Column: JGR and Toyota rebuild to emerge as leading contender for Sprint Cup championship



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Listen to Joe Gibbs and he will tell you his race teams lagged behind the competition just 10 weeks ago.

Statistics show the organization has not only caught up, but passed the leaders.

Gibbs drivers have won seven of the last 12 races, including a victory Sunday at Michigan International Speedway with Matt Kenseth. A Toyota team win in the shadow of Detroit was a triumph for the manufacturer — it ended a seven-race winning streak for Ford and Chevrolet teams — and a way for Joe Gibbs Racing to thank the automaker for its commitment to the organization.

Without the guidance of Toyota, JGR might still be struggling to keep up with the Hendricks and Penskes of the world.

"We've got great partners, thanks to Toyota, all the hard work they've done over the last year-and-a-half," Gibbs said.

Behind the scenes, Toyota Racing Development has quietly worked with JGR on closing gaps that clearly hampered the organization last year. Although Denny Hamlin made it to the final round of the Sprint Cup championship, it was a struggle to convince anyone that JGR's cars were on the same level as the top contenders.

Kenseth, a seven-race winner who took Jimmie Johnson all the way to the finale in the 2013 championship race, went winless. Hamlin and Kyle Busch had just one victory apiece, and all three drivers felt TRD's engines were not up to par.

JGR brought in Carl Edwards to expand to four teams this season, and both the team and the manufacturer had work to do to remain a powerhouse. Their efforts took a hit the day before the season-opening Daytona 500 when Busch was seriously injured in a crash. He missed the first 11 races of the season — otherwise known as the period in which JGR was struggling this season.

Busch returned in late May for the All-Star race, and just one week later, Edwards had his first JGR victory with a win in the Coca-Cola 600.

Busch grabbed his first win a month later on the road course at Sonoma, then reeled off three straight wins. Kenseth won at Pocono to make it four in a row for JGR, Busch settled for second the next week at Watkins Glen, and the team was back in victory lane Sunday at Michigan. Up next? Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Kenseth won in April.

As David Wilson, president and general manager of TRD, collected the Michigan Heritage Trophy given to the winning manufacturer, he insisted this surge is not sudden.

"People tend to think that this came on like a light switch," said Wilson, who vowed to display the trophy at the Detroit Auto Show. "The reality is, this sport is so difficult, so competitive, it's about working hard, and really that turnaround started last summer. We knew we were in trouble. We buckled down, and we kept digging."

The question, though, is if JGR can maintain this pace and win Toyota its first Sprint Cup championship.

JGR for years has been strong in the 26-week regular season, only to fall apart in the Chase. Hamlin was twice in title contention in the finale, losing to Johnson in 2010 and Kevin Harvick last year. Kenseth came up short in 2013, and Busch has always seen his regular-season gains unravel once the Chase begins.

So even though the Busch comeback has been phenomenal — four wins in 12 Cup races, plus two Xfinity Series victories and two Truck Series victories — few are convinced he can keep that up in the Chase. Or JGR, either, for that matter. The organization has three Sprint Cup titles, but none since Tony Stewart's in 2005.

Plus, there are cars on the track capable of keeping up with the JGR contingent. They include former Gibbs driver Joey Logano, with two wins this season, reigning series champion Harvick and Johnson, the six-time NASCAR champ.

Still, Johnson is coming off his worst race of the season Sunday amid a curious slump at Hendrick Motorsports.

This could be JGR's best shot at the Sprint Cup, and Toyota desperately wants its first title. Wilson doesn't deny that JGR seems ahead of the pack right now, but in watching Sunday's race sensed that other teams are "closing the gap."

"So we need to keep digging and keep our heads down," he said. "What we're trying to do right now is not get full of ourselves."

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