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In what was one of the final opportunities to race on a track similar to the championship race host facility of Phoenix Raceway, Joe Gibbs Racing showed it has made great strides this year and should be a force should any of its four drivers be in title contention at the end of the year.

The JGR Toyota cars were nowhere to be found at the front of the field when the NASCAR Cup Series visited Phoenix in March for the first time with the new Next Gen car model. Kyle Busch finished seventh for JGR’s lone top-10 result, but even his average running position that day was 11th.

Denny Hamlin won the next race at a track similar to Phoenix’s flat, 1.0-mile layout when he took the checkered flag in early April at the 0.75-mile Richmond Raceway. All four JGR cars finished inside the top-10, but pit strategy delivered Hamlin the victory, as he took four fresh tires later than the other leaders.

Busch was back to the only JGR top-10 finisher the following week at the flat half-mile of Martinsville Speedway. In fact, he was the only JGR car to finish better than 20th.

Joe Gibbs Racing has found the correct setup for flat tracks midway through the season

The series did not return to a flat track again for two months, and JGR must have gone to work to improve its program on those types of tracks before the June 5 race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. 

Busch battled eventual-winner Joey Logano down to the final lap and finished second, while Martin Truex Jr. ran sixth and Christopher Bell was ninth. Hamlin may have also been in the mix, but he and Ross Chastain had an incident 66 laps into the race that damaged Hamlin’s car.

Another seven weeks passed before the series returned to a flat track in New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and this time JGR dominated. Truex Jr. led a race-high 172 laps and won both of the first two stages. Bell then led the final 42 circuits for his first victory of the season. Truex Jr. finished fourth, Hamlin was sixth, and Busch rallied to 12th after a spin earlier in the event.

Success on flat tracks could be the biggest key to contend for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship

Joe Gibbs Racing owner Joe Gibbs at the 2018 Daytona 500
Joe Gibbs Racing owner Joe Gibbs circa 2018 | Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

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The series will visit Richmond again in the regular season in August, which could be crucial for Truex Jr.’s playoff hopes, as he does not yet have a win this year. He is fourth in the points standings but in 16th on the playoff grid, which is the last available spot. Any new winner in the next six races would knock him out of the playoffs.

The other reason success on flat tracks is crucial is their placement on the playoff schedule. Martinsville is the final cutoff race to determine the Championship 4 the following week at Phoenix.

An organization that excels at those types of tracks should have an advantage in what will be the most important races of the year.

Hendrick Motorsports will likely be a factor since it leads the series with seven victories among its four drivers and the last two championships, but Team Penske and JGR could be stiff competition at the end of this season.

Penske has the best average finish among any organization since 2019 at both Martinsville and Phoenix, while JGR is second with three wins at both tracks during that span.

HMS, meanwhile, has been average at best on flat tracks this season. William Byron won the spring race at Martinsville, but that is historically HMS’s best track. Chase Elliott in second was the only top-10 result for the organization at New Hampshire, and HMS failed to place a driver among the top-10 finishers at either Phoenix or WWT Raceway.

The Next Gen car has surely required teams to start from scratch in certain respects at many tracks this season, but JGR has shown the most improvement on arguably the most important types of tracks since the beginning of the season.

Also, now that all four JGR drivers are qualified for the playoffs, the organization can pour even more focus on its playoff preparations.

It has been an uneven season for the top Toyota team in the sport, but the progress it has shown throughout the first half of the season should be encouraging to JGR and its fans, particularly on the tracks that will matter most at the end of the year.

All stats courtesy of Racing Reference

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