By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. — It’s tense at Joe Gibbs Racing, regardless of what the drivers want you to believe as they head into a showdown with their seasons at stake.
There’s only two spots left in NASCAR’s title-deciding final race, and three Gibbs drivers want them. Carl Edwards, their teammate, is already in the final four and it had been the hope inside the organization that the finale would be Gibbs vs. Gibbs vs. Gibbs vs. Gibbs.
Jimmie Johnson’s win in the opening race of the round of eight took a Gibbs sweep off the board, and now it’s every man for himself, Sunday, at Phoenix International Raceway. The trio of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin are separated by a whisper-thin two points in the standings but, no matter what happens Sunday, only two of them can advance to the championship.
One will definitely be eliminated.
They all understand the math, and that teamwork only goes so far.
What each is willing to do to advance their season one more week remains to be seen.
Hamlin made no apologies for his intent to move another car out of his way on the last lap Sunday if it means he will advance. But what if that car is a teammate?
“No, I would not,” he said. Hamlin then gave a mischievous smirk: “That’s my answer today.”
Busch would barely entertain the question.
“Absolutely,” Busch said, stone-faced.
JGR as an organization has mastered teamwork and sharing, despite expanding into a four-car team last year then adding Martin Truex Jr. as a de facto fifth car via a Toyota-engineered alliance. The approach led to Busch’s title last year, a Daytona 500 win for Hamlin this year and four of the spots in the round of eight of NASCAR’s playoffs.
For all the success earned through JGR’s model, it’s not been without bumps. Hamlin and Busch seem to tangle in one way or the other at least once a year, and Busch was openly unhappy with Hamlin two weeks ago after Johnson won the race at Martinsville.
Busch felt Hamlin had been the slowest Gibbs car that day, but refused to give up track position and that allowed Johnson to win without a challenge from Busch or Kenseth. Busch had angry words about Hamlin after the race.
But the drivers have learned to not hold a grudge, to let things go for the benefit of the organization.
“I think that we work better together as a group,” Kenseth said. “I wouldn’t think that it would change this weekend and I wouldn’t think it would change next weekend. Certainly, once the race starts, obviously we’re all trying to get the best finishes we can for our respective teams. But I think, during the weekend, we all share everything we learn throughout practice, bounce ideas off of each other and try to, as a group, come up with the best setups that we can for Sunday.”
There have been times, Hamlin admitted, that team owner Joe Gibbs has had to intervene in internal disputes. But they’ve learned that communication is key to keeping the peace.
“You can’t keep feelings bottled up for years and years, and all of the sudden it all explodes,” Hamlin said. “I think I have a great working relationship with all my teammates and if one of them wrecks me this weekend, I’ll be mad for a couple days, and I’ll get over it.
“I respect them all enough to understand that we’re all competitors. But we’re also teammates, so it’s a fine line. You’re going to have hurt feelings here and there, we’re battling each other, which is what we all wanted to do.”