The first seven races of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season have been great for several teams.
Roush Fenway Racing drivers Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have each won a race already in 2012 and currently sit first and second in the standings, respectively.
Hendrick Motorsports has yet to win a race in 2012 but is coming off a tremendous weekend at Texas where each of its four drivers finished inside the Top 10 and two of its drivers sit in the Top 10 in points.
Stewart-Haas Racing has already made its case as one of the best teams in NASCAR with its drivers Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman combining for three wins in the season's first seven races, the most of any team.
Michael Waltrip Racing has even shown flashes of brilliance early and often in 2012. Despite not winning a race yet this season, MWR has both of its full-time drivers, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, in the Top 10 in points.
Yes, several teams have gotten the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season kicked off right. One team that hasn't, however, is a perennial contender that has struggled early this season despite claiming a win in the season's second race.
That team is Joe Gibbs Racing.
The three-car powerhouse has struggled through the season's first seven races. Since Denny Hamlin's win at Phoenix in the season's second week, JGR has scored exactly two Top 10 finishes in the last five races out of its three drivers.
Hamlin, thus far, has been the most successful of the three JGR drivers. The 2010 Sprint Cup Series runner-up has the aforementioned win, a pair of Top 5s and three Top 10s through seven races to go along with a sixth-place points standing.
Surprisingly, JGR's next-best driver in the standings is Joey Logano. Logano's 13th-place ranking has him three slots out of the Chase running, 27 points behind 10th-place Clint Bowyer.
Kyle Busch's 2012 season, meanwhile, has been an uphill climb since Bristol, where an early crash relegated him to a 32nd-place finish. Busch has just two Top-10 finishes thus far in 2012, part of the reason why he sits just 14th in the standings heading into Kansas.
Though sixth, 13th and 14th in the standings may not sound terrible, recent races have indicated that the trio of JGR drivers has struggled mightily over the last five races.
Since his sixth at Phoenix in race No. 2, Kyle Busch has just one Top 10 and an average finish of 20.8. During that same span, Logano has zero Top 10s and an average finish of 19.6, while Hamlin has just one Top 10 and an average finish of 13.8.
So what ails Joe Gibbs Racing, and why must its three drivers get back on track this weekend at Kansas?
Looking back over the last five races, the problem for all three Gibbs cars has simply been handling. In each race, all three drivers have just not unloaded well, causing them to get behind early in the race and play catch-up as the race progresses.
That issue was especially prevalent a few weeks ago at Las Vegas and once again this past weekend at Texas, both of which are tracks that place a large emphasis on handling and recently had races with very few cautions.
The lack of cautions in recent races has given the JGR drivers less of a chance to catch up due to fewer pit stops.
Meanwhile, as JGR's handling problems have caused them to start slow in recent races, Roush's and Hendrick's teams have all unloaded well, allowing their cars to get ahead early in the races and allowing their crew chiefs to fine-tune their cars throughout the race instead of having to make major adjustments just to stay competitive.
It may seem like such a small thing, but the results don't lie. Roush's drivers currently sit first, second and 11th in points while Gibbs' drivers sit sixth, 13th and 14th.
While JGR still has time to get all three of its cars into Chase contentions, it's critical that the team's drivers get back on track this weekend at Kansas for one reason.
JGR is a perennial championship-caliber team that does not appear capable of running with the big boys so far in 2012. With teams like Roush and Hendrick spanking the field so far in 2012, JGR must get up front and prove it is a contender and not just a pretender this season.
Which JGR driver most desperately needs a good finish at Kansas?
This weekend's race marks the last race before the All Star break that will take place on an intermediate track, which make up most of the schedule including half of the Chase races.
That means JGR must find a way to unload well and show it can contend on an intermediate track in order to prove that its drivers have what it takes to compete for the title this season. And when better to start than now?
Joe Gibbs Racing and its drivers have shown in the past that they are capable of running up front and contending for wins and championships. But after a disappointing 2011 season, 2012 has not started out well for Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin or Joey Logano.
That must change this weekend at Kansas.