- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The guy in the Home Depot jacket won’t ask Joe Gibbs about trading two draft picks for Brandon Lloyd.

The woman in the FedEx sweatshirt won’t ask Gibbs about Adam Archuleta or sitting on second-half leads.

And actress Amy Smart, a sponsor’s guest, won’t ask Gibbs about his decision to leave the Washington Redskins last month.

No, NASCAR isn’t the NFL and Daytona International Speedway isn’t FedEx Field, Redskin Park or the team’s message board, where skewering Coach Joe become commonplace over the past four years.

“Over here” as Coach Joe calls NASCAR — he referred to the NFL as “up here” — is where Gibbs can always find the love, where he’s known as a three-time Super Bowl winning coach, three-time Sprint Cup Series winning owner and the founder of Joe Gibbs Racing, the three-car Toyota team that owns two of the top six starting spots in tomorrow’s Daytona 500.

Gibbs will send out the Nos. 11 (Denny Hamlin), 18 (Kyle Busch) and 20 (Tony Stewart) cars in hopes of securing the team’s second Daytona 500 victory and Toyota’s first points-race win since coming to the sport last year. And for the first time since 2003, he’ll get to concentrate exclusively on the machinations of the race team.

From 2004 to 2007, Gibbs came to Speedweeks to press the flesh with nearly 500 guests of sponsors who commit nearly $20 million to field a Cup team and do several speed autographing sessions.

But the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the start of free agency and the team’s offseason workout schedule would never stray far from his mind.

Not anymore.

Gibbs is all about his race team, which has grown from one car and 17 employees in 1992 to three Cup cars and more than 400 employees this year.

“There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s a different kind,” he said Thursday morning inside Busch’s hauler. “The crew chiefs do the exact same things we do as football coaches. Before the race, they’re getting ready to throw up. During the race, they’re sweating bullets. I don’t have that kind of pressure on race day.”

Gibbs left the pressure cooker of the Redskins on Jan. 9 with a 30-34 record in four seasons.

A week after the decision, Gibbs went home to the Charlotte, N.C., area, returning to the role of Race Team Figurehead and grandfather of seven (soon to be eight).

He was not involved in the search to find his replacement and said his role of “special advisor” will consist mainly of answering the phone when Redskins owner Dan Snyder calls, and he won’t “have a formal role and I certainly won’t be there on a weekly or even monthly basis.”

“He put a lot of his heart and soul into the football, but we’re glad to have him back because we missed him when he was gone in the first place,” Stewart says. “We never felt like there was a big void, but Joe’s personality was definitely missed and obviously the leadership qualities, it never hurts to have Joe around.”

Adds Gibbs: “I have a peace about it. When I told Dan, I felt really good about it. Just like a lot of big decisions, once I made it and was around the grandkids and back around racing, I really felt like it was the best thing to do. … Lord willing, racing will be forever in our family. All those things told me the timing was right.”

The timing was also right last summer for JGR to leap from Chevrolet to Toyota, which is like going from an efficient pass-oriented offense to the wishbone — a why-mess-with-success gamble.

But General Motors, which operates Chevy, is the longtime home to Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing. Chevy cars owned five of the top six fastest speeds during practice yesterday, but Toyota owns three of the top six starting spots tomorrow.

Despite 49 wins since going to a multicar team in 1999, insiders said JGR could never surpass the four-car Hendrick powerhouse and the Childress team that delivered GM so many championships from Dale Earnhardt Sr.

With its contract with GM expiring, JGR began discussions with Toyota. With the new manufacturer came millions of dollars that will prevent Gibbs from ever having to sell off a piece of the team to a non-family member and gives them the resources to lead the Toyota effort and specifically challenge Hendrick for superiority.

“It’s going to be an epic battle — the battle of a lifetime, the battle of the century,” Stewart quipped Thursday. “It probably will be [a weekly fight], but I don’t think you can limit it to those two teams.”

JGR handed Toyota its first win of any kind in the second 150-mile qualifying race when Hamlin passed teammate Stewart in the final two laps.

“Every decision we’ve made in racing is to be first, not second,” Gibbs says. “Would the move help us be first and not second or third? We thought it was the best thing. Over here, you have to win. It’s not like the chicken and egg, and you ask which came first.

“I can definitely say winning comes first here because if you don’t win, you lose sponsors. We felt positioning ourselves with Toyota would give us the best chance to win down the road.”

Shifting into storytelling mode, Gibbs answered a question about fans having a negative reaction to his cars carrying a foreign nameplate.

“They’ve been a big part of the American scene for 50 years,” he starts. “[Wife] Pat and I bought Toyota stock when we moved to Florida State [in 1967] — 200 shares for 98 cents a share.”

“I don’t want to know what that’s worth today. We had to sell it when we moved — we needed the money. We were poor and needed the $200 to get from Florida to Southern California.”

One of Gibbs’ main jobs is storytelling. Over the next three nights, he’ll speak at dinner parties for Home Depot, M&M;’s/Mars and FedEx.

“He’s going to be a huge asset on that side of things for JGR,” Hamlin says. “A lot of people like to be associated with Joe Gibbs the person. Hopefully that’s able to transfer over to our race team.”

Gibbs also will serve as a disciplinary for the head-strong Stewart and Busch — Stewart is already on probation for trading sheet metal last week with Kurt Busch, Kyle’s older brother — and give son J.D. some weekends off.

J.D. Gibbs handles the day-to-day operations of the team, which includes three Cup teams, one Nationwide Series team and a Late Model entry driven by Silver Spring native Marc Davis.

Since starting, JGR has won three Cup points championships and 58 races. With their strongest “third” car since adding that team in 2005, expect that win total to include markedly this year.

“I’m really excited about this season mainly because we’ve got three guys driving our race cars that are awesome talent-wise,” Gibbs says. “I think they’re going to be capable of winning every race we go to.”

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