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Team melds around Gibbs

Shakeup may come, but the retired coach guides his drivers' strong personalities.

May 24, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.C. -- At the NASCAR Sprint Cup race two weeks ago at Darlington Raceway, Joe Gibbs found himself in a familiar spot -- in a huddle.

Some lug nuts on the wheels of Kyle Busch's No. 18 Gibbs Toyota car were inexplicably falling off. So the NFL Hall of Fame coach gathered his three race teams on pit road, worked out a solution and Busch went on to win his third race of the season.

The 67-year-old Gibbs doesn't normally get involved in the inner workings of the cars driven by Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. J.D. Gibbs, his son and team president, runs the operation day-to-day.

But after retiring for the second time as coach of the Washington Redskins, Joe Gibbs is spending more time at speedways and at the NASCAR team's headquarters in Huntersville, N.C., adding a boost of confidence to his drivers and the other 450 Gibbs employees.

"It's totally great to have him here at the racetrack with us," Busch said ahead of Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway here, where he'll start on the pole. Gibbs' three cars, in turn, have given his team a strong start in NASCAR this season, a start that's especially gratifying to Gibbs because the team switched to Toyota from Chevrolet. "For us to get off to this fast of a start, nobody would have guessed that," Gibbs said. But he added, "We need to stay humble and stay hungry."

Busch leads NASCAR's Cup point standings, and Hamlin, who won at Martinsville, Va., this year, is fourth. Stewart is eighth. So they're all in contention to be among the top 12 drivers who compete for the championship in the final 10 races of the season.

"Gibbs is on top of their game this year," said Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion with Hendrick Motorsports. Gibbs' team already has won the Cup title three times -- with Stewart in 2002 and 2005, and with Bobby Labonte in 2000. "Coach," as Gibbs is commonly called, also led the Redskins to Super Bowl victories in 1983, '88 and '92.

He retired from football after the 1992 season, then returned to the Redskins in 2004. But he retired again after a emotionally trying 2007 season, in which Gibbs had to keep his team focused after the murder of safety Sean Taylor. The team finished 9-7 but lost in the playoffs.

With the Redskins, Gibbs was immersed in play-calling, game strategy and technical aspects. Not so in NASCAR. His main role in racing, he said, is "to help pick the people and help keep the resources coming . . . and pay the bills. I get involved with people and sponsors, that's most of my job."

So is managing his drivers' strong personalities. Busch is aggressive and cocky, and appears to thrive in his role as the sport's latest villain. Hamlin and Stewart also can be temperamental and outspoken, and when the two had a brief feud last year, Gibbs mediated a truce. But Gibbs isn't reluctant to remind them that their jobs involve much more than driving.

"They want to win in everything they do," Gibbs said. But unlike NFL players, "they're corporate representatives" for the cars' sponsors, he said.

"Kyle has to know he's a figurehead for that corporation, as am I," Gibbs said. In turn, Busch might revel in being "Rowdy Busch," but he credits Gibbs, who maintains a strong spiritual faith, for helping with his stellar start this year. "When [Gibbs] stops and talks to everybody at the shop, it really picks them up," Busch said. "He's a down-to-earth guy and they love working for him and for me it's the same way." Gibbs could face a shakeup on his team in the next year or two. Stewart said he's exploring whether to eventually leave the team, perhaps before his contract expires at the end of 2009.

"To be truthful, he's been offered things we can't offer," such as an ownership stake in another team, Gibbs said. But he added that "we would hope Tony will retire with us. We've had 10 great years together."

Waiting in the wings is Joey Logano, a Gibbs development driver touted as a potential NASCAR star. Logano, who turns 18 today, is expected to start driving in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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