In the executive meeting every Monday morning at the expansive Joe Gibbs Racing shop in Huntersville, N.C., the team owner, his son and president, J.D., and several of his vice presidents assemble to discuss the weekend's endeavors.
Business has been good in the Sprint Cup Series, with two drivers in the Chase field and first-year acquisition Matt Kenseth the points leader. And business has, as usual, also been good in the Nationwide Series, where JGR's perennial powerhouse again has a car leading the owner standings.
In a sport where no trophy is a bad trophy, some symbols of accomplishment must mean more than others. Although a Nationwide owner trophy won by 11-race winner Kyle Busch and cohorts Drew Herring, Joey Coulter and Owen Kelly would burnish the team's championship boardroom right alongside a possible Kenseth crown, it's hard to imagine them as equal.
But in a sense they are, said JGR vice president of Nationwide Series operations Steve deSouza, who for 15 years has overseen a program that has won four of the past five owner titles in NASCAR's top-tier developmental program. For at JGR, he said, wins in Cup and development in Nationwide are inexorably linked.
"I think the Gibbses would say this is very important to us," deSouza said, "from the standpoint of (A) there are business partners we have that if we didn't have Nationwide we probably couldn't have them and they've become great partners and better friends, but also because of how we utilize the system, whether it be with drivers or people, moving them around in the company, that's proven to be a big dividend. And all of our championship trophies are in the championship boardroom, which is where our Cup trophies are, too, so we're standing head-and-head with some good partners in there when you look at the championship trophies of the Nationwide and Cup.
"Where not as big, all the championships mean a lot to the Gibbses -- it basically means we're doing our job and we're performing."
Q: What's the secret formula for Nationwide success for JGR the past several years? You've won with developing drivers and with all-star lineups of Cup regulars.
A: I would say mostly divine intervention, but when it comes to the people side, we have got great owners, and that's where it obviously all starts. The Gibbses have been very patient people. Joe has built a career around building very successful teams [where] it's all about the people. I think that's what he emulates when he talks to all the vice presidents and all the department heads. I think we have been very fortunate to find good people and have good people -- the results just start with themselves.
Q: What was the springboard for titles to begin rolling in 2008 in the No. 20 Toyota?
A: It was probably about '07, '08, right in there, for sure, when we switched to Toyota, and that was just a great opportunity to come on board with them. We were really on the cusp of some big things, particularly on the Nationwide side. Cup guys had always run well, but we were really in the process of coming into our own, and guys here had been working on a lot of stuff, which we saw starting to show potential around 2007-2008, probably.
Everything kind of came together at once. It was Toyota power, it was the aero package, it was the engine package. A lot of the things we had been working on with the previous manufacturer, developing, just really came to fruition when we made that switch, and it really hit all at once. We've always had good people, but once the performance started showing itself on the track, that really starts elevating the status of everybody. We've had good, young crew chiefs and bright engineers and some really good drivers. You have to have the whole package to make it work, and we've been really fortunate in that area.
Q: With your Cup and Nationwide lineups dominated by veterans, has JGR's emphasis evolved away from developing drivers like you did with Denny Hamlin?
A: It's just a timing issue. Is some cases it's driven by sponsor more so than what our choice might be. Obviously, we're in partnership with our sponsors and we listen carefully to what they think they need. Some are very open to coming up with a new name and growing their brand around that name as their guy. Others may say, 'You know what, we just can't afford to take a risk on someone who is not proven. We'd rather have a veteran in there.' And sometimes it is about the relationship between that driver and that sponsor where maybe they come to us together. So there is a whole variety of things.
We for sure have our eyes on the future. Drew Herring is one of our young guys, and of course Darrell Wallace is another one of our young guys. We still work with those guys as well and would love to give them opportunities, but then you have guys like Elliott [Sadler] and OneMain, which is a great partner and he has worked for years with those guys, and they really enjoy him. And Elliott traditionally has run pretty well in the [Nationwide] series, so that brings some seniority and some experience to us as we try to evaluate some other things. Same thing with [Brian] Vickers. He had done some things with Dollar General and had a great relationship, and they opted to go that route as well. Each one of them is different. GameStop, when they first got in the sport, they did it with Joey Logano and they were open to trying someone new and it was a big hit for them. In our case, Denny Hamlin did it with Rockwell. Sometimes the sponsor will say to us, 'That is your business. You tell us who we should go with.'
Q: What will be your 2014 Nationwide lineup?
A: We're working on all that right now. Nationwide is a little different than Cup. You just don't have multiyear sponsorships as much as you used to. For years we had two- and three-year deals, and now they're mostly one or two, and right now we're in renewal years with a lot of people. We have some commitments and some of the programs are done, but not everything. We'll hopefully know in the next three weeks to no later than a month on what our full lineup should be.
Q: Sadler's deal is up for renewal?
A: We're in discussions with him. It looks like OneMain has indicated they're coming back, and obviously they'll take Elliott. We are still working through the processes, where we'll end up, with Brian. Obviously, he is now back in Cup full time. It's not with our organization, but it is a Toyota team [Michael Waltrip Racing], so that leaves the door open a little bit. We're not sure how all that will turn out, though, at this point.
Q: How will you replace Vickers for the rest of the season given his shutdown because of the clotting problem?
A: Luckily we have the next two weeks off [until Nov. 2 at Texas], so we don't have to rush to make a decision. We're evaluating the options, and we're working with Dollar General and their executive team to run some options by them and see what we can come up with in another week or so.
Q: How serious were JGR's discussions with Tony Kanaan?
A: We have a mutual friend who is an agent and he owns a K&N team himself, so he and I are good friends, and he said Kanaan was a little bit frustrated about Indy cars and he wanted to look at NASCAR. So he flew in and we went to lunch and brought him into our shop. I told him as soon as people saw him that it was going to get out there, especially when he was done touring our shop. He didn't know much about NASCAR and he wanted to become educated on it and said, 'I recognize where I am now may be limited opportunities. I just want to explore everything.' I think he was extremely impressed with the discussions we had about NASCAR as a whole, and then we felt he was impressed with the Joe Gibbs Racing organization. He had some people he was talking to, potentially, for some sponsors, and he wanted to know if he could find some sponsorship, could we help him get that and if so, could we put in him in something. We said at that point, 'We don't know if we're going to have anything available. We can't add more teams. We're kind of capped out. If something happens and something dropped off, that's an option.'
I think what it really did, though, it helped him in the IndyCar circuit, because when they started reading he may jump over to NASCAR -- I think he's one of their stars over there, and he's a great guy, he's good for a sport, he's good for a sponsor and he's one of the kingpins -- that's a name you don't want to lose. So I didn't think his intent was to get his name out there about jumping. But I do think he was interested in exploring it, and if the right things lined up, he would have considered it. But having said that, shortly thereafter there were some inquires by some top teams -- and rightfully so -- and he signed with Ganassi.