Work Remains for JGR Teams

Matt Kenseth

Although Joe Gibbs Racing ran better Sunday at Phoenix than last fall, the team is looking at possibly testing there later this year. (Photo: Getty Images)

AVONDALE, Ariz. - It was a step forward Sunday for Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s not enough.

Phoenix International Raceway again tormented Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. That’s troubling for the organization since this track will play a key role in determining which four drivers will compete for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A bad race at Phoenix could keep a driver out of the final.

Kenseth saw his title hopes unravel last November at Phoenix with an ill-handling car that left crew chief Jason Ratcliff so frustrated he told Kenseth at one point: “I’m not going to work on it anymore. The more I work on it, the worse it gets.’’  

Kenseth’s 23rd-place finish tied for his worst in the last 18 races of last season.

He wasn’t alone in his woes that day Denny Hamlin finished 28th. Kyle Busch was seventh but crew chief Dave Rogers credited Busch’s ability with that result instead of the car’s performance.

With a new rules package, Sunday’s race gave Joe Gibbs Racing hope that last fall’s race would not be repeated. The JGR cars were better - Busch placed ninth, Kenseth was 12th and Hamlin 19th - but were not strong enough to alleviate some concerns. The team might use one of its four tests at NASCAR tracks there later this year.

Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers, admits they’re “not where we need to be’’ at Phoenix.

“We’re all scratching our heads,’’ Rogers said. “Ever since they changed the left-side tire here ... our setups don’t work. We tried a completely different package (Sunday), something in a totally different direction. It was slightly better. We still have a lot of work to do.’’

Busch said afterward that his car “just didn’t have the speed that we were looking for, especially getting off the corner.’’

That’s where Kevin Harvick was so strong all weekend and why he led 224 of 312 laps on the way to his third victory in the last four races there.

While no one could stay with Harvick, JGR’s cars couldn’t compete with others. Hendrick Motorsports placed three cars in the top six with Dale Earnhardt Jr. second, Jeff Gordon fifth and Jimmie Johnson sixth. Team Penske had Brad Keselowski third and Joey Logano fourth.

Still, Ratcliff said he saw progress for JGR and Kenseth on Sunday.

“At least today the car was responding and we could pass and move forward,’’ Ratcliff said.

It was a big change from earlier in the weekend when Kenseth struggled. He started 19th and 23rd fastest in Saturday’s final practice session.

“I didn’t think we were competitive (Saturday),’’ he said. “We were doing the right things with it (Sunday), which was actually a huge improvement.’’ 

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