Joe Gibbs Racing a victim of its own diligence
By David Smith
On the last lap at Auto Club Speedway in 2013, Denny Hamlin sustained a life-changing back injury while battling for a win. He was sidelined for five races during the season, throwing him off of that year’s championship track and the organization that employs him, Joe Gibbs Racing, into a scramble.
JGR wasn’t prepared for Hamlin’s unexpected absence. Instead of “Next Man Up,” a philosophy followed by teams in the National Football League, where Joe Gibbs became Joe Gibbs, JGR went out of house, allocating substitution duties to free agents Brian Vickers and Mark Martin. The organization didn’t have a single young driver in the pipeline it could call on to fill in for Hamlin in a pinch. It showed a glaring lack of depth for such a powerful organization.
Fast forward to 2016, where things are a lot different. Last week, JGR allowed the sport’s top prospect, Erik Jones, to sign with fellow Toyota-backed team Furniture Row Racing for the 2017 season. Sure, there’s probably a contractual clause that would allow Jones to return to the organization that nurtured him the last two years; however, Furniture Row, a young, growing, self-sustaining organization based outside of the Charlotte fish bowl has a lot to offer. They’re arguably JGR’s biggest competition right now, along with Stewart-Haas Racing. Based solely on production, a driver better than Martin Truex, who ranks 11th out of 41 drivers in PEER through 22 races, could crush the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in a car that ranks fifth in average green-flag speed and has ranked as the fastest car in a single race four times this year, but has only won once. Jones could — it’s very likely — make the Chase as a rookie next season. That would make it tough for him to just walk away after one year, a possibility reported by NBC’s Nate Ryan.
How can JGR take such a risk? Well, it’s the cost of having depth. JGR would ideally like to keep all four of its current Cup Series drivers — Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth — in the fold for the foreseeable future, but there’s no guarantee the feeling is mutual. Kenseth, 44 years old this year, might soon retire. Hamlin and Edwards could be free agent targets for open rides at Hendrick Motorsports (edit: Maybe unlikely now with the William Byron news). JGR learned the hard way what it means to be unprepared — they also tabbed David Ragan for the bulk of Kyle Busch’s absence last season — so they corrected the issue, methodically building the deepest driving roster in NASCAR.
They sloughed off Darrell Wallace, a long-time driver development project, prior to 2015, alleviating a potential logjam and a problem created by an inability to sell Corporate America on Wallace, the spokesperson. Jones is a low-risk walkout that will likely return. Daniel Suárez, the first Mexican race winner in a top NASCAR division, is enjoying a breakout season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, but it appears that NXS will be his home for another year, especially considering Suárez’s personal ties to businessman Carlos Slim, the linchpin of the lucrative Arris sponsorship that allowed JGR to roll out a fourth full-time Cup Series team. Depth comes with costs. That’s why it’s unfair to criticize what JGR is doing.
An overabundance of talent is a good problem to have; one JGR will gladly take in an ever-changing industry. It was just three years ago that it had to turn to the scrap heap to find a driver good and/or ready enough to represent a sponsor, FedEx, that’s a fixture on the Fortune 100 list. It wasn’t ideal at all, but the organization took notice and is now the industry leader in pipeline building.
On the track, they’re the reigning champions of America’s top form of auto racing. Off the track, they’ve never been more whole, standing out as an industry leader — and potentially a trailblazer — in roster stacking.