Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Redskins' loss could definitely be Joe Gibbs Racing's, Toyota's, gain
By David Newton ESPN.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart were running first and second fifteen laps into the July race at Daytona International Speedway when Stewart appeared to get into the back of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate coming off Turn 4.
Hamlin got sideways, causing both to wreck.
Stewart accused Hamlin of checking up and questioned him as a teammate. He also accused the 2006 rookie of the year of trying to wreck him during the Friday practice.
Hamlin, insisting he never let up, was so mad that he ignored Stewart's phone calls during the week.
In stepped team owner Joe Gibbs.
He detoured by Chicagoland Speedway during a family vacation to get both drivers together and correct the situation before it got out of hand.
The memory of Gibbs marching back and forth between the haulers of Hamlin and Stewart became prevalent on Tuesday when he retired as head coach of the Washington Redskins for the second and final time.
Although his reason for leaving the NFL had little to do with babysitting drivers and everything to do with a frustrating season in which a star player was murdered, a grandson battled leukemia and wanting to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren, it couldn't have come at a better time for the race team he formed in 1992.
It came at a time when JGR is transitioning from Chevrolet to Toyota, at a time when Kyle Busch is joining Stewart and Hamlin to create what some in the garage consider a three-headed monster as far as egos are concerned.
Nothing against his son, team president J.D. Gibbs, but the organization needed its Coach Joe.
"They may have more problems than they've had before between the three drivers they have," said J.J. Yeley -- who was replaced by Busch in the No. 18 -- during a break in preseason testing at Daytona. "Not because they're going to fight. Just because there are three guys that want to win and there can only be one winner on Sunday.
"That creates more problems."
J.D., who has been primarily responsible for running the organization since his dad rejoined the Redskins four years ago, laughed and said, "As long as they're going fast "
"Across the board he's got a good feel for people," J.D. continued. "He has a good touch with his drivers, crew chiefs, guys working on the floor. Guys respect that and he cares about them. To have him back full time will be real encouraging for everybody."
Kyle Busch is the newest driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable and one who is excited about his legendary owner's return to NASCAR.
J.D. said his father didn't say much about retiring when he returned to Charlotte last weekend after a playoff loss to Seattle. But he said making the playoffs made it easier for his father to step down.
"If they hadn't been able to improve and turn the season around it would have been real hard for him to leave now," he said. "But the fact they came back and had a strong ending, that made him feel like now is the right time."
Gibbs, it seems, always is fixing things. He's stepped in on numerous occasions during Stewart's sometimes-tumultuous career. In 2005, when the organization as a whole was struggling, he took a break from coaching to give a pep talk that sparked Stewart to his second title.
"I've just seen from the motivational side where he can come in and the whole entire shop can be down and the guys can be keeping their heads down and dragging a little bit," Yeley said. "He can come in and talk to some people and instantly it looks like you won the last 10 races."
Hamlin, who lives next door to his owner, agreed.
"I know he's looking forward to taking some time off, but I'll be happy to see him at the track more," he said. "His schedule has kept him from being at the racetrack too much over the past four years, but it really motivates us when he's there because we all respect him so much."
Busch doesn't anticipate needing Gibbs to mediate between him and his new teammates. But he said it would be "pretty cool" having the man that won three Cup titles between Stewart ('02, '05) and Bobby Labonte ('00) around on a regular basis.
"[Crew chief Steve] Addington told me earlier today that whenever you really need something or want something, you'd just go to Joe and he's like, 'Fine. Do whatever you need. We'll figure out a way to pay for it later,' " Busch said.
"That will pay dividends for us, just being able to go out there and get what we need when we need it. All in all, having Joe playing a bigger role in the race team is always nice. J.D. does a great job with it, but it's not like having Joe Gibbs around to run this organization."
Gibbs' office at JGR will need nothing more than a quick dusting. J.D. left it vacant when his father returned to coaching, knowing there would be a day when it would be used again.
"Thankfully, I didn't move all of my stuff in there," he said.
The elder Gibbs often kept toys in his office to play with the grandchildren when he wasn't engineering huge sponsor deals. J.D. doesn't expect that to change.
"It probably won't be much different than before he left," he said. "He probably won't go to all of [the races], but he'll go to a ton. I might get a break from a few, so that's good.
"Overall, he'll be right in the middle of everything at the shop and still working with the Redskins some [as an advisor]. He has only one speed. Whatever he does, he does it wide open."
That's good news for Lee White, the senior vice president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. He couldn't help but smile when he heard the news while keeping tabs of testing speeds on Tuesday morning.
No longer tied down by the rigors of an NFL schedule, White hopes Gibbs will be able to help the foreign manufacturer become a power in NASCAR's premier series.
"First of all, it's a family business," White said. "The more members of the family business and the more members of the family that are in the business the better off it is for everyone.
"We're extremely pleased with J.D. He's been a wonder to work with. I spoke to J.D. this morning and he's extremely pleased that Joe's going to be more available to the team. It can't be anything but good for us given all of that."
Family played a big role in Gibbs' decision to retire. His son, Coy, left the Redskins as an assistant to run JGR's motocross team in Charlotte. Joe's wife soon followed to be with the eight grandchildren.
That left the elder Gibbs basically alone in Washington.
"That part weighed on him," J.D. said. "He didn't want to miss out on stuff."
Richard Childress, the owner of Richard Childress Racing, welcomes Gibbs' presence back in the garage.
"He's a legend in himself with everything he's accomplished as a football coach, but he's also brought a lot to our sport," Childress said.
"He's played a huge role in getting Joe Gibbs Racing off and running," Childress said. "J.D. has done a great job with it. I'm sure Joe will just come in and oversee things. I think it will be good for his team having him back fulltime, not taking anything away from J.D."
Said NASCAR president Mike Helton: "Ever since Day One, when Joe Gibbs decided to put together an organization in our sport and Cup garage -- and oh by the way make a very successful organization out of it -- it's been a very positive thing for NASCAR."
The return fulltime to NASCAR is a very positive thing for JGR for sure.
"There is a lot of stuff that is difficult, working with sponsors, working with NASCAR, working with a lot of areas he'll really contribute," J.D. said. "And I've really missed him, obviously."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.