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Gibbs drivers dominate on Nationwide

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

By PETE IACOBELLI

AP Sports Writer

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- When Tony Stewart strides through the Nationwide Series garage on race day, he feels the eyes of other teams on him and knows they're wondering if they'll again run second to the powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing team.

It's "like, 'Man, this guy's in the car this week,"' Stewart says, then adds it doesn't really matter if the "guy" is Stewart or teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

The Gibbs' racers have won eight times in 12 Nationwide races this year, including last Friday night's event at Darlington Raceway. The victory was the sixth straight for JGR drivers.

"When each one of us walks in the garage," Stewart said, rivals "know we're going to be a force to be dealt with."

Stewart has won four times including his first-ever victory at Darlington last week. Busch has three wins and Hamlin one this season. That roll looks like it might continue with Hamlin leading the way with the fastest speed in a Nationwide test at Lowe's Motor Speedway. That's the site of the next Nationwide event on May 24.

Stewart, twice a Sprint Cup champion, is proud to help dominate NASCAR's second-tier series.

"People kind of make fun of you when you say it's an honor, and it is, it's an honor to drive for this team this year," Stewart said.

There's no doubt in Stewart's mind where the success comes from -- JGR's crews.

Dave Rogers is crew chief of the No. 20 Toyota that's taken six checkered flags this year. Jason Ratcliff crews the No. 18, which has won the other two.

Busch and Hamlin also get seat time in the No. 32 Toyota entry, owned by Todd Braun and with Trent Owens as crew chief.

Rogers points to the team's consistency and the owners' commitment. He's barely had any crew turnover since joining Gibbs' group in 2006. The Gibbs' family is just as passionate about succeeding in the Nationwide Series as its been in the top-level Sprint Cup.

"They wanted to be the premier race team, so they've given us the equipment to do so," Rogers said.

While the team's personnel has clicked, Rogers adds, "You got to throw the drivers in there. They're pretty OK."

Stewart sees the surge totally driven by the offseason work done by Rogers and the others. While JGR was on par last year with the Nationwide's power teams of Richard Childress Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing, this year Gibbs' rides are at "another level and in my opinion that made them the elite" in Nationwide.

That's the way it looked last week. Stewart led the most laps (90) and stayed out front while several key competitors like Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin were caught in problems brought on by Darlington's faster, repaved surface.

With the Gibbs' stars -- Busch leads in Sprint Cup points, Hamlin is fourth and Stewart eighth -- shuttling in and out of Nationwide cars, it's a challenge for the teams to stay focused.

Owens, of the No. 32 car, admits he often feels like a school teacher trying to keep all the students happy and content.

Hamlin is a quiet sort you have to draw out, while Busch is, well, Busch -- a fiery, smart-aleck unafraid to tell you the car you've given him is "junk," Owens says laughing.

"Sometimes, it's tough. We don't see other as much as we'd like because they have other obligations and they can't just hang out and talk about what we're going to do like we'd like to," Owens said. "Even though we have (Sprint) Cup drivers, it's very difficult to keep up with what they're used to on the race track."

So far, everyone connected to JGR has risen to the challenge, Busch says.

"It's just all about trying to do the communication and getting the right stuff in the right car for the right driver and making the most of it," he said.

There are more changes ahead for Gibbs' Nationwide program. Developmental driver Joey Logano will take over as the No. 20's primary driver later this month at Dover International Speedway, Rogers said.

Don't expect the winning to stop with Logano, who'll turn 18 on May 24, behind the wheel, Stewart said.

"Trust me, he is licking his chops," Stewart said. "That kid has a lot of confidence."

It may not happen right away, Stewart says, but Logano is "right in line to win just as many races as us, I believe."

And maybe give Nationwide Series teams another Gibbs' driver to worry about.



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