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JGR Dominance of Speedweeks Continues

JGR Dominance of Speedweeks Continues

by February 21, 2014 0 comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Joe Gibbs Racing continued their impressive performance during Speedweeks by winning both Budweiser Duels on Thursday night.

Matt Kenseth won the first Duel while teammate Denny Hamlin took the victory in the second Duel, Hamlin’s second victory in Speedweeks thus far. This marks the very first time in the history of the event that a team has swept both Duels in one year. Couple that accomplishment with the fact that a Gibbs-owned Camry took the win in the Sprint Unlimited and it becomes quite evident that the JGR stable is the team to beat thus far at Daytona.

Kenseth took his second career Budweiser Duel victory last night, beating Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne to the line in a three-wide finish in a caution-free affair. Harvick was later excluded from the results as his car did not pass NASCAR’s post-race technical inspection. The official Top-5 for the race was Kenseth, Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Josh Wise.

Daytona 500 pole-sitter Austin Dillon led the first 14 laps of the event before falling towards the back of the field to finish 19th. Dillon supporters have no need to worry, this was completely calculated on Dillon’s part.

“As soon as we got kind of going backwards and three-wide, I said ‘Alright, now it’s time to go back there and play the patient game,'” Dillon explained. Even though the driver of the No. 3 finished 19th in the event, he will still lead the field to the start of the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Hamlin also took his second career Budweiser Duel victory, winning his second race of Speedweeks after winning Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited. Rounding out the Top-5 after Hamlin were Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard, and Brian Scott.

“Right now it’s just a huge snowball that’s really like an avalanche,” Hamlin noted on his momentum thus far. “It’s just not stopping.”

Like the night’s first Duel, the second Duel was an incident-free event; that was until the last corner of the last lap. As the leaders were approaching the start/finish line to complete the event, Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel; initiating a nine-car wreck. Involved in the accident were contenders for Sunday such as Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards, David Ragan, and Martin Truex Jr.

Truex Jr. was guaranteed a front row starting spot for the Daytona 500 by virtue of having the second fastest time during Coors Light Pole Qualifying last Sunday if he were to keep the car out of trouble. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be as the driver for Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 car will be forced to go to a backup for the 500.

“Disappointed? Yes. Frustrated? Well, you have to keep your chin up and move forward,” Truex Jr. wrote in a special article for The Denver Post. The Mayetta, N.J. native remains optimistic towards Sunday’s race, “The good news [is that] I was told our backup car is just as good, and at this race it really doesn’t matter where you start.”

Making his way onto the night’s highlight reel (whether he liked it or not) was Clint Bowyer. Bowyer went for a wild ride in the last-lap melee, going airborne and doing a full mid-air barrel roll before landing on his wheels and slowing to a halt. It looked like something you would currently see in Sochi, Russia rather than something you’d expect at a race track in Eastern Florida.

“That was as lucky as you can ask for. I’m just happy to survive. Anytime you can flip, it can be scary,” Bowyer said.

At the conclusion of the night’s second race, the final grid was set for the 56th running of the Great American Race. 49 teams entered for a chance to win the Daytona 500, six found themselves leaving Daytona Beach without taking the green flag for the 500. The No. 77 Ford driven by Dave Blaney for Randy Humphrey had already packed up and left Daytona after wrecking their sole race car for the weekend; meaning that the Duels would cross out five teams’ hopes to compete on Sunday.

Out of eight competitors running for Rookie of the Year this season, only one will miss the 500, Ryan Truex. Morgan Shepherd will also miss the race. Shepherd was looking to make NASCAR history by being the oldest ever competitor at 72 to race in the Daytona 500. Joining Blaney, Truex, and Shepherd in missing the Daytona 500 are Eric McClure, Joe Nemechek, and Michael McDowell.

While the Daytona dreams for these six drivers have come to a close for this year, Hamlin is looking to make his come true on Sunday. No driver in the history of NASCAR has ever won the Sprint Unlimited, their respective Budweiser Duel, and the Daytona 500 in the same year. What is Hamlin’s strategy to be the first to accomplish this feat?

“Just keep doing what we’re doing. We’re on a roll obviously and we executed the race today great,” Hamlin stated.

Should the No. 11 team repeat the quality of performances they have put on in their two races thus far this season, it would not be a surprise to see them return to victory lane on Sunday. If anyone in the field has the ability to put a stop to Hamlin’s winning ways, it would be his teammates, Kenseth and Kyle Busch.

While momentum is clearly on Hamlin’s side, the statistics suggest that he is not completely invincible at Daytona. The drivers of the No. 20 and No. 18 cars (respectively) are both strong performers at Daytona with one Sprint Unlimited win, four Budweiser Duel wins, and three points-race victories between the both of them. Taking a look at all three JGR drivers’ average finish at the track, Hamlin is historically the weakest performer within the Gibbs stable at Daytona. Hamlin has an average finish of 21.5 at Daytona; Ky. Busch’s average finish is 18.6 while Kenseth’s is 17.5.

While Joe Gibbs Racing already etched their name into the history books by sweeping the Duels on Thursday night, they have the opportunity to make even more history on Sunday. Should a Gibbs driver win the 500, they would be the first driver in the history of the event to drive a foreign manufacturer into victory lane. Should Hamlin win the race, he’ll be the first to ever complete the ‘Speedweeks Trifecta.’ With so much on the line and judging by their performances thus far this year, it truly is Joe Gibbs Racing’s Daytona 500 to lose.

The Daytona 500 airs live this Sunday on FOX starting at 1:00p.m. EST with pre-race coverage

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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