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Gibbs' teams giving Hendrick a run for its money

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Dover, DE (Sports Network) - Look out Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing could be the "spoiler" - no pun intended - in your bid for a fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship.

HMS has been NASCAR's dynasty for the past several years, but JGR has been on a tear since NASCAR replaced the rear wing with the spoiler on the current Sprint Cup cars, beginning with the March 29 race at Martinsville. Team owner Joe Gibbs has accumulated five victories in the last seven races, with Kyle Busch winning Sunday at Dover and earlier this month at Richmond, and Denny Hamlin taking Martinsville, Texas and Darlington.

During last Tuesday's NASCAR Hall of Fame opening in Charlotte, Rick Hendrick admitted Gibbs' teams have outperformed his organization lately.

"He's lapped me," Hendrick said.

But Gibbs isn't agreeing with Hendrick's kind gesture just yet.

"I think first of all, quite a bit has been made of that over the last week or so," Gibbs said. "You can kind of get on a run in pro sports, but the thing that I'm always conscious of is the knuckle sandwich. It's waiting right around the corner in pro sports. We're just getting started really here. I'm thrilled that the last seven, eight weeks have gone so well for us, but the reality is that can all turn in a week."

Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl winning head coach with the Washington Redskins, made his foray into NASCAR in 1992. Since then, Gibbs has won three Cup championships with drivers Bobby Labonte (2000) and Tony Stewart (2002, 2005).

Joe Gibbs has won three Cup championships with drivers Bobby Labonte (2000) and Tony Stewart (2002, 2005).
Since Stewart's last title, it's been all Johnson and Hendrick. But has the pendulum begun to swing Gibbs' way again?

Busch currently is 69 points behind leader Kevin Harvick, while Hamlin sits fifth in the standings. Joey Logano, in his second full year of Cup competition, is 18th in the rankings, as he trails 12th-place Martin Truex Jr. by 102 points. Fourteen races remain before Richmond, which is the cut-off point for the 12-driver field in the championship chase.

After missing last year's chase by a mere eight points, Busch's No.18 team has made significant improvements, particularly with the addition of crew chief Dave Rogers. It now appears to be working, with Busch winning two of the last three races.

"It's always fun when it is your way instead of the other way around," Busch said. "For the way that we've run and for as hard as Dave Rogers worked, I think the hard work is paying off. That's what it comes down to, is just what all you're able to put together through the off-season and through this year with our cars and stuff.

"It's really been fun to work with these guys and to kind of revive the 18, if you will, and put it back into victory lane this year. We've been working real hard at just keeping my head in the game more, and it seems to be working a little bit too."

This year, Busch will focus more on his Sprint Cup efforts, instead of defending his Nationwide Series championship. Busch, with four Nationwide wins so far this season, including last Saturday at Dover, is just 11 points behind leader Brad Keselowski. But Busch is expected to miss the June 5 race at Nashville, with Brad Coleman taking over driving duties there. Sprint Cup will be at Pocono that weekend.

Since his knee surgery days after winning Martinsville, Hamlin arguably has been the hottest driver in Cup. Hamlin continued his a roll at Dover, which had been one of the driver's worst tracks lately. He turned in a fourth-place run there after finishing 22nd or worse in the previous five races at the venue.

"Our team is just clicking right now," Hamlin said. "We're getting good finishes on our worst race track, and that's what we need to do. It was a step in the right direction for sure."

At the start of the season, Hamlin was regarded as Johnson's biggest threat for the title. It's certainly looking that way.

You can also add Busch as a driver in the thick of it.

HMS appeared to be on its way to another dominating season, with Johnson winning three of the first five races. After crashing at Talladega and Darlington and then finishing 16th at Dover due to a late-race speeding penalty, Johnson has fallen from first to fourth in points (-131)

"When I look back at the last few races, I know the results aren't what we want, but we were competitive at some of the tracks, and we had bad luck at some of the tracks, and [Sunday] we led a lot of laps and ran up front," Johnson said."

Johnson led 225 of 400 laps before his penalty prevented him from capturing a third straight win at Dover.

He might be behind the eight ball with one-third of the season now completed, but he's been in this situation plenty of times before. Johnson really peaks at season's end when he's unbeatable in the chase.

HMS had its best season in 2009, with Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finishing 1-3 in points, respectively.

This year, JGR is making a bold statement that Hendrick's dominant days may be coming to an end.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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