As the Sprint Cup Series has rolled into the summer heat segment of the 2016 season, the questions began about Joe Gibbs Racing.
After a fiery start to the season that saw Gibbs drivers win seven of the first 12 events of the year, the group had seemingly gone into chill mode in June and July.
Coming into Sunday’s New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Gibbs stable had gone six events without a victory.
But Sunday, Matt Kenseth showed there should be no predictions for any sort of deep freeze anytime soon for Gibbs teams.
Kenseth rallied from a deep starting spot and had the dominant car over the final 31 laps to win Sunday.
Tony Stewart was second and Joey Logano third.
It was the second win of the season for Kenseth, who was also victorious at Dover International Speedway on May 15.
That victory was the last one for the four-car Gibbs stable of Kenseth, Kyle Busch (three wins), Carl Edwards (two wins) and Denny Hamlin (one win).
“Now I’m thinking about going and trying to win the Brickyard,” Kenseth said about next Sunday’s race at Indianapolis. “It’s been an up and down couple months for sure. But last week I felt like if all the stars were aligned we could have won at Kentucky, if everything went just for right for us. To be able to come here and win obviously feels good. I’m just thinking about moving on to (Indianapolis) and hopefully being in the mix.”
Busch led the most laps (133) Sunday in Loudon but faded to eighth place late. Hamlin led five laps and was ninth. Edwards was 20th.
All four Gibbs teams are already unofficially qualified for the 10-race Chase for the Championship.
“That’s what it’s all about,” team owner Joe Gibbs said “… I think the key is, as you continue to work during the year, is trying to keep the performance and try to point to the playoffs. When you get to the playoffs you never know what’s going to happen. … You take your best shot. What you want to do is hopefully continue to improve as the year goes on, and that’s kind of our goal.”
And it was a day that not only showed that the Gibbs group shouldn’t be discounted going forward toward the Chase, but also that Kenseth’s team is battle ready for overcoming obstacles in the months to come.
Kenseth started 18th in the field. He was up to fifth by Lap 75. He went by Martin Truex Jr. for the lead on Lap 258 and held that spot until a round of pit stops under caution. Hamlin stayed out and assumed the lead, but Kenseth went back by for the lead for good on Lap 271.
“It always feels good to win, but today especially,” Kenseth said. “Friday I didn’t do a good job qualifying. We had to start in the middle of the pack. Our first run wasn’t great. We adjusted and made some great changes for run two, and really I felt like we had probably the best car all day. It just took forever to get there. … It definitely feels good to get the win.”
It was the second consecutive victory at New Hampshire for Kenseth, who won the second event in last year’s Chase. It was his third victory overall at the track.
“I was looking forward to coming here because we’ve ran really well here since I came to Joe Gibbs Racing,” Kenseth said. “It’s been a real turnaround for me. This used to be one of my worst places, and now I feel like it’s one of my better places.”
In 26 starts for car owner Jack Roush from 2000 to 2012, Kenseth had no victories and only five top-five finishes and 12 top-10s.
In seven races at Loudon since joining Joe Gibbs Racing before the 2013 season, Kenseth has an average finish of 6.1 and has finished sixth or better five times, with only one finish worse than ninth.
“It seems like this is one of our better tracks,” crew chief Jason Ratcliff said. “We’ve had some good runs here in the last three years, and we always look forward to coming here. It’s been a track that’s not only good for the team but obviously good for Matt.”