For the second year in a row, Joe Gibbs Racing enters a new NASCAR season with a new addition to its driver lineup as Erik Jones enters the fold.
But Kyle Busch sees the organization picking right up where it left off three months ago when he narrowly missed a second Monster Energy Series championship, falling five points short of Martin Truex Jr.
In fact ...
"I'd like to think we'd be better than last year," said Busch, who joins Jones, Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez to comprise one of the most potent driver lineups in the sport.
Last year, it was Suarez stepping into the void left by the sudden retirement of Carl Edwards. This year, it's Jones replacing the departed Matt Kenseth - arguably leaving Busch as JGR's leader.
"It's a unique opportunity for me, being one of the elder statesmen and leading our younger guys," said Busch, who - at the age of 32 - is embarking on his 15th season in NASCAR's top tier. "They've come through Kyle Busch Motorsports so it's been fun to watch them progress through the Xfinity and Truck Series. I'm looking forward to (Suarez and Jones) continuing to progress and at the same time, me being one of the leadership guys on our team ... racing for championships for years to come."
In 2017, Busch won five races and a series-leading eight poles, which landed him a spot in this weekend's season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway. He was the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and chased Truex all the way to the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway before falling one position short of the championship.
The near-miss will likely be a motivator for Busch and JGR entering the 2018 campaign.
"I feel that we matched Furniture Row Racing at Homestead and I'd say we were actually a little bit better than they were," Busch said of Truex, who led the series with eight wins. "That's what makes Homestead so painful. You can be a guy who wins 35 races out of the year and then in that 36th race, you can finish second and lose the championship. We thought we had the opportunity to put the '78' bunch in that situation but weren't quite able to pull it off."
Hamlin brings additional veteran leadership to JGR. He's made more than 400 starts for the organization dating back to his rookie year in 2005, but says he's looking for more than the sixth-place finish he had in the final 2017 standings.
"We need to have a year like 2010 or 2012, where we win more than five races and contend for the championship," said Hamlin, who won a combined 13 races in the two years mentioned and finished second (to Jimmie Johnson) in the 2010 title hunt. "With the current format, the entire championship is based off one race and not your whole body of work.
"Last year, we certainly had the correct champion. Martin (Truex Jr.) performed well throughout the entire season. But it all comes down to one race and it doesn't matter if you don't perform well at Homestead."
After securing the No. 7 seed in last year's playoffs, Hamlin ran ninth in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 and was sixth in the final standings - eliminated from title contention following a 35th-place finish in the semifinal round at Phoenix.
"I'm always motivated to be better and I'm going to keep grinding as long as I can to try to win a championship," said Hamlin, whose best showing is that runner-up effort to Johnson eight years ago. "I worked harder last year on things I can do to be better on the racetrack. Hopefully, that pays off this year and for years to come."