At the end of the 2014 season, Carl Edwards took a risk. Heading to Joe Gibbs Racing to pilot the No. 19 Toyota for the foreseeable future, joining the stable of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, he swapped teams for the first time in his career. At the time it seemed like a good idea, right?
There is no doubt about it. Edwards struggled to begin the 2015 season. Crew chief Darian Grubb and he put fast cars on the racetrack on a weekly basis, but struggled to get the results to back up the on-track performance. While the other three JGR teams finished well, the Edwards-Grubb duo could not finish the race in the top 10.
That all changed in May during NASCAR’s longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. While not having the dominant car, the No. 19 was able to stretch the fuel mileage to pick up Edwards’ first win with Joe Gibbs Racing. The pressure was off, they were in the Chase as long as nothing severe went wrong.
As the season has progressed, Edwards’ team has improved. After only two top-10 finishes in the first 17 races, the second half of the regular season has been much different. But it wasn’t until Kentucky in early July when his season turned around for good.
“It’s pretty amazing really,” Edwards told Speedway Digest about the resurgence of JGR. “This is my first year here, so I’m learning how it all works with the TRD development, the teamwork within the shop and everyone’s communication has been amazing. When I started here this season, it was very clear to me that although we weren’t the fastest cars every week, there is no way that you can keep this team down.”
The new low-downforce aero package was tested in the Bluegrass state, and Edwards ran in the top five for the majority of the night. All four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas finished in the top-five that evening. This was the start of a solid stretch of racing for the ARRIS-sponsored Toyota.
He has critically spoken out about how NASCAR should get all the downforce off of the 3,400-pound racecars and put the driving back into the driver’s hands.
Since Kentucky, Edwards has finished in the top-10 seven times and his two finishes outside the top 10 were a 13th at Indianapolis and most recently an 11th at Richmond. His chemistry with Grubb has grown throughout the season, and now they could be a force to be reckoned with during the Chase, as could all of JGR.
Ever since Busch came back from his injury at Charlotte, Joe Gibbs Racing has had a major resurgence. Since the Memorial Day weekend race, JGR has won 9 out-of-the 15 Cup races at a variety of different length and shaped tracks. Edwards, personally thinks the resurgence is incredible.
“The teams work really closely together,” Edwards said. “I can’t imagine us being any closer and still being competitors. On race day, it’s every man for themselves. Everything other than that involves a lot of teamwork.”
In the four races that Busch has won in 2015, Edwards has run near the front of the field. He has two top-10 finishes when the No. 18 has crossed the finish line first, and he possibly could have won the Brickyard 400 until a late-race restart when he got loose underneath reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick. Busch capitalized on the mistake and pulled away for the victory.
More recently, it has been Kenseth who has been the hot driver for JGR. He has won three out-of-the last six races entering Chicagoland Speedway for the first Chase race and in those three victories, Edwards has two top-10 finishes and an 11th. One point at Richmond, all four cars were running first through fourth on the race track.
When Hamlin won back at Martinsville, the Missouri native had a solid run going until getting caught in a late-race incident.
Leading up to the Chase, the No. 19 team still needed to work on a few things to make them a championship contender. On Labor Day weekend, Edwards won at Darlington and he credited the win entirely to his pit crew’s fast pit stop, something that Joe Gibbs Racing has excelled in this year. The crew has been improving throughout the summer months, but could still be a step or two away from winning the championship.
“So far I would give us a B,” Edwards explained. “As a group, we are coming together and getting faster and faster every week. It started out a little bit rough, but we’re trending upward and if this all works out right, we’re going to be in contention for the championship.”
For Edwards, the tracks that fill up the Chase are some of his best tracks on the circuit. He has eight-career wins during the Chase. However, at those 10 tracks, he has a combined nine wins among five different tracks.
“You never know,” Edwards said about what round of the Chase scares him the most. “I think right now with the way that we’re running classic tracks that I’ve had trouble at like Loudon and Martinsville. I’m actually looking forward to those because we have an opportunity to win. I just don’t know, but one of those rounds can get you.”
Based on the stats, Edwards has the raw speed to get through the Contender Round at Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover. Joe Gibbs Racing has run well at the mile and-a-half tracks this season. In mid-July, Edwards sat on the pole at Loudon and Busch went on to win the race. At Dover, Jimmie Johnson is the favorite, but JGR typically runs well at the “Monster Mile.”
The Challenger Round has the potential to be the Achilles heel for the No. 19 team. If the team has a poor finish at either Kansas or Charlotte, then they have to rely on Talladega to advance into the Eliminator round. No team wants Talladega to be a “must win” race. Last year, if Brad Keselowski hadn’t of won Talladega then he would not have moved on to the next round. The second round seems to be the hardest round to get through for any of the Chase teams.
The third round suits up to possibly be the best round for Edwards as long as he can get through Martinsville with a solid finish. The last two races of that round he has five total wins at Texas and Phoenix and then in the Championship round, Homestead is possibly Edwards’ best track. He has two wins in Miami and even when he raced for Roush and they struggled, he ran well at the mile and-a-half. Last year, this was the round that bit Edwards and essentially eliminated him from championship contention.
The way the Chase sets up, 2015 could be both Edwards’ and Joe Gibbs Racing’s year.
“I don’t know,” Edwards said on if Joe Gibbs Racing is the favorite to win the championship. “Things change quickly in this sport, but right now we’re fast and I would say that it’s very possible that one of our guys win this championship. It’s very possible.”
Joe Gibbs Racing has 11 wins heading into Chicago compared to Hendrick Motorsports’ six and Team Penske’s and Stewart-Haas Racing’s four. It seems safe to say that Joe Gibbs Racing is at the top of many Chase grids and potentially winning their first championship since 2005.