Earnhardt's pragmatism bodes well long-term as Hendrick seeks a turnaround, it doesn't change the immediate fact that JGR is favored to win again Sunday -- all four drivers qualified 11th or better, and in both rounds of practice Saturday each posted top-10 lap times including going 1-2-3-4 in the morning session.

Even the June Pocono winner concedes that the Windows 10 400 victor is likely to come from within JGR camp.

"I think the Gibbs cars have proven that in a couple of weeks' time you can make some really big gains," said Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing. "I think those guys are really the cars to beat right now."