By Matteo Marcheschi

@ajetdryer on Twitter

January 29 2017

Where 2016 Went Wrong for JGR

The dominant team in 2016 was only 10 laps from bringing home the Sprint Cup trophy. Jimmie Johnson, however, brought home his seventh championship instead, the final nail in the coffin for JGR’s 2016 title hopes. Of course, Gibbs’s demise wasn’t contained in a single moment. Many factors led the team from dominance to heartbreak and ruffled feathers.

Speaking of dominance, Gibbs’s four drivers won a total of 12 races in 2016, or one third of the season’s events. Their four drivers scored a combined 84 top tens, over 20 more than Hendrick. Of the 2016 season’s 10,523 laps, JGR led 3,769 of them, more than any other Cup team.

Yet, somehow, they lost the championship, even though all four of their drivers advanced to the round of eight. Their misfortune began in the first race of that round, at Martinsville, when Carl Edwards blew a right front tire, putting him behind the eight-ball with a 36th-place finish. Bickering between the remaining three helped Jimmie Johnson run away with the victory, as well as one of the four spots, leaving three championship spots open. That meant that at least one JGR driver would be shuffled out of the championship four. Edwards was able to take home the rain-shortened win at Texas, locking himself into the championship race. Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Denny Hamlin would have to battle it out at Phoenix to fill the last two spots. However, a late spin by leader Matt Kenseth relegated him to 21st place, and dropped him out of the final four. A seventh place finish was not enough for Denny Hamlin to advance, as Team Penske’s Joey Logano would take home the win, and advance to Homestead, along with second-place Kyle Busch.

So Gibbs, despite their issues in the previous round, still made up half of the championship four. With ten laps to go in the Championship race, things were looking good for Gibbs, as Edwards and Busch were running second and fifth respectively, or first and third among the championship four. And then Edwards blocked fellow title contender Logano, who turned Edwards, and many cars piled in behind them. The weight of an entire year of success rest on one man’s shoulders: Kyle Busch. Busch, however, was relegated to 13th in all the chaos, and a strong restart only helped him climb to sixth in the two-lap overtime. Jimmie Johnson ran away with the race win, and the championship, and Joe Gibbs Racing was left scratching its head.

Feuding drivers at a top organization is nothing new (see Mercedes F1 team, 2016), but with the elimination-style Chase raising stakes so high, the conflict climbed to meet it in 2016. And with the Gibbs’s most level-headed driver, Carl Edwards, retiring, replaced by rookie Daniel Suarez, the drivers will have to sort things out if they want to avoid another Martinsville, and work together to give the organization the best chance possible at the 2017 Cup championship.