Categories
Development Journalists

It’s a Good Time to be Joe Gibbs Racing

The tables have turned in the Sprint Cup Series.

In past years, Hendrick Motorsports has been the organization to set the standards in racing. But not anymore.

In nine races, six different drivers have pulled into Victory Lane. Joe Gibbs Racing leads the field with five wins. Following suit is Hendrick with two wins. Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske each have one.

Halfway through the 2015 season, Joe Gibbs Racing flipped a switch, and they have not looked back since.

In the first nine races of the 2016 season, the organization has earned 15 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes. It has been a month since JGR has lost a Cup race. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards have both captured back-to-back wins.

Driver and crew chief pairings have paved the way for Gibbs’ success. In particular, the team’s decision to pair Adam Stevens with Busch has led to seven victories in 34 starts. In total, JGR drivers have won 16 of the 34 races since Busch returned at Charlotte last May.

This time last year, Edwards only had one top-10 finish with crew chief Darian Grubb. Finishing fifth in the standings, the team determined running well was not good enough. This year with his crew chief, Dave Rogers, the No. 19 team has scored two wins and five top-five finishes.

Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson has scored two victories for Hendrick Motorsports. He was the last driver to win before the Joe Gibbs Racing streak started. In total, Hendrick Motorsports has earned 12 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes.

Stewart-Haas Racing has earned six top-five finishes and 16 top-ten finishes. Kevin Harvick is one of the few drivers who has shown the speed to run with the Gibbs bunch, but pit road miscues have been Harvick’s downfall.

Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have earned five top-five finishes and 10 top-10 finishes to lead the Ford camp.

The Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega this weekend and the last time the Sprint Cup Series was at a Superspeedway, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization drivers were at the top of their game.

The team won a Can-Am Duel with Matt Kenseth and the Sprint Unlimited and the Daytona 500 with Denny Hamlin.

Emily Spink is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist.

EMAIL EMILY AT emily.spink@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

The Wizard of Gibbs

Joe Gibbs Racing wasn’t sure what it was going to look like, but they had the foresight to know social media was going to impact NASCAR.

Their website was already getting its lowest traffic when it should have been spiking. Digital media, although still in its infancy, was quickly being taken to. Perhaps they needed to change their approach to the online world.

Bryan Cook had already made a name for himself as a freelance designer. Having grown up in Miami, Cook, who now goes by Boris (more on that later), loved both racing and artwork. Naturally he wanted to combine his two passions, and began teaching himself computer based programs and website building.

His choice of college was easy, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte because it was close to NASCAR. Although he continued to excel in art, he didn’t want to spend all day in front of a computer. But with a degree that was a bit unorthodox, his words, Boris would need to find non-traditional ways into the sport.

Photo Mar 12, 6 09 45 PM

The school’s motorsports engineering department needed a website; he built one in addition to providing logos and other needs. Eventually, he landed a contract with Chip Ganassi and suddenly was pitching 10 to 15 paint scheme designs a week. In the end, Boris submitted approximately 200 designs, 20 of which made it on track.

“The biggest one was the Target car that ran for about six years. It was Juan Pablo Montoya and Reed Sorenson’s, and it had those jagged spikes up the front,” he said. “The story I heard was Chip Ganassi liked it and would never let them change it, which is why it lasted for so many seasons.

“I got to design Montoya’s first car for when he debuted back in the day. Before he was full-time and they were trying him out. It was a Havoline car, and it had some Colombian flags running up the quarter panels.”

Ganassi’s merger with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated brought an end to their partnership. The next opportunity wasn’t hard to find as he took a job with SPEED Channel. But his first day on the job changed everything when he received a phone call from a friend, who at the time was working for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Did he know someone who could tell stories and share videos? A bit taken back, even admittedly shaken at the possibility, Boris called him back 10 minutes later. He had the perfect person for the job.

Making an Impact

At the time, the position didn’t have a title, but Boris received creative reign. After starting out with an initial insider blog, the growth of social media, as the organization predicted, made it natural for him to travel and provide live updates. He also brought Joe Gibbs Racing’s graphic and content needs in-house.

“I came in and it was just the perfect fit,” Boris said. “It was great.”

Today, Boris handles many areas. The Gibbs website has been redesigned, something he pitched on day one. He provides race updates during the weekend on all four Gibbs cars. Behind the scenes pictures and videos, from the track and the race shop, have become a must-see.

From Facebook to Twitter and Snapchat, Boris is on top of what the latest and greatest social media avenue is. There’s a willingness to try just about anything that pops up. Others, unfortunately, he just can’t dedicate the time to.

Photo Mar 12, 5 54 39 PM
For someone with an art background, Snapchat is right in Boris’ wheelhouse

“I read a lot of trends. I try to stay outside of the sport and keep a perspective outside of it just to keep myself fresh, but since I love the sport I always try and think when I was younger, what would I have wanted to experience?” Boris explained. “To me, the beauty of social media is we’re now on the people’s terms. We’re now on the fan’s terms.

“It’s really all about what they want and where they are. So if they’re on Snapchat, that’s where we need to be. It’s where we can meet them and where our content is best going to thrive.”

The longer Boris has been with the company, the more freedom he’s found. By now, he has a pretty good understanding of what Joe Gibbs would like, the sponsors, as well as what Chris Helein, the Vice President of Communications, and Dave Alpern, the President of JGR, will and will not let him do.

More importantly, he’s come to know many of the individuals around the shop, so exploring and documenting something isn’t much of a problem. It took a while to build that trust, though. Race teams are protective of their parts and pieces, and Boris is very conscious of what should and shouldn’t be shown in a picture or video.

The access he provides fans to the shop or inside the haulers is just one area where Gibbs stands above the rest.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself of what’s going to be really excellent not just in the NASCAR community, but what would Jalopnik or a bigger publication, what would they want to show?” Boris said.

Videos from the shop floor of a car being wrapped have become a big hit, especially with the sponsors. Gibbs might not have been the first organization to produce those videos, but like much of their content, Boris has made them trendsetters.

“Those have shown up on Jalopnik and USA Today and different places,” he proudly shared. “With things like that, I think how do you get the average person to see NASCAR is more than what they might think it is and really latch onto it.”

The Inspiration

Boris was born from Boris Said. Actually, it came courtesy former Gibbs driver Joey Logano. Upon meeting Cook, whose hair does strike the resemblance of the road course ace, Logano couldn’t help but call him that and it quickly stuck.

With the name comes a personality. Boris is biased. He’s emotional. When the organization does well or has a bad day, Helein and Alpern want that to play out online.

Over the last few years, many organizations have hired qualified individuals for the job, instead of using their public relations representatives. Roush Fenway Racing did so about a year ago, and the change was evident as they now use more GIFs and graphics.

Stewart-Haas Racing has built a nice following for their New England accent tweets when the series visits New Hampshire. But Boris continues to stand out by pushing himself to not only show a personality but to make the Gibbs pages different from all the others.

His inspiration is fellow creative type Gary Vaynerchuk. Described as a public speaker, entrepreneur, and Internet personality, Vaynerchuk has a unique and charismatic way of speaking to an audience. Boris follows a lot of his work, which includes how to succeed on social media.

“I came in, and I knew the novel thing about social media was that it was social. A lot of people just look at the media part and think it’s another way to put out media, but you have to have the social aspect,” Boris said. “(Vaynerchuk) really explains it well and he just hammers on it, reinforces it, keeps it at the forefront of, hey, you have to be connecting one-on-one with somebody.”

Think of it this way: back before the Internet was around a business was heard about through personal interaction. But the Internet is a non-personal space, and when looking to communicate with a company, there’s no guarantee you’ll receive a response by email or a phone call.

But now the Internet is more mature, and it can be a one-on-one experience. Interacting with one person could end with you reaching thousands. For Boris, that’s what makes it fascinating because while some may think social media is new, the platform has been around.

Instead, as he continues to prove, it’s how you use it.

What’s Next?

“(Social media) has changed so much for the better since I started,” Boris explained. “It was really frustrating when it started. NASCAR was with Turner (Sports), and they had whole different structure, and they just didn’t get it

“It’s new people now, and they definitely get it. Same with teams. It was a little bit of a learning curve.”

Photo Mar 12, 6 11 28 PM
Boris brings JGR fans into the middle of the victory celebration

Every team is on social media and Boris gives credit to all for what they do. Some of the other representatives he’s close with have even picked his brain. It’s good for everyone to work off each other, he said.

Late last year he helped NASCAR with doodles on Snapchat. He even posted on their behalf as a guest on the account. Most of the time, though, he believes in competitive pressure. Plus, creative people always put pressure on themselves to constantly be creative.

As the 2016 season rolls on it’s already apparent Boris has upped his game.

In NASCAR, the scenery is always the same: team shop, racecars, racetracks, and drivers. Not repeating yourself with posts can be challenging, but Boris likes to think of each weekend as a new story to tell. This year, there’s also the added element of Joe Gibbs Racing celebrating their 25th anniversary.

The biggest area he looks to highlight is the people. People and personalities have great stories to tell.

“Snapchat is what I’m most excited about for this year because that is the ultimate storytelling platform,” Boris said. “You can’t really overload people on it.”

When Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 last month, Snapchat was filled with celebration pictures and videos. It was a good mix between both the behind the scenes access and showing his personality through the excitement of the big win. Boris has also begun to use Snapchat for pre-race videos of driver introductions and the cars on the grid.

“Since a lot of people are doing it, you have to up the ante of being creative and grabbing attention and telling a story better because people are expecting a better video, and they expect better graphics,” he said.

“That’s the big challenge and goal for me. Keep video at the forefront.”

Boris. Just another reason why NASCAR teams are trying to keep up with JGR both on and off the track.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement. 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Whirlwind Season Could End with David Ragan in the Chase

TALLADEGA, Ala. — By the end of the season, David Ragan will have driven for two different manufacturers, three different teams and will have worked with seven different teammates — an unprecedented scenario in the recent history of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

And through it all, this wacky season could end with him in the playoffs and in the hunt for his first career championship.

The season turned upside down for Ragan in the days after the Daytona 500 when Joe Gibbs Racing asked the 29-year-old veteran to fill in for Kyle Busch in the storied No. 18 car after its primary driver was injured in the XFINITY Series race the day before the Great American Race.

While it’s never a good thing when a driver is forced to the sidelines due to injury, the incident came at an ideal time for Ragan who wasn’t sure if he had the funding needed to run the full season at Front Row Motorsports, where he has driven since the 2012 season.

As a result of the circumstances, Ragan finds himself in the thick of the playoff race, running as high at 10th two weeks ago before disappointing outings at Bristol and Richmond. Nevertheless, Ragan has enjoyed his return to the spotlight and doesn’t have a problem moving on to MWR after this race as opposed to later on in the season when Busch is ready to come back.

“I think timing is everything and it’s so much more important for me to have an opportunity going forward with a full-time car, with a very competitive organization like Michael Waltrip Racing than it would be for me to run a few more races before Kyle’s return,” Ragan said. “Ultimately, I always knew that this was just going to be a couple of months – a three-month deal – until Kyle gets back.

“For me the big picture is the entire season and finishing the season and having a real chance at being competitive going forward and having a shot to make the Chase.”

Ragan only drove for two teams in his first eight Sprint Cup Series seasons in Roush Fenway Racing and Front Row Motorsports. He admitted that the Musical Chairs from FRM to Gibbs to Waltrip has been “a little weird” this season.

“Then the Joe Gibbs Racing deal happened and just trying to meet their people and understand how they do things and their way of running through a race weekend and learning the guys’ names on the team,” Ragan. “I think just this weekend I’ve finally gotten everyone’s name down and so that process has got to start all over again, but I tell you the Gibbs organization has been great as far as including me as a part of their team.

Of course, it helped that Ragan previously worked alongside Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth during their previous tenure at Roush but Ragan also praised Denny Hamlin for helping his brief transition into Gibbs go as smoothly as possible.

“Denny’s been a very good teammate and has been really helpful at a lot of tracks that he’s really good at, but going forward the Michael Waltrip Racing guys appear to be the same way as the Joe Gibbs Racing teams.”

While he is leaving a championship winning organization now in Gibbs, his move over to Michael Waltrip Racing is certainly a step up from Front Row Motorsports. Without knowing what the long term plan is for the No. 55 car with primary driver Brian Vickers indefinitely sidelined from competition, Ragan knows this could be his final chance to prove that he belongs in a top-tier ride that is capable of making the playoffs and contending for championships.

“For me, you never lose that desire to be a champion or a very competitive person in this sport…,” Ragan said. “Certainly, there are teams in this garage that have the resources and the financial backing to be competitive and win and then there’s teams that don’t.”

Ragan praised NASCAR for doing “an incredible job of keeping the playing field level,” but understood that to win races and consistently run near the top-10, he has to capitalize on this opportunity with Gibbs and Waltrip for the remainder of the season.

“I’m 29 years old (and) I’ve just never lost the drive to continue to get better and work as hard as I can,” Ragan said. “And whatever opportunities are in front of me, I just try to make the best of it.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Denny Hamlin Looks to Keep Momentum Going in Texas

It’s been five years since his last win at Texas Motor Speedway, but he has got all of the momentum headed into Sunday’s Duck Commander 500. @Dennyhamlin is the latest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver with a win. He collected that victory at his home track, Martinsville Speedway, on March 29.

Hamlin said his team’s success in the STP 500 just fuels the desire to succeed even more.

“The win obviously takes a lot of pressure off our FedEx team,” noted the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota.

“Getting a victory so early in the season will allow us to work on our program, try some things and try to get better for the Chase. We are ahead of where we were at this point one year ago, and each week we seem to get a little bit more speed. Now, with a Chase berth pretty much locked up, we can take a few more chances to try to get more wins. We still have a lot of work to do, but hopefully Martinsville is a springboard for our team. We have a lot of good tracks coming up for us and I’m excited to get back out there.”

Hamlin will have more seat time during the upcoming weekend. He is substituting for @KyleBusch in the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota in the XFINITY Series. Busch continues to recover from surgeries to repair fractures sustained in his right leg and upper left foot after a crash in the opening XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Hamlin and @erik_jones have been splitting the seat while Busch remains sidelined.

Looking ahead to this weekend, Hamlin says Texas Motor Speedway has its fair share of character, which gives drivers a challenge.

“Texas is a really fast race track and for as old as the asphalt is, it still has a lot of speed. Although it’s fast, it has enough tire fall-off that a good handling car makes up for it. It’s a real interesting place, with flat corners getting in and getting out of them, but you can still carry a lot of speed through those areas of the racetrack,” said Hamlin.

“Just having your car secure enough in those areas and being able to have a lot of wide-open throttle time is key. I believe that we have all the tools necessary. Hopefully we can get this Monster Energy Camry into victory lane.”

Crew chief Chris Gayle believes the team has great potential to drive into Victory Lane.

“I’m looking forward to racing with Denny in Texas. I feel like he’s done a great job for us in the two previous events he’s driven this (No.) 54. We’ve had issues like race damage or pit/balance adjustments that have kept us from finishing to our and Denny’s potential. He has a lot of experience at Texas and also two Cup race wins there. The (No.) 54 team won this race in the fall, and all three JGR teams had top ten finishes then. So as a whole our XFINITY Series teams have good notebooks and car setups to rely on for Texas. This should be an event where the (No.) 54 team contends for our first win of 2015,” said Gayle.

Fans should watch to see if Hamlin can still pull off the look of wearing a cowboy hat and firing six shooters while also keeping the rodeo going for the No. 11 team.

The O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 is set for Friday, April 10 at 8:30 p.m. ET at Texas Motor Speedway and the Duck Commander 500 is Saturday, April 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET.

EMAIL ANITA AT anita.goodan@popularspeed.com

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News

J.D. Gibbs Undergoing Treatment For Symptoms Impacting Areas of Brain Function

HUNTERSVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA (March 25, 2015) – Joe Gibbs Racing announces today that J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, is starting treatment for symptoms impacting areas of brain function.

Gibbs has undergone a series of tests after experiencing a gradual onset of symptoms that includes speech and processing issues.  Gibbs’ doctors believe the complications he has experienced were triggered by head injuries likely suffered earlier in life, but no specific injury was referenced or identified. Gibbs has always enjoyed an active life participating in several sports including mountain biking, snowboarding, football, racing, and other extreme-type sports.

Gibbs will be undergoing more testing and receiving treatments to help manage the symptoms. During that time, it is expected that his presence at the race track will be limited; however, he will continue many of his day-to-day responsibilities at JGR’s headquarters in Huntersville, NC as well as involvement with his various ministry endeavors.

Credit: Joe Gibbs Racing

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

David Ragan Relishing Opportunity with Joe Gibbs Racing

ATLANTA — It’s cliché but David Ragan is taking his unforseen opportunity with Joe Gibbs Racing one week at a time and isn’t thinking about how long he will be with the Toyota flagship organization.

Ragan is filling in for Kyle Busch in the JGR No. 18 Toyota while he recovers from injuries sustained in a February 21 crash in the XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Busch suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg and a fractured right foot. As a result of the injury, Busch missed the Daytona 500 and was replaced for that event by defending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton.

JGR has only said that Ragan will drive the car for the “next several weeks” and no timetable has been established for Busch or another driver to take over the ride.

“As far as the length of time Kyle will be out, I don’t think anyone really knows that yet,” Ragan said on Thursday after the open test at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “I know for the next several weeks, I’ll be in the 18 car.

“I don’t know that we have really a hard time frame on it just yet. There’s a lot of moving parts and pieces and certainly it all goes back to how quickly Kyle can heal up and get back driving for them.”

Opinion: Without Busch Brothers in the Picture, the Race to the Chase is Wide Open

Ragan has driven for Front Row Motorsports since the 2012 season and was expected to again be the primary driver of its No. 34 team this season. Joe Nemechek will drive that car at Atlanta this weekend. Ragan said the opportunity came at a perfect time as he may not have had the funding needed to compete for the full season.

While he previously drove for Roush Fenway Racing from 2007-2011, this is the best equipment that Ragan has ever driven. His experience in building a team at FRM should only work in his favor when trying to impress in the No. 18 team. Should he win with Gibbs, his victory and championship points would carry over to Front Row in the case he has to return there later in the summer. While it’s a golden opportunity for Ragan to make the Chase for the first time in his career, he isn’t thinking that far ahead yet.

“It may be a situation where you get a win and you can get into the Chase, but let’s not count our chickens before they hatch,” Ragan said. “That’s a great scenario that if it would play out would be a lot of fun and something cool to talk about. … I’m just taking it race by race.

“I’m sure over the next few weeks, we’ll get a better feel for kind of the time frame on Kyle’s return and what the expectations are for the second half of the year.”

Ragan will have a pair of familiar faces to lean on in his acclimation period with JGR in Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. The trio were all former teammates at Roush and were instrumental in bringing Ragan over to Gibbs.

“He’s a great teammate and when his name was brought up — a lot like when they brought up Matt Crafton, I thought, ‘Man, that’s a great guy to be in that race car.’ So, yeah, my vote was to put David in the car and the way I understand it, everybody felt the same way.

“It’s not a good position to be in to have to go find a driver, but everybody is really excited about having David here.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Carl Edwards Brings Improved Team-Based Approach to JGR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “Teamwork” is the watchword for Carl Edwards in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

The suddenly 35-year-old veteran conceded that he wasn’t always a great teammate to Matt Kenseth when the two were at Roush Fenway Racing together from 2004-to-2012. Edwards has since grown into a leader at Roush and now looks to bring that experience and perspective with him to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he will be reunited with Kenseth for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve said it before, I was not a great teammate,” Edwards said. “I was an ‘every man for himself’ type of driver. But over time and after working with great drivers like Matt, Mark Martin and Jeff Burton — everything they did for me — Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and Ricky Stenhouse, I learned the value of what everyone contributes.”

Edwards explained that Kenseth has played a pivotal role during his transition from Roush to Gibbs and that the 2003 champion has looked out for him over the past few weeks.

“He’s subtle guy, not only in his wit but he’s picked up the phone and said ‘hey we’re setting up a meeting here. I’m hearing some things,’so that I can talk to the right people and do the right things. He’s been selfless in that respect and I’m really grateful to that effect.”

Kenseth has spent a good bit of time with Edwards during the winter at a variety of competition meetings and media functions and acknowledged the ways his once and future teammate has changed over the past decade.

“I don’t know that he needed to mature,” Kenseth said when asked about Edwards’ debut in the Sprint Cup Series. “But when you’re in this sport for a long time, you go through some changes. You get married. You have kids. You do that stuff and it really changes you as a person. You become more patient as you’re around longer and the older you get.”

Edwards says he understands the nuances of team racing better now than he ever did before and that is why he chose to be a part of a four-car group at JGR moving forward.

“The more we can work together as a group, the better off we are going to be,” Edwards said. “I’m in a much better spot to do that now that when I first came into the sport.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Busch Emerging from the Ether as Championship Favorite

By Vito Pugliese – “Park it behind the truck and take your whiny little ass to the bus!”

Such were the words crew chief Dave Rogers blasted to his driver @KyleBusch at Bristol, following a back and forth exchange with him trying to relay the handling ills of the No. 18 JGR Toyota following contact with the wall. While it was explained away as simply a misunderstanding brought about by the insane noise levels in the concrete cocoon and reciprocal radio traffic, it spoke to the underlying tension within the team that has been oozing to the surface regularly this season. It was also no surprise a couple of weeks ago when it was let known that there would be a crew chief shuffle at the end of the season at Joe Gibbs Racing, and that Rogers would not be back with Busch.

What has been a surprise however, is the performance of Kyle Busch in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The team began the year on a slow start, but played the new Chase rules properly and snagged a win early at Fontana, courtesy of new rubber and a late race restart – fending off a last lap challenge from rookie Kyle Larson in the process. From there on it has been a mishmash of middling performance, with mid-teens results being the norm, Busch’s biting sarcasm and blunt honesty following an early exit at Pocono in July. He attributed the No. 18 teams woes to, “something between the frame rails doesn’t seem to operate correctly right now” after a burned piston shortened the day.

In years past, Chase chatter usually had Busch as an odds-on favorite to contend for the championship, only to be undone by mechanical failures, superspeedway carnage, or meltdowns of Chernobyl proportions which saw the mercurial driver going double guns on a NASCAR official, refusing to answer a black flag while evoking the constitution (though it actually was the Bill of Rights), and being suspended after wrecking @RonHornaday in a Truck Series race.

The team shuffled their feet on their way into The Chase, and while many had identified the teams of @KevinHarvick, Brad @keselowski, @JoeyLogano, and the ten titles and seven Daytona 500 wins between Hendrick Teammates @JeffGordonWeb, @JimmieJohnson, and @DaleJr as title favorites, the No. 18 team was on the outset viewed as a team who got in on the strength of an early season win, but would be among the first to exit based on pure speed and past success – or lack thereof.

Fast forward to the Contender Round and suddenly the No. 18 team looks to have positioned themselves perfectly to advance not only to the next round – but roll into Homestead with a shot at winning it all. Winning a pole at Chicagoland and restarts that had Busch suddenly singing the praises of TRD’s torque revival under the hood of the M&M’s Camry, followed by top-10s at Loudon and Dover weren’t earth shattering, but were good enough to get ahead of those drivers who had trouble in the first three races. His finishes of seventh, eighth and tenth while trending downward were on tracks all drastically different from one another, and venues unique within the 10-race elimination format.

The biggest obstacle to overcome both performance wise and mentally was achieved last week, when Busch brought it home with a podium finish in third at Kansas Speedway – a track that has proved his undoing for the last five years. Last night’s pole performance at Charlotte with a hot lap of 197.390 followed a night of qualifying that saw brother Kurt post the fastest speed in qualifying at a 1.5-mile track in round two of knockout qualifying with a 198.771. While qualifying results can be misleading, running on used tires in conditions that were changing as temperatures dropped, show that the Toyotas newfound power coupled with the No. 18 team’s poise and communication bode well for this group in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500.

“We’re working on it and we’re getting better,” said Busch. I’ve been saying that if we get one piece of the puzzle each week at a time, and we’re going to be hard to beat. We’ll see if we’ve got it all.”

Should the improvement continue and result in a win – or even a top-five finish Saturday night, it will make next week’s race at Talladega – seen as the ultimate arbiter of who advances and who is eliminated by way of a 20 car pile-up – less of an issue. It will be a mere footnote of what could be the most unlikely of championships, and a fitting send-off as Rogers and Busch part ways at the end of 2014.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER @vitopugliese