- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

Last Sunday in Concord, N.C., Bobby Labonte started 42nd in a field of 43 in the Coca-Cola 600 stock car race, longest on the Nextel Cup circuit. He finished second, a remarkable comeback after being down a lap.

He climbed out of his race car, drew back his right leg like a field goal kicker and nailed the driver’s side quarter panel with everything he had. With all his pent-up frustration, that had to be at least a 55-yarder.

“That’s the frustration because of all the stuff he’s been caught up in and it’s really hurt us,” said Joe Gibbs, man of many titles. “But I have confidence he can get back up in the front of things, and he’s showed that he can.”

How many hats can one have in the fire before the heat burns them up? Joe Gibbs, owner of three Nextel racing teams, two Busch Series teams and a diversity team entered in the NASCAR Weekly Series, whose signature goes on several hundred paychecks each week. Joe Gibbs, coach and president of an NFL football team; studio TV commentator when not coaching; husband, father and grandfather; primary benefactor of a large facility for troubled youth; globetrotting motivational speaker and who knows what else.

He is 64 and looks pretty good for a man who just had “precautionary” heart surgery. The cocky gait he once had doesn’t have quite the bounce it used to. He still talks in shrill tones when he gets excited by something he is discussing and still peppers his talk with expressions like, “Well honest to Pete …”

Nearly 17 months ago, Gibbs left the relative security of being the owner of two successful teams in stock car racing’s top division to get back into coaching. Certainly Redskin owner Dan Snyder dangled megabucks to lure Gibbs back into an arena where he had vowed never to set foot again, but other factors probably contributed to his decision to wear multiple hats.

Gibbs was an instant draw in the NASCAR world where the demographics of the two sports are close. The opportunity to rub elbows with a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach who had been to four Super Bowls was too much for many to refuse. Now potential sponsors had the opportunity to rub elbows with the same Hall of Famer who also had won two NASCAR championships and now was back as an NFL coach.

Sponsorships probably were the key. NASCAR is evolving into a sport of super teams — organizations with four or five teams in the top division and three or four entries in the sport’s minor leagues, with drivers and crewmen prepping for the big time. But each entry needs at least one major sponsor to handle the bulk of the huge cost involved, and that is where Gibbs and his unflappable, down-home personality come in.

“I mean, I was never the technical guy to begin with,” he said recently. “When I was there before, my primary job was to deal with the sponsors, keep them happy. That’s what I’ve been doing for motorsports. They’re all national companies [Interstate Batteries, Home Depot, FedEx]; they like the fact I’m in the NFL; there’s a lot of stuff going on here in Washington that I can be a part of that helps sponsors.

“But things haven’t gone well for us. We’re just going through a tough period right now.”

Gibbs said that before Bobby Labonte finished second in the 600-miler last week. That finish moved the driver up to 24th in the standings, the highest he has been this season by a wide margin. Teammate Tony Stewart is sixth and has been in the top 10 all season, but rookie Jason Leffler, the third driver in the three-car garage, has been a major disappointment. He is currently 36th overall and has to qualify on speed each week to get into an event.

The Leffler situation sort of characterizes what has been going on with Gibbs lately: disappointment. His Redskins finished tied for last in their division last season, a crushing reintroduction to the NFL; Labonte finished out of the championship chase and Stewart was an also-ran in the playoffs.

Stewart so far is holding up his end this season, and Labonte has finished in the top 10 in three of his last five races to show that maybe his campaign didn’t end weeks ago. Leffler, who is rumored to be on the way out, is running now only for experience, and the NFL and its union are investigating the Redskins for possible practice violations.

Seemingly, things like this didn’t happen when Gibbs was just a coach or just a racing team owner. His two racing teams posted just two wins last season (they had 10 in 2000 to go with 47 top-10 finishes) and have none this season after a composite 35 races even though a third team has been added.

“We’ve had some tough things happen,” Gibbs said. “We’ve been caught up in wrecks that weren’t our fault; we’ve been trapped in the pits several times in the same race, Last year we didn’t have any motor failures at all and this year Bobby’s had two [actually three] and Tony had one and that hurts.”

Gibbs shook his head slowly.

“Jason — we’ve just struggled so bad with Jason. It’s a rookie thing and we’ve had a tough time.”

But Gibbs, while occasionally using it as a crutch during his earlier coaching tenure, is not one to blame bad luck for everything that has gone wrong. You make your own luck, he often said, and bad breaks have a way of evening out.

“In pro sports, you’re going to have a certain number of things go against you,” he said. “But I also believe that that portion of it that is [bad] luck turns around. I think we’re due for a good string here. I think we need to qualify closer to the front — a lot of those wrecks have been somebody else’s fault, and we’ve been caught up in them. So to avoid them we have to do our part, qualify closer to the front.”

The wide disparity in the performance of the three teams has him baffled, because technical information is shared among the three garages.

“Bobby tested at Charlotte and brought back information for all three teams,” Gibbs said, “so we had good information for everybody. We treat all three of these cars as if they’re one team. They work well together, and there is a good flow of information. And that information should help Jason also.”

But it hasn’t. Leffler didn’t even qualify for the 600-miler, a huge financial and morale setback for the organization. Labonte’s vehicle had to be repainted with the FedEx advertising that was supposed to go on Leffler’s No. 11, leaving Interstate Batteries, Gibbs’ original major sponsor 13 years ago, sitting out the race.

“FedEx, they couldn’t have been more supportive,” Gibbs said. “They see what we’re going through.”

Interstate, however, had been trying to unload its sponsorship on a race-by-race basis, perhaps because Labonte had been consistently finishing far out of the money and out of the media spotlight.

“Me, I’m just concentrating on one thing — football,” Gibbs said. “I’ve had to be because this thing is all-consuming. It eats you up. I think [oldest son and racing team president] J.D. has done a great job. We’re just going through a tough period right now.”

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