Denny Hamlin fuels Toyota's win-win
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- While Denny Hamlin celebrated Sunday's Sprint Cup win at Kansas Speedway in Victory Lane, Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs stood on pit road by the second-place car.
Gibbs was commiserating with Michael Waltrip Racing general manager Ty Norris and MWR crew members over what happened to the 56 car, which dominated until the final 30 laps. Gibbs was looking for a path past reporters to pat driver Martin Truex Jr. on the back, just as if Truex drove for his team.
It's not totally unusual for team executives to make such a gesture after a race, particularly when they work with the same manufacturer, but it seemed unusual in this case.
After all, Gibbs has been hearing for weeks how MWR has caught -- or maybe passed -- JGR as the top Toyota team. And if everyone was honest, until late last season JGR appeared to look at MWR as the weak sister, a Toyota brethren in name only.
There wasn't much sharing, and there certainly wasn't much sympathy for a MWR car being a close second.
Hamlin was almost apologetic Sunday, talking about how he would love to see one of Michael Waltrip's cars win.
"At the end, it's a no-lose situation for myself because I'm a fan of Martin's and I'm a fan of Michael Waltrip, and they've really done some great things with that program," Hamlin said.
Mark it down. This was big.
Maybe bigger than the win was for Hamlin.
It symbolized the bond that JGR and MWR have formed to help them compete for a championship against Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing. It showed that six crew chiefs and six drivers, as HMS has with Stewart-Haas Racing and Roush has had with Richard Petty Motorsports, are better than three.
It showed a commitment among Toyota teams never seen before.
"It was a good day for Toyota because Michael Waltrip Racing [and] Joe Gibbs Racing has a bond that's working better and better together so we're starting to see these Toyotas start to make a run," Hamlin said after his 19th career Sprint Cup win.
"We can now use some feedback from those guys. It's tough using feedback when teams are running 20th or so because you have to take it for what it is. When you have five or six Toyotas running up front, you really can tune in your program better and better."
Consider the gauntlet tossed. Toyota is bulking up to end Chevrolet's string of six straight championships.
"I know we're separate teams," Truex said after moving to second in the standings, 15 points behind Greg Biffle. "We race each other each weekend, but we've helped each other try to elevate Toyota's program as a whole."
This melting of the two organizations didn't happen overnight. It didn't seem possible a few years ago as Gibbs prided itself on being able to stand independent from the other Toyota teams.
Remember, JGR left Chevrolet for Toyota because it was tired of playing second fiddle to HMS and other Chevrolet teams.
This bonding began slowly last season as JGR struggled with its engine and aero package while MWR showed progress with its. Convincing JGR to shut down its engine department and use those from Toyota Racing Development, as MWR did, was a big step.
But things really didn't start to come together until Truex came on strong at the end of 2011 with MWR's new and improved aero package.
"I drove their cars at Charlotte last year, and I feel like we've probably learned a lot about each other's programs through doing that," Hamlin said. "I feel as well as they're running, we can feed off them.
"And when we run well, they can feed off us."
Aside from each organization building its own chassis, crew chiefs from both sides work together in the fashion Hamlin's crew chief was used to last season when he was with Tony Stewart at SHR. That Darian Grubb knows the crew chiefs at MWR almost as well as he knows those at Gibbs makes it work even better.
We're never going to share everything. But it's kind of neat to have that kind of camaraderie. We don't have six teams. We've got three. You combine them, now you've got a bigger group.” -- J.D. Gibbs
"Having that one-on-one friendship is probably better than anything, because we actually communicate," Grubb said. "We agree not to lie to each other. That's probably the bigger thing: being honest.
"I might not tell you everything, but I'll be honest if you ask a question."
Hamlin's win didn't come down to communication. It likely came down to the sun coming out on a brisk, windy day to warm up the track and make Truex's car loose. It came down to Truex getting a "bad" set of tires on his last pit stop, making his car tough to handle.
And that was tough to handle for Truex, who led a race-high 173 laps to Hamlin's 32.
But as much as Truex beat himself up at the end, saying he let his team down and "I'm sorry I let that one get away," he'll look back at this day as a big step for him and MWR.
Crew chief Chad Johnston tried to remind him of that during the cool-down lap, saying, "They know we were here." But it may take time for that to sink in.
"If we're all up front and Toyota is going to be happy, that's a good thing," Truex said.
This day wasn't so much about MWR almost catching JGR as the top Toyota team.
"I don't think we're racing each other to be the best Toyota team," Truex said. "We're racing each other to be the best team in the Sprint Cup Series."
That's what this day was about.
That's why Gibbs was with the second-place car while his driver celebrated. He knows the stronger Truex and the other MWR cars are -- despite a pair of engine failures on this day -- the stronger JGR will be.
"We're never going to share everything," Gibbs said. "But it's kind of neat to have that kind of camaraderie. We don't have six teams. We've got three. You combine them, now you've got a bigger group."
And bigger, as we've seen with multicar teams in NASCAR, is better.
"We've been in the sport for 21 years," Gibbs said. "If you fail to perform and are competing with elite teams, you cease to exists. It's neat to see them do well because it makes us all better."
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