Late Crashes Mar Incredible 2016 Campaign for Joe Gibbs Racing

NASCAR via Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

By most metrics, 2016 was the greatest season in Joe Gibbs Racing’s 25-year Premier Series existence. However, the organization’s inability to finish down the stretch will likely haunt them throughout the entire offseason.

Ask any knowledgable fan who the championship favorites were going into the Chase this year, and they likely would have told you one of three names.

Kevin Harvick.

Martin Truex, Jr.

Joe Gibbs Racing.

No, not any one driver. The entire organization.

Such was the strength of JGR and their affiliate — Furniture Row Racing – this season.

Entering 2016 as the defending champions with Kyle Busch, Coach Joe Gibbs and his sleight of drivers dominated early and often, controlling the Daytona 500 with the help of Truex before Denny Hamlin’s late rise to the lead and contending for victories weekly during the regular season.

No one driver led the way, but all four of the team’s all-star lineup made their way into the Chase with victories before the summer.

Hamlin’s triumph came in week one. Busch struck next, winning back-to-back races at Martinsville Speedway and Kansas Speedway. Carl Edwards earned his first win of the year a few weeks later at Bristol Speedway.

The only driver in the organization to struggle early was Matt Kenseth. After falling one straightaway short of a third Daytona triumph, Kenseth suffered a gauntlet of crashes, failures and other poor luck for the ensuing three months, fueling speculation that he might miss the Chase.

However, Kenseth ended that talk quickly, striking gold in a battle with young sensation Kyle Larson to win at Dover International Speedway in May.

As all four drivers made their way into the Chase, the floodgates began to open. The quartet claimed seven of the opening 12 races of the season, and though their dominance waned during the summer months, JGR ultimately rolled into the Chase with a combined 11 wins in the first 26 races.

From the moment the Chase began, JGR appeared to do everything right.

No one driver on the team proved dominant, but the organization gamed the playoff system perfectly, riding smooth, consistent drives to success.

Their efforts weren’t always pretty — Busch, Kenseth and Edwards drew ire from the NASCAR faithful when they spent 500 miles coasting behind the pack at Talladega Superspeedway to avoid disaster, and tensions between teammates rose after 500 laps of “cooperation” at Martinsville.

Still, all four drivers rolled into Phoenix Raceway for the penultimate race of the season with an opportunity to clinch their way into the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

From there, however, everything began to unravel.

The first to throw a shot at a championship away was Hamlin, who free-falled too far back into the field after staying out on a late caution. While Hamlin had a car capable of competing, the pit call ultimately cost him any chance at redemption for his 2014 title loss.

Next to crash out of the championship battle -literally- was Kenseth.

After leading through the closing stages in Arizona, Kenseth found himself outside of the hungry Alex Bowman on a late restart when contact between the two drivers sent the 2003 champion into the outside wall.

10 minutes earlier, Kenseth appeared poised for a championship duel. With one move, his season imploded.

Matt Kenseth’s 2016 season came crashing down in the Arizona desert. (Photo: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Benefitting from Kenseth’s woes was Busch, who claimed the final slot in the Championship 4 on points to join Texas Motor Speedway winner Edwards and give JGR two of the four shots at NASCAR’s greatest prize.

Busch never quite had the car he needed at Homestead, but Edwards did, running as strong as anyone in the field, save for the dominant Larson, and controlling the championship position into the closing stages of the season finale.

Edwards found himself on the inside of the front row for a restart inside of 10 laps remaining when a strong restart from fellow championship contender Joey Logano allowed the Team Penske driver to make a move for the position.

Logano dived low. Edwards blocked.

Logano looked even lower, and Edwards blocked again.

The two made contact.

10 seconds and two hard hits later, Edwards’ car came to a stop in Turn 1.

His title hunt? Over.

Edwards proved as gracious as any athlete in sports in defeat, walking to Logano’s pit box to wish his crew well, but he was forced for the second time in six years to come to terms with falling just short of a championship in Miami.

For the second-straight week, JGR had found themselves in position to strike.

For the second-straight time, they were denied.

In the end, Jimmie Johnson went on to win the championship. Logano rallied through damage to finish second in the standings.

In a year they’d dominated, JGR’s highest finishing driver in the standings, Busch, came home in third.

To say that result is a disappointment for JGR and Toyota would likely be an understatement.

Still, the team has much to be proud of.

Statistically, 2016 was about as strong of a year as JGR has ever managed in NASCAR’s top series. The organization either tied or bettered their career-bests in top fives (46), top 10s (84), average starting position (8.1) and laps led (3769). They were also the first organization to place four teams in the Round of 8 in the Chase, a mark that’ll prove difficult to match.

JGR was also played a large part in helping Toyota to their first Premier Series manufacturer’s championship.

Lastly, JGR found tremendous success in the XFINITY Series, winning an astounding 19 of the series’ 33 races. The organization placed two drivers -Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez- into the Championship 4 in the NXS’ inaugural Chase, and claimed the series championship courtesy of Suarez’s Homestead victory.

Lost championship notwithstanding, 2016 was still an impressive year for Toyota’s top team, and they’re positioned well to match this year’s success in 2017.

Between their NXS program, a newly-announced ARCA Racing Series program and affiliations with FRR and Kyle Busch Motorsports, JGR has a group of prospects including Jones, Suarez, Christopher Bell, Noah Gragson and Riley Herbst, giving them arguably the deepest talent pool in NASCAR.

The organization lost 2016 Camping World Truck Series standout William Byron to Hendrick Motorsports, but JGR still have more talent than they could ever hope to place in Premier Series rides, and a lineup in NASCAR’s top tour that stands as tall as any team in the paddock.

With luck and speed, JGR could be as strong in 2017 as they were in 2016.

They probably can’t wait to go out and prove it, too. Because until they get a chance to do just that at Daytona, the only memory on anyone’s mind’s going to be their Chase collapse.

2016 Year in Review

Hendrick Motorsports

Joe Gibbs Racing

Team Penske

Furniture Row Racing

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