Joe Gibbs Racing
Engine: Toyota Racing Development (TRD)
Drivers: Denny Hamlin, No. 11; Kyle Busch, No. 18; Daniel Suarez, No. 19; Erik Jones, No. 20
Crew chief: Mike Wheeler (Hamlin), Adam Stevens (Busch), Scott Graves (Suarez), Chris Gayle (Jones)
2017 standings: Busch, 2nd in final standings (reached Championship 4); Hamlin, 6th (eliminated in Round of 8); Jones, 19th (did not reach the Playoffs driving for Furniture Row Racing); Suarez, 20th (did not reach the Playoffs); Matt Kenseth, 7th (eliminated in Round of 12 driving No. 20 car)
What’s new: After running his rookie Monster Energy Series campaign with Furniture Row Racing last year, sophomore driver Erik Jones takes over the No. 20 Toyota, a seat filled by Kenseth since 2013. Jones also brings company as Chris Gayle moves over from FRR to serve as crew chief.
What to watch: How quickly sophomore sensations Jones and Suarez win their first career race (and yes, it’s WHEN, not IF). Both are poised to have breakout seasons. Between veteran leadership of Busch and Hamlin, along with new, talented blood, JGR is going to be one tough organization to beat (again) in 2018.
Key question(s): Can Jones and Suarez break into Victory Lane for the first time? Can Toyota pick up where they left off last year, or will the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 give the JGR Camrys a run for their money? Also, can Busch win at Charlotte Motor Speedway to have a win at every race track on the Monster Energy Series circuit?
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry: It was a very steady season for Hamlin in 2017 — a pair of victories, 15 top fives and 22 top-10 finishes. An average finish of 11.6 was also a career-best for Hamlin. But in a world where race victories and stage wins mean the most, consistency only gets a driver so far.
Hamlin has come heartbreakingly close to winning a championship on multiple occasions, but sealing the deal has been a tall task. If he can cook up more consistent finishes and sprinkle in a few more race/stage wins, it will have all the makings for a Championship 4 recipe.
Surely, starting on the Daytona 500 front row is a nice jumpstart.
Kyle Busch, No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry: When .681 seconds separates you from a second Monster Energy Series championship, you’re going to have a chip on your shoulder. That’s exactly the case for “Rowdy” this season. We know Busch doesn’t need any more fuel for his fire to win, but coming thatclose to another title just allows the blaze to burn even brighter.
Coming off a stellar five-win season, Busch hopes for more of the same in 2018.
“I don’t think we would be any worse,” he said. “I would like to think we’d be better. We kind of started out the season a little bit on the slower side, if you will, last year with our new car. We were kind of behind the 8‑ball a little bit maybe, and as the season kind of progressed, we learned what things our car liked and what we needed to do in order to make ourselves better and more competitive, and we were able to do those things and got it to where we were pretty fast there obviously and peaked later in the season. Hopefully we can start out our year this year a little stronger than we did last year.”
Daniel Suarez, No. 19 Arris Toyota Camry: With one top five and 12 top-10 finishes in his rookie season, Suarez proved success at NASCAR’s highest level is imminent. But, those numbers weren’t good enough for him.
“That’s not the rookie season that everyone wants, but sometimes that’s what makes you tougher,” Suarez said. “I feel like that can teach me a lot of things to prepare myself better for this year, and I feel like we are going to show that on the racetrack.”
The 26-year-old needs to take his performance to the next level by minimizing mistakes and taking advantage of every opportunity. Between his prowess and strong Toyota power, Suarez has all the potential to notch his first career win and become the first Mexican-born driver to win a Monster Energy Series race.
Suarez recorded his career-best third-place finish at Watkins Glen in 2017, so breaking into Victory Lane could very well come on a road course.
Erik Jones, No. 20 DeWalt Toyota Camry: Taking over a big-time Monster Energy Series ride after a champion held the seat is a tall task, but if anyone can handle it, it’s Erik Jones.
Jones will fill the No. 20 Toyota following Matt Kenseth’s five-year run with the organization. With one year of racing at the top level already under his belt, the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year knows what to expect.
The 21-year-old driver earned five top fives and 14 top-10 finishes last season. All signs point to Jones building on those numbers and breaking into the win column in 2018 — sooner rather than later.
“There were a lot of unknowns last year at this point for myself, at least, going into a new series with a new team, a new group of guys,” Jones said. “It was just a lot of things that were really unsettled and weren’t really all figured out yet. At least having everybody in place, knowing Chris (Gayle) and knowing the Cup Series one year better than I did last is definitely an advantage. I have a better feel for the cars and everything to expect there and what’s going to be week in and week out and how the season kind of rolls and progresses.”