Will Joe Gibbs Racing’s rules of engagement spark more feuding at Phoenix?
AVONDALE, Ariz. — Denny Hamlin grinned. Kyle Busch did not.
Would they move a teammate on the last lap if it meant advancing to next weekend’s championship race in Miami?
“No, I would not,’’ Hamlin said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.
After a pause, he said: “That’s my answer today.’’
A few minutes later, Busch was asked the same question. His response?
There’s no way all three of Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers can join teammate Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson in the title race next weekend in Miami.
That likely means at least one JGR driver will not be happy after Sunday’s race on NBC — maybe more.
Two spots remain to be filled for the title race. JGR’s Matt Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin are among those not yet guaranteed a spot.
“All three of us can be disappointed when we leave here,’’ Kenseth said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway. “You never know what’s going to happen Sunday.’’
Well, you might.
Kevin Harvick, who has not clinched a spot in the title race, has won five of the last six Cup races at Phoenix and would earn a spot by winning again. He’s never been eliminated since this format debuted in 2014.
If one figures on Harvick winning — and Hamlin said “off their track record … you would always just assume they’re going to win’’ — then only one spot remains for the three Gibbs drivers.
“I think there’s a very good chance that no matter what ... at least two Gibbs cars will be in the final four, which would be good,’’ Hamlin said.
That would mean that Joey Logano and Kurt Busch wouldn’t make it. Busch has struggled in this round and not shown the speed needed to run with the leaders lately, but Logano has been fast and been good at Phoenix.
Yet, it could come back to racing teammates for a chance to vie for the championship for the Joe Gibbs drivers. If so, one could be upset with another.
It’s happened before. Edwards bumped Busch out of the way to win at Richmond in April. Two weeks ago, Busch was upset that Hamlin, running third at the time, fought Kenseth and Busch so hard late in the race at Martinsville. By doing so, though, Hamlin has the highest finish in this round so far among Busch and Kenseth. Should they tie, that could be what advances Hamlin.
With the chance that a Gibbs driver might not be happy with a teammate Sunday, how will the team repair any wounds?
“We have to communicate with each other,’’ Hamlin said. “That’s the main thing, you can’t keep feelings bottled up for years and years and all of a sudden, it all explodes. 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. It’s just part of 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. If we had four cars at Homestead racing for the championship, then there would be three guys pissed off. That’s what we all want to accomplish. There’s only going to be one champion, so sometimes it’s your time and sometimes it’s not.”
Even with what is at stake, Kenseth said he and his teammates shouldn’t change how they approach this weekend.
“I think that we work better together as a group than anything I’ve ever been part of,’’ he said. “So far that hasn’t changed at all over the four years that I’ve been there. So, 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.”
Career Average Finish at Phoenix
10.3 — Kevin Harvick (eight wins)
11.1 — Denny Hamlin (one win)
13.4 — Kyle Busch (one win)
13.4 — Kurt Busch (one win)
14.0 — Joey Logano (zero wins)
16.3 — Matt Kenseth (one win)