AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Joe Gibbs has made it perfectly clear to his drivers: Even if they win every exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway, it’s the Daytona 500 that matters most.
Gibbs won the Daytona 500 in 1993 with Dale Jarrett, but has failed to get a victory in NASCAR’s biggest race since. When Denny Hamlin won last week’s opening exhibition race, it was a mere consolation prize for Gibbs.
“The 500 is really, really special to him because he hasn’t won it in 23 years,” Hamlin said Tuesday at Daytona 500 media day. “That’s a big number for such a good organization.”
The Toyota contingent is typically strong at Daytona, and Matt Kenseth qualified on the front row for Sunday’s season opener. JGR was the only multi-car team to get all of its drivers in the top 10 during time trials.
Now, they want more and they are among the favorites heading into “The Great American Race.”
In his first race with JGR in 2008, Kyle Busch led 86 laps before fading to fourth in the final laps. Hamlin has three top-five finishes in his last four Daytona 500s, including a second-place showing in 2014 and fourth last year.
There were close calls when Tony Stewart drove for the organization, and 2013 was a heartbreaker as Matt Kenseth led 86 laps before his engine failed. Busch’s engine blew up moments later.
But the Gibbs organization turned a corner last year when all four of its cars dominated through the middle portion of the season. The four Gibbs drivers made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and Busch won his first career title while giving Gibbs its first championship since 2005.
“To be Sprint Cup champion at the end of the season was pretty spectacular and would love nothing more than to continue on our championship celebration all through this week with winning a Daytona 500,” Busch said.
Winning that championship proved that JGR has caught powerhouses Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske, which had been the most dominant teams the last several years. It also showed how much the organization has shored up the self-inflicted weaknesses that always seemed to derail its efforts.
So the pressure is definitely on.
“I think the pressure is self-imposed,” Hamlin said. “We had such a long drought of not winning a championship that pressure was starting to build, and the frustration probably from Joe Gibbs Racing was starting to get felt from everyone. So we got that done and now it’s like, ‘OK guys, let’s win the 500.’”
JGR heads into the season with two crew chiefs: longtime Hamlin engineer Mike Wheeler was promoted to crew chief of the No. 11 team, and Dave Rogers was moved to crew chief for Carl Edwards. The team also made organizational changes to the executive team.
Coy Gibbs, the youngest son of owner Gibbs, was named vice chairman and chief operator officer of the company. He replaced Todd Meredith, who has resigned his position but will continue to consult for the organization.
J.D. Gibbs, Gibbs’ oldest son, was named co-chairman of JGR and Dave Alpern shifted from chief marketing officer to team president. J.D. Gibbs had been team president but his role has been reduced as he’s been undergoing treatment for symptoms related to brain function.
Despite the shake-up, the organization still has high hopes for 2016 — beginning at Daytona.
And everyone knows what it another victory at NASCAR’s most famous track would mean to the man they still call “Coach.”
“He doesn’t put any pressure on us to win races. He knows if it will happen, it will happen,” said Busch, who missed last year’s season opener after he was injured in a crash one day earlier. “I think he’s the strongest believer in our whole organization that it’s in God’s hands more than any of other hands. I’d love to see myself being up there and being the leader of the group, but if it’s any of the four of us it’s obviously great for Joe Gibbs and JGR.”