2017 NASCAR Team Recap: Joe Gibbs Racing

(Photo: Logan Whitton/Harrelson Photography Inc.)

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

For the final five days of 2017, Kickin’ the Tires will recap each of the top 10 teams in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, laying out their year in statistics and storylines. 

The Breakdown

Wins: Eight

Playoff Berths: Three

Highest Points Finisher: Second

Driver Results:

  • Kyle Busch (Third in Points – Five wins, 14 top fives, 22 top 10s, 2023 laps led, Four DNFs)
  • Denny Hamlin (Sixth in Points – Two wins, 15 top fives, 22 top 10s, 710 laps led, Four DNFs)
  • Matt Kenseth (Seventh in Points – One win, 10 top fives, 18 top 10s, 421 laps led, Six DNFs)
  • Daniel Suarez (20th in Points – Zero wins, One top five, 12 top 10s, 40 laps led, Six DNFs)

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was a tale of two halves for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), who struggled mightily to open the year but rebounded to help Toyota dominate when it counted most.

After proving to be the tour’s top team for the brunt of 2016, the new year began with a slog for JGR. All four drivers struggled mightily, going winless through the spring as a host of surprise victors – Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. among them – took their place in victory lane.

The results were expected for rookie Daniel Suarez, who entered the year as a surprise Cup Series rookie after Carl Edwards chose to retire over the offseason. But for Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth the lack of wins proved troubling, with Busch’s frustration boiling over early in the year as he fought with Joey Logano after a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The times were tough for JGR, but as the season neared its midpoint things began to change.

Busch, Hamlin and Kenseth all had close calls with victory as the summer stretch began. The losing streak finally came to a close when Hamlin led 54 laps to secure a victory in the year’s 19th race of the year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Two races later Busch made his maiden voyage to victory lane at Pocono Raceway, and he followed it up three races later with his second weekend sweep at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The wins pushed Busch and Hamlin into the playoff field, with Kenseth joining as well on points in what he announced would be his final year with JGR. Hamlin also poured on another victory at Darlington Raceway, but it was stripped of all benefits after his No. 11 Toyota failed inspection in the post-race teardown.

Only Suarez missed a trip to the postseason, falling short of cracking the playoff field on points after running in the back half of the top 20 in the standings.

When the playoff began, Busch soared to life. The Las Vegas, Nevada native claimed each of the final two races in the Round of 16 to enter the Round of 12 with ease. While that round proved a challenge – with two finishes outside of the top 20 – Busch survived to clinch his way into the Round of 8.

Hamlin followed Busch into the semifinal round with an assortment of consistent runs, finishing 12th or better at every stop but Dover International Speedway, where a broken axle eliminated him early.

The lone JGR driver to qualify for the playoffs and fail to make the semifinal was Kenseth. The 2003 Cup Series champion was consistent, but lacked the top speed of his teammates. A pair of top 10s in the Round of 16 helped the Wisconsinite advance to the Round of 12. But without the playoff point advantage of his fellow competitors, finishes of 11th and 14th in the opening two races left Kenseth on the outside looking in heading to the cutoff race at Kansas Speedway.

In that race Kenseth ran strong, rising inside of the top 10 and appearing to be in contention to join his teammates in the Round of 8 on points. But in the end the veteran was damaged in a mid-race wreck, and when his crew got a pit road penalty moments later, Kenseth was disqualified from the race.

Just like that, his last chance at a title with JGR was over.

Busch and Hamlin both found themselves in contention to make the Championship 4 in the opening race of the Round of 8 at Martinsville Speedway. Hamlin restarted third late in the race, and after Chase Elliott moved leader Brad Keselowski up the track, the Virginian was in position to challenge for the lead.

In the next set of turns Hamlin gave Elliott a bump. But the contact was more than Elliott could handle.

Around the sophomore went, spinning into the outside wall.

Suddenly Hamlin had a playoff rival.

Hamlin held the lead on the ensuing restart, but he was sent up the track by Busch during the final lap. Busch went on the win the race and clinch a spot in the Championship 4. Hamlin free-falled back and crashed coming to the start-finish line.

That failure to win came to bite Hamlin two weeks later at Phoenix Raceway. The 37-year-old was running in position to advance to the Championship 4 on points when a run-in with – who else – Elliott gave him a cut tire and resulted in a crash.

Kenseth went on to win that race, earning an emotional final victory for JGR. But Hamlin was eliminated from the playoffs after Keselowski passed him in the standings.

That left Busch to try to triumph in Homestead-Miami Speedway for his second Cup Series championship. And for a time in the race, it appeared he’d do just that.

Busch had what appeared to be the strongest car of the four championship contenders, running ahead of Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Keselowski for the majority of the night. But late in the going a failed strategy play left Busch chasing Truex for the top spot.

‘Rowdy’ was able to get to Truex, but he couldn’t pass him. He ended the year with a second-place result, finishing runner-up in the final Cup Series standings.

Hamlin and Kenseth followed in sixth and seventh, respectively. Suarez rounded out the team in 20th.

JGR’s 2017 is a difficult year to quantify. The team started the season with one of their worst stretches in recent history, but by year’s end they were one of only two teams (with Furniture Row Racing) that seemed capable of winning on any given week.

Busch had one of the best cars on championship Sunday, and his teammates Hamlin and Kenseth could both have conceivably made the Championship 4 under appropriate circumstances.

Given that, the team has cause for optimism heading into 2018, where they’ll likely contend for a title once more.

Team Recaps: 

Germain Racing (Dec. 27)

Roush Fenway Racing (Dec. 27)

Richard Childress Racing (Dec. 28)

Wood Brothers Racing (Dec. 28)

Chip Ganassi Racing (Dec. 29)

Hendrick Motorsports (Dec. 29)

Team Penske (Dec. 30)

Stewart-Haas Racing (Dec. 30)

Joe Gibbs Racing (Dec. 31)

Furniture Row Racing (Dec. 31)

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