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Joe Gibbs Racing looks to Richmond to turn season’s fortunes

Steve Letarte, Kyle Petty and Marty Snider preview the NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway this weekend.

RICHMOND, Va. — A key test for Joe Gibbs Racing comes today.

No organization has been as good at Richmond Raceway in recent years. This seems to be the prefect track for Joe Gibbs Racing to break its funk and score its first Cup win since late September at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We’re trying to find a point where we are good,” Denny Hamlin said of the organization’s efforts with the Next Gen car. “We are decent. We’re not (expletive). We are decent, but we are not where we have been for the last three years. We are trying to find that point where we are good, and we can build off of that.”

Hamlin ranks 22nd in the points entering Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox) and he’s not the lowest JGR driver in the standings. That’s Christopher Bell, who is 23rd.

The idea that JGR could have two drivers outside the top 20 in points — even early in the season — seems hard to believe based on the organization’s success.

But the new car has challenged JGR. Along with circumstances.

“Just can’t buy a finish,” said Kyle Busch, who was in position to win last month at Las Vegas before a late caution changed the outcome, allowing Alex Bowman to prevail.

Busch isn’t alone in not scoring strong finishes. JGR has two top-five finishes this season and seven top 10s. Hamlin’s best result this year is 13th.

“We’re not happy with where our speed is at, for sure, but certainly we are not a 22nd-place team,” Hamlin said. “ Am I worried about making the playoffs, if that is what you are asking, no.”

Richmond is a chance for Joe Gibbs Racing to return to its winning ways. Martin Truex Jr. has won three of the last five Cup races at this three-quarter mile track. When he won last year’s playoff race, Truex led a 1-2-3 finish for JGR, as Hamlin finished second and Bell was third.

Bowman passed Hamlin in the final laps to win this race last spring, but JGR still had three cars in the top five. Hamlin was second, Bell fourth and Truex fifth.

When JGR came to Richmond in years past, the organization knew the setup and often stayed ahead of the field. The new car has changed that. With limited practice time, the Gibbs teams have not found the speed that others, particularly Chevrolet teams, have.

“One of the biggest things for us has been not showing up on weekends close enough,” Truex said. “Not a lot of people, I think, have talked about the schedule, but 15 minutes of practice … you can’t change springs and major setup components during practice, so basically what you show up with you fine tune with wedge and shock clicks and small adjustments and then you go racing. Really if you are off, you are off. I think for us that’s a big thing.”

Things are a little better this weekend. Busch qualified third, Truex sixth, Bell ninth and Hamlin 13th. This is the first time all four cars have qualified in the top 13 this season.

There have been other signs of a turnaround. Bell crossed the finish line second at Atlanta before he was penalized for going out of bounds to pass and relegated to 23rd. He followed that by placing third last week at Circuit of the Americas. That’s the best finish for a Gibbs car this year.

“Overall, car potential and weekend potential, I’d say we’re on par with all of our teammates, if not ahead of some,” Bell said. “But results-wide, I’m still fourth in the hauler lineup. That’s not cool. If we just keep doing what we’re doing, hopefully, the results will come.”