Joe Gibbs says Kyle Busch has had a joke for him during some recent midweek calls amid Busch’s 18-race winless streak.
“He has a great sense of humor at night when I call him,” Gibbs said. “[He says], ‘When are you going to give me the good car?’ Stuff like that.”
Is Busch really joking?
Joe Gibbs has the problem every NASCAR team owner would love to have. Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin remain alive in the NASCAR playoffs and sit 1-2-3 in the standings entering the semifinal round, which begins Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. The Martinsville-Texas-Phoenix swing will cut the playoff field from eight drivers to the four eligible for the championship at Homestead.
With 15 wins in 32 races among those three JGR drivers, it’s not a stretch to say all three could advance to compete for the title, leaving Gibbs feeling good and nervous.
The NFL Hall of Fame coach and soon-to-be NASCAR Hall of Famer, Gibbs certainly is no stranger to handling competitive personalities. He knows at the end of the race, he will have more unhappy drivers than happy ones.
“Kyle won the regular season, which was a huge deal for us,” Gibbs said. “But when you get in these three‑round playoffs, anything can happen. We know that. That makes you so nervous.
“I think what you're doing is constantly thinking about Homestead, how do we get to Homestead? That's what I think about the most.”
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How JGR gets to Homestead will depend on how well its drivers race – and could potentially come down to how well those drivers play nice with each other. So far, all three have had such large cushions — thanks to NASCAR’s format in which drivers earn playoff points throughout the year for stage wins, race wins and finish in the regular-season standings — that they have yet to sweat much in the playoffs.
But the cushions tend to shrink with each round – Busch sits just 18 points ahead of the cutoff, Truex 14 points ahead and Hamlin nine – and one crash or mechanical failure could drop a driver below the cutline.
“We know that our stiffest competition could be our teammates,” Truex said, when previewing the playoffs. “But you just have to do what’s best for you, and not put anyone in a bad position.”
Denny Hamlin is the favorite to win his first NASCAR Cup championship. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports)
That can be easier said than done. Only one JGR driver, Erik Jones, has fallen out in the first two rounds.
“There’s no planning or pre-planning for things that happen in a race,” Busch said before the playoffs when talking about on-track incidents. “You don’t know that on Lap 186, you’re going to get run into by so-and-so and then it’s going to create this situation.
“You just have to be ready for anything and kind of reset and keep digging once you get to those situations.”
Busch might be the one driver everyone will watch to see if frustration gets the best of him. He rattled off four wins in the first 14 races of the season on his way to the regular-season title but ranked 11th overall in points scored in the six playoff races. His teammates have won five of the last nine races, and he wouldn’t even say a third-place run at Kansas made him feel as if his team made strides.
“No,” he said. “It’s about how we’re supposed to run.”
Gibbs knows that the driver who might joke about getting the good stuff isn't thrilled with third.
“I think the top drivers, you can kind of go through a little bit of a slump. … [and] third doesn't get it for him, I'm afraid,” Gibbs said.
His teammates, however, have enjoyed recent success. Truex started the playoffs on fire as he won the first two races while Hamlin has emerged as the favorite. Hamlin went winless last year but opened the season with a win at the Daytona 500, added regular-season victories at Texas, Pocono and Bristol and is coming off a victory at Kansas.
With 36 career wins and in his 13th playoff appearance in his 14th career season, Hamlin is the most successful current driver without a championship.
“We feel like we can win at every single one of them,” Hamlin said about the upcoming races. “That's one thing that not a lot of drivers can probably say.”
What does Busch say?
“There are certainly some areas that we need to clean up right now and continue to get better because if you are able to get to Homestead, you better be picture-perfect.”
Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him @bobpockrass
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