Ahead of Sunday’s Cookout Southern 500 at Darlington (6 p.m. ET; TV: NBCSN, Radio: MRN), we are profiling the seven teams that make up the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoff field. In this article, we are profiling Joe Gibbs Racing and their playoff drivers: Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.
No. 11 Denny Hamlin (2nd in points; +43 ahead of 13th place Clint Bowyer)
In 2018, Denny Hamlin was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs after being seeded 13th, with 2003 points, to start the playoffs. Hamlin finished 11th in the final points standings and went winless that season for the first time in his career, putting his future in limbo with Christopher Bell in the pipeline gunning for his spot in the Cup Series. Two years later, it all feels far away now as Hamlin is a second-seeded Championship Four favorite, with a 43-point advantage over 13th place Clint Bowyer.
Hamlin is much like Harvick in that both drivers are each reaching the peak of their career later than their contemporaries. Like Harvick, Hamlin is set to have a record-setting year for his career, in terms of top 5s (15), top 10s (17), average finish (8.9) and wins (6), if he keeps up his current pace that has elevated him to be a second-seed in the playoffs. Hamlin has been strong almost everywhere this season which, combined with his 27-point advantage over fifth place Chase Elliott, will likely lock him into the Championship Four for the second consecutive season.
No. 19 Martin Truex Jr. (6th in points; +10 points ahead of 13th place Clint Bowyer)
Entering 2020, Martin Truex Jr. faced many questions about how well he would perform in 2020. For the first time since 2014, Truex would not be paired with crew chief Cole Pearn. Pearn had a hand in elevating Furniture Row Racing to a championship-winning team in 2017 and led Truex to a successful 2019 season as the pair transitioned to Joe Gibbs Racing for their first and only season there together. Many wondered if Truex would do as well in 2020 with new crew chief James Small, as Truex had with Pearn in 2019 and before.
Small’s previous position as Truex’s lead engineer, dating back to Truex’s Furniture Row days, has served to quietly answer any questions this season. Truex only has one win on the season, compared to four wins after 26 races last season, but he has 11 top 5s and 17 top 10s, which bests his 10 top 5s and 15 top 10s at this point last season. Truex has been consistent, especially recently as he’s finished in the top 5 in nine of the last ten races, with each of those nine finishes being fourth or better. If he can maintain such consistency throughout the playoffs and make up for where others fall short in that area, then Truex could easily make his way to Phoenix for the championship race.
No. 18 Kyle Busch (14th in points; -1 behind 12th place Aric Almirola)
Whether it’s issues with a lap car causing a wreck at Pocono, tire issues at New Hampshire and Charlotte, mechanical woes at the Daytona Roval or being the victim of a daring move in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, Busch has seen it all this season. What Busch has not seen this season is a win or even a race where he has led the most laps. For comparison, Busch ended the 2019 regular season with four wins and seven races where he led the most laps.
Busch has not been as good as he has been in the last season but the potential is still there for Busch to put together a good run in the playoffs. Looking at the first round’s tracks and how Busch has performed there recently, he nearly won at Darlington in May and led 100 laps at Bristol in May. Meanwhile, Richmond stacks up as his second-best track statistically. A first round pass should be easy for Busch, as long as no issues arise.
Once in the next round, the path to the Championship Four becomes muddier. The Charlotte Roval and Talladega are in round two, which are among his worst tracks statistically, and Busch’s last two finishes of 15th and 19th at Las Vegas don’t bode well for him. However, with a first round that looks so strong for Busch, a win at any one of those races could begin a charge toward the Cup that would rival Tony Stewart’s 2011 run.