NASCAR Cup: 2017 forecast — Joe Gibbs Racing
L to R: Joe Gibbs Racing owner Joe Gibbs and driver Daniel Suarez (photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR)
By CHRISTOPHER SORBEY
Carl Edwards stunned the entire racing world when he announced earlier this month he would be stepping away from racing in 2017.
While Edwards’ departure from a top-tier organization like Joe Gibbs Racing in the prime of his career is a certified head-scratcher, there’s still an abundance of hope surrounding the No. 19 team heading into 2017.
Newly crowned Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez is highly capable of filling the void Edwards left behind at JGR; however, expect a steep learning curve for a better part of the 2017 season, as Suarez is only 25 and has never turned a lap in the highly competitive Monster Energy Cup Series.
On the surface, getting past Daniel Suarez’s inexperience might be a difficult paradigm to comprehend, but completely writing off NASCAR’s most unlikely champion is a relatively foolish concept.
Suarez is certainly no stranger when it comes to defying odds. The Mexican-born driver thrived last season in the Xfinity Series while maintain a fairly low profile on his way to becoming only the second driver in JGR’s history to win the Xfinity championship, the other being Kyle Busch in 2009. Not atrocious company to share history with, right?
With that being said, Suarez could, indeed, capture rookie of the year honors in 2017, but realistic expectations are for him to construct a solid foundation for himself as he progresses in this unexpected foray into the jungle that is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Veteran pit boss Dave Rogers ultimately will play an integral role in determining Suarez’s overall success in his rookie campaign. I’d venture to say Suarez is in great hands, as this is not the seasoned vet’s first rodeo. Honestly, the only real draw back to Edwards leaving the No. 19 team abruptly is that it puts Rogers in a compromising position, as he now left to prepare cars for his fourth driver in four years.
If the Joe Gibbs Racing hierarchy remains patient with Suarez’s development, there’s no reason he won’t thrive in his new role as the driver of the No. 19 Toyota in due course.
It’s been nearly two years since Busch suffered a career-altering leg injury in the closing laps of the 2015 Xfinity series season opener at Daytona. Recounting Busch’s unfortunate setback as career altering is unquestionably peculiar. Instead of taking a step backwards, Busch found solace in embracing the scrappy underdog role for the first time in his remarkable career.
Although the journey back to the cockpit was met with a few rocky patches along the way, Busch garnered a new-found respect from the entire NASCAR community for exhibiting tremendous character and heart during his recovery period.
Seemingly putting past mistakes and failures in the rear view mirror, Busch would resume driving duties of the No. 18 Toyota in May 2015, rolling off five victories on his way to capturing his first career Cup title.
Last season, Busch fully displayed the same grit and determination that culminated in a solid third place finish in the driver standings.
Following two extraordinary back to back seasons, one would expect Busch to cool off in 2017.
Well, don’t count on it.
Don’t at all be surprised if Busch, once again, reigns supreme over the entire competition in the Cup Series in 2017.
I won’t exactly commit to this as my championship pick just yet, but with absolute certainty I can say he’ll be among the final four duking it out for the title at Homestead-Miami in November.
Old reliable, Denny Hamlin, has spent his entire 12-year Cup career with Joe Gibbs Racing; together the dynamic duo has captured 29 wins, in addition to a runner up finish in the title standings back in 2010.
Entering a contract season means there will be added emphasis on performance, if Hamlin doesn’t sign a contract extension before too long. Hamlin has stated on a number of occasions he’s all but signed a contract extension with JGR, indicating he will remain the driver of the No. 11 Toyota past the 2017 season.
But, as we all know, if nothing is, in fact, set in stone when the season starts, Hamlin will continue to be subjected to rumors regarding his future with JGR, especially knowing that young gun Erik Jones is waiting in the wings on a one year loan to Furniture Row Racing.
One positive working strongly in Hamlin’s favor is his recent career resurgence following an injury that sidelined him for four races in 2013. Regardless of where he winds up after the 2017 season, it appears Hamlin still has lots of fight left in him and can never be discredited when it comes to the title picture.
Lost in all the commotion this offseason has been one Matt Kenseth.
The savvy veteran Kenseth enters his fifth season with Joe Gibbs Racing, focused on getting himself in pole position for another title run in his 20th season.
Kenseth nearly won his second career Cup title in his first season as the driver of the No. 20 JGR Toyota. That first season on the job, Kenseth collected a whopping seven victories. Since then, he’s only accumulated a total of seven victories over the past three seasons.
Kenseth, who’ll turn 45 in March, surely knows the clock is ticking on his chances of winning a second career Cup title, but he is one of those drivers who seemingly has improved with age. Since turning 40, Kenseth has collected 17-career victories, only three victories less than he attained in his 30s. How can you not be impressed with those kinds of numbers?
Reaching the heights they achieved together in 2012 might never be duplicated; still, Kenseth and pit boss Jason Ratcliff remain one of the most dangerous duos on race day.
Realistic goals for Kenseth this season would be winning his 40th-career Cup race and punching his ticket deep into the playoffs. But of all the four JGR drivers eyeing the ultimate prize in 2017, Kenseth’s strong racing IQ puts him head and shoulders above his stable-mates.
Verdict – All four JGR drivers make the playoffs, despite overcoming on-track and off-track distractions throughout the 2017 campaign.