CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Joe Gibbs has had many special nights in football and auto racing. Few were bigger than Sunday’s showing in the Coca-Cola 600.
The head of Joe Gibbs Racing had plenty to celebrate: Kyle Busch returned to points racing and finished 11th; Matt Kenseth won the pole and ended fifth; and Denny Hamlin, the All-Star Race winner last week, fought for a title before finishing seventh.
The highlight, though, was Carl Edwards’ first victory for his new JGR team in NASCAR’s longest race.
“In so many ways,” said Gibbs, the three-time Super Bowl winner with Washington and three-time NASCAR championship team owner, “it’s a big deal for us.”
Things for JGR may get even bigger this season.
Edwards becomes the third of four Gibbs’ racers with a victory, just about locking them into NASCAR’s 10-race, year-end championship chase. Gibbs said the program can now concentrate on getting Busch into contention after he missed three months because of a serious accident at Daytona three months ago.
Gibbs’ plans when he brought in Edwards as a fourth team are taking shape in a big, big way.
“We’ve taken a long time to catch up, I’m not saying we’ve caught up” to other power programs like Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, Gibbs said. “Over the last two races here, it’s a big deal for us.”
Edwards won his first Coca-Cola 600 with a gutsy call from crew chief Darian Grubb to pit earlier than most competitors and stay on the track while the field was diving in for full tanks and fresh tires. Edwards held off Greg Biffle over the final laps for his 24th career Sprint Cup victory.
For Edwards, the win was more special because of what it meant to those like Gibbs, who took a chance the talented driver was capable of bigger things.
“I have been stressed, you can ask the people close to me. I’m just so competitive and I’m not happy with how we’ve performed and the results,” Edwards said. “I feel like this is a gift. As much as I’ve been frustrated, this is truly a gift.”
And one that’s been shared with the entire organization this season.
Kenseth had made a big splash with seven wins in 2013 when he, like Edwards, left Roush Fenway Racing to join Gibbs’ crew. Then the former NASCAR champion was shut out last season before rebounding with a win at Bristol last month.
Hamlin won 14 races between 2010-2012 with Gibbs, but just one each the next two seasons. He, too, has shown renewed power this spring with a victory at Martinsville in March and last week’s $1 million win in the All-Star event.
Busch had won 24 races in his first seasons with Gibbs before notching just one in 2014. He felt primed for a big showing until he broke his right leg and left foot in the Xfinity race at Daytona and had not raced until Charlotte’s All-Star event. The Coca-Cola 600 was the first time racing for points — he received a waiver from NASCAR to compete for the title should he qualify — this season.
Busch said he held up well, although his leg felt a bit sore following the 600-mile marathon and believes the effort bodes well for his chances to pick up the necessary victory that would get him into the chase.
“I feel like this was a good night and a great accomplishment,” he said. “I feel like coming back this quick was a huge task.”
Busch said he’s now pointed to joining his teammates in the playoffs this fall.
Edwards said his win was as much relief as excitement because he wants to do so much for the Gibbs’ organization. The Charlotte victory means he and his crew can plan and prepare for the playoffs.
“Hopefully, all that bad luck we had got, I guess it got negated or equaled out by the good luck today,” he said.
Kenseth said all of JGR must concentrate on the 14 races left before the playoffs. He was glad to take the pole and finish near the front, but isn’t thinking about much else than Dover next weekend.
“In May, I’m more worried about what’s coming here in front of us,” he said. “Obviously, we all want to be in it, that’s the goal. We want to have all four cars going to Homestead still in the chase.”
It’s a goal that seems possible for JGR.