Cup preview: Joe Gibbs Racing works to stay on top

The final installment in a series of 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team previews ahead of the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 21:


Principal owner: Joe Gibbs

Manufacturer: Toyota

Engine source: Toyota Racing Development

Alliances: Furniture Row Racing

Drivers (crew chiefs): Kyle Busch (Adam Stevens), Carl Edwards (Dave Rogers), Denny Hamlin (Mike Wheeler), Matt Kenseth (Jason Ratcliff)

2015's top finisher: Busch (first)

2015 Grade: A

Ownership stability: A

Sponsorship stability: A

Driver/crew chief quality: A

2016 team grade: A

Outlook: Joe Gibbs Racing had a rough start to 2015 (Kyle Busch's injuries that kept him out 11 races, Carl Edwards' early-season struggles), but this team turned it around starting in June, riding the wave all the way to the championship. Each driver won at least two races and the four combined for 14 victories (16 if counting the Sprint Unlimited and the Sprint All-Star race). So what does JGR do for an encore? It certainly didn't sit still. Gone is Edwards crew chief Darian Grubb, the odd man out to make room for Hamlin's hand-picked crew chief Mike Wheeler. Dave Rogers, with his long tenure at JGR, was moved from Hamlin to guide Edwards. With Edwards and Grubb combining for seven top-5s and 15 top-10s last year, they could have used another year together to see if they could mesh. Now Edwards starts over again with a new crew chief. As is the danger of any organization that ends the previous season on top, the main challenge is if they don't pick up where they left off, frustration will boil.


Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's/Interstate Batteries Toyota): The key to Busch's championship run was taking what the track, his opponents and his cars gave him and making the most of the day. He didn't try to do too much, especially early in a race. If he keeps doing that, the potential is unlimited. It would be feasible to see him win eight to 10 races this year, but no one should plan on winning five races in a season, let alone double that. Oh, and did we mention that Busch crew chief Adam Stevens is just one year into his Cup crew-chief career and only going to get better, especially with a team that had only one member of the road crew change for 2016? "I'm optimistic and both prepared and excited for a great season ... and hopefully start the Daytona 500 this year," Busch said.

2016 goal: Win three races and make it to the final four. Sure a championship is a goal but with this format, the main goal is for a driver to have a shot to win at Homestead.

Carl Edwards (No. 19 Arris/Stanley/Sport Clips/Subway Toyota): Edwards admits he pushed the envelope too much early in the 2015 season, wrecking and trying to get more out of the car than it could provide. Still, he won the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 and was a victim of the rain at Phoenix that kept him from advancing to the final round of the Chase. "Looking back on it, fifth in points, two of the biggest wins you could have in the sport and a couple of different scenarios there at Phoenix, I think we could have won the championship," Edwards said. It is imperative that Edwards and Rogers work well together. "I don't think it will be a slow [adjustment] period," Edwards said. "You never know. Anything can happen. I feel a lot more comfortable and confident that this season is going to go smoothly right from the beginning." If it doesn't go smoothly, Edwards will need to find a way to get comfortable and confident. He likely wouldn't get a new crew chief anytime soon.

2016 goal: Win three races and make it to the final four.

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx/Sport Clips Toyota): Hamlin, recovering from offseason knee surgery, hopes to be 100 percent for Speedweeks. Hamlin typically has a little bit of turmoil around him, and that's fine. He deals with it well and it is just part of the world of Denny. What he'll have this year that he didn't have last year is the crew chief he has total faith in what he's doing and he'll support when he makes a mistake. While Rogers and Hamlin got along well and seemed to communicate well, it was Wheeler whom Hamlin wanted all along as his crew chief and Hamlin appeared miffed that JGR wanted Wheeler (nicknamed "Wheels") to get some time in the Xfinity Series before going to Cup. Four wins (including three with Hamlin) proved to everyone that Wheeler belongs in Cup. When a driver is happy, the driver typically performs better. Expect Hamlin to be among the happiest drivers all year. "Things had to be moved around if Wheels is going to move up, and I had to kind of grab Wheels -- we had already vowed to each other we would be working together for a long time," Hamlin said.

2016 goal: Win three races and make it to the final four.

Matt Kenseth (No. 20 Dollar General/DeWalt Toyota): Kenseth hopes to put the sour ending of 2015, the back-and-forth with Joey Logano and his late-season two-race suspension behind him. Regardless of how the 2015 season ended, Kenseth can look at his stats -- five wins, four poles, 20 top-10 finishes -- and feel that there's no reason he couldn't continue to put up such gaudy numbers. Then again, history for Kenseth doesn't indicate he can carry success from one year to another at JGR. He won seven races in 2013 only to go winless in 2014. "I felt like we performed really well as a team," Kenseth said. "We put ourselves in position to win a lot of races, we led some laps again, sat on some poles again, got back to the form to where we were in 2013 and in some ways a little bit better. I don't dwell on one, two, three or four little things and really just look back at the whole season, it was a great season and we have a lot to build on."

2016 goal: Win three races and make it to the final four.