CONCORD, N.C. - For much of this season, an owner's championship for Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 Toyota team seemed a forgone conclusion in NASCAR's Nationwide Series.
Through the first 19 races of the season, the team - with drivers Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano - racked up nine victories and led the standings by several hundred points.
Two important things have happened since the team's most recent victory, on July 4 at Daytona International Speedway, to change the dynamics of the championship race.
First, crew chief Dave Rogers, car chief Richard Bray and engine tuner Dan Bajek were suspended indefinitely by NASCAR in August after officials discovered both JGR Nationwide teams trying to alter the outcome of a chassis dynamometer test at Michigan. As part of the penalty, both teams lost 150 car owner points.
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Second, even before the penalties were announced, the No. 20 team had been slumping somewhat. Since the July 4 win, the team has been winless in next 11 races and managed just two top-five finishes.
Those two factors, coupled with the resurgence of Clint Bowyer's No. 2 Richard Childress Racing team, have left the No. 20 with only a 33-point lead over the No. 2 in the owner’s standings entering Friday night's Dollar General 300 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"The plan all along this season was to do the best we can, win as many races as we can and then when Joey (Logano) got in the car, help with his development," said Steve deSouza, JGR's vice president of Nationwide Series operations.
"Obviously, the penalties disrupted the consistency we had, but we've got an extreme amount of depth at JGR. It was something we couldn't ignore, but I'm very pleased with how we have been able to run well and give Joey a chance to win races."
Bowyer, who enjoys a 196-point lead in the driver standings, seems to be in good position to make up the ground necessary in the owner race.
Bowyer hasn't finished worse than eighth in his last four starts at Charlotte and has one top-five and five top-10 showings in eight series starts at the track. He has led 658 laps in Nationwide competition this season, second only to Kyle Busch.
"Consistency is still going to be the name of winning this championship. This team has to stay consistent, and we can do it," Bowyer said. "We've given up a couple of wins here as of late, but if you look at our top fives and top 10s, we're doing what we need to do.
"We may have lost a few battles, but we're winning the war."