Is 2013 Chase Start of Joe Gibbs Racing's Ascent to Top of NASCAR Food Chain?

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2013

Former NFL coach and current NASCAR owner Joe Gibbs knows all about winning.
Former NFL coach and current NASCAR owner Joe Gibbs knows all about winning.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

NASCAR, we have separation.

Two races into the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and it's already obvious that two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are the class of the Chase field. That begs a couple of questions: What took you so long, Coach? And is this the long-awaited beginning of JGR's ascent to the top of NASCAR's food chain?

It's hard to believe that JGR has been competing in NASCAR's top series full-time now for more than two decades. And it's not like the organization has not enjoyed major successes prior to the current dual hot streak being displayed by drivers Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who finished one-two for the second Chase race in a row last Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

After all, Bobby Labonte gave Coach Joe Gibbs his first Cup championship in 2000 and Tony Stewart added two more while driving a JGR car in 2002 and again in 2005.

But since then, JGR's efforts to rise up and offer a consistent championship challenger to the sport's other powerhousesprimarily Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racinghave all too often left Gibbs and his son, JGR president J.D. Gibbs, with the kind of hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach that Coach used to experience only after a losing Sunday in the NFL.

Matt Kenseth has been feasting on lobster -- and his opposition in the Chase.
Matt Kenseth has been feasting on lobster -- and his opposition in the Chase.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In the seven seasons that have been completed since Stewart last drove a Chevrolet to the title for JGR (both Stewart and Labonte drove Pontiacs during JGR's first two championship runs), no single driver from the organization has managed to consistently make noise in the Chase like the loud drum beating that's currently being supplied by the duo of Kenseth and Kyle Busch.

Oh, sure, there were the times when Denny Hamlin made his presence felt in the Chase. He finished third in 2006 and should have won the championship in 2010, when mistakes by Hamlin and his team over the final two races doomed him to a forgotten runner-up finish to Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson.

But Hamlin's two shots at the title not only proved futile in the long run, but they also came four years apart.

What's happening now for JGR has a different kind of feel to it, and frankly is the type of dominance JGR had hoped would happen more quickly after deciding to align with Toyota as its manufacturer prior to the 2008 season.

It largely hasn't happened because Stewart never was all that enamored with the switch from his favored Chevy brand to Toyota, contributing to his departure from JGR to form his own Stewart-Haas Racing team beginning in 2009. So the switch to Toyota came with growing pains, and then Stewart's departure added to the turmoil.

It has been no secret that the reliability of Toyota parts and engines also have led to Chase shortcomings by JGR drivers over the last five Chases, leading into this one. While those concerns still linger, most problems appear to have been addressed and, for the most part, solved.

There is no question that the current Toyota race package brings with it the speed required of a champion, and that the arrival this year of a rejuvenated yet pragmatic, patient veteran in the 41-year-old Kenseth has added stability that seemed to be lacking in Stewart's immediate absence.

While eight events remain in this current 10-race Chase, Kenseth already has won twice in the Chase and seven times overall. In all the years Kenseth drove a Ford for Roush, he never won more than five races in a season.

Finishing right on Kenseth's bumper both in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway and again at New Hampshire was Busch, long thought by many to be the best driver in Sprint Cup to never have won the Cup championship.

To finish on top in a Chase, first a driver and his team must establish separation from the rest of the Chase field. With the back-to-back one-two finishes, Kenseth sits atop the current standings and Busch is in second, only 14 points behind. The only other driver remaining on the same Chase lap is Johnson, the five-time champ who is only 18 points off the pace being set by Kenseth and surely will stick around to contend until the end.

No one else is within 35 points of Kenseth heading into Chase race No. 3 at Dover.

This is, without question, the best chance JGR has ever had to win a championship that has lasting significance and could serve as a springboard to more consistent runs at future titles. In short, it's the best shot since JGR has been in business to supplant Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and all others as the top rival to Hendrick Motorsports for unofficial but much coveted honors as the most dominant organization in stock-car racing.