Simply the Best
Want evidence that Joe Gibbs Racing has supplanted Hendrick Motorsports as the top outfit in Sprint Cup this season? Gibbs drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have already won two of the season's first seven races (Hendrick drivers have won zero), and teammate Tony Stewart, the operation's acknowledged leader, hasn't even gotten warmed up yet. By the time he heats up this summer (only two of Stewart's 32 career wins have come earlier than May 5), we could see three Gibbs drivers in the top five or six of the point standings.
Really, it's amazing that the Gibbs operation has won only two races so far. Credit Carl Edwards and his three victories for that. But while no driver has been better than Cousin Carl, it's a major stretch to say that his Roush Fenway team is in the same league right now with Gibbs. Busch, Hamlin and Stewart have combined to lead 887 laps, compared to 742 for the three big dogs at Hendrick (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson) and 466 for the top trio at Roush Fenway (Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth). Indeed, Busch leads all drivers with 386 laps led.
What's the secret? First of all -- and everybody knew this entering the season -- the lineup at Gibbs is just as good as the one at Hendrick. That's obvious. The real difference this year has been Toyota, which made a huge jump when it signed Gibbs as its flagship team last year. The relationship had the immediate impact of making the manufacturer -- which spent its first year of Cup racing working with teams that can most politely be referred to as second-tier-better.
"Gibbs isn't going to tell Toyota how to build an engine," Michael Waltrip told me at Daytona in February. "But they're going to say, 'We had 800 horsepower, and we had this much torque, and this was our acceleration curve, and we won Loudon with that.' And now Toyota says, 'Oh! OK. Let's figure out how to make our engines do all those things.' And it's that simple." Gibbs brought Toyota, with all its money and resources, the one thing it lacked: championship experience.
That the end result could be a championship for Joe Gibbs Racing this season seems very likely indeed.
How to Drive ...
Phoenix International Raceway
Tony Stewart talks about how he learned to race at Phoenix:
"I started racing there in '93 when I ran a Silver Crown car, and since then I've run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, Nationwide Series cars, and of course, Sprint Cup in The Home Depot car. So I've logged a bunch of laps there. To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it's the place where my career came full-circle. With every different division of car that I've run there, I've ended up running a different line. With that, I've learned a lot about that racetrack and where the sweet spots are. I was used to the place when it came time to run there in Sprint Cup. I knew a lot about the racetrack and the different places that can make you go fast or slow. It gave me an opportunity to adapt a lot more to the car than to the racetrack."
87: Laps led by Carl Edwards at Phoenix last November.
4: Number of times, in the last five races at Phoenix, that Edwards has finished in the top 10.
6.6: Average finish for Jimmie Johnson at Phoenix.
Meg Bestell-Eide/ASP Inc/Icon SM
Move over, dad, I've got this one. Juan Pablo Montoya's daugher, Paulina, gets a feel for the family business before the race at Texas.
November 7, 1999: Rookie Tony Stewart leads a race-high 154 laps in the Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500 en route to his second career victory.