By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
The Redskins may be all-important to Washington area sports fans, but Joe Gibbs has always said that the team comes third, after God and his family.
Gibbs placed family above football yesterday, resigning from the Redskins after a trying 12 months in which he learned that his grandson, Taylor, now 3, has leukemia, and Gibbs struggled to reconcile his workaholic approach to coaching with the imperative of safeguarding his health.
The family that Gibbs sensed needs him is a large one, including six grandchildren and a seventh on the way. But it also includes a NASCAR family -- Joe Gibbs Racing -- that consists of 420 employees, took 16 years to build and represents his greatest financial investment.
Gibbs turned his fascination with stock-car racing into a champion-caliber operation after resigning from the Redskins following the 1992 NFL season. He won NASCAR championships in 2000 and 2002 with drivers Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, respectively.
And the Huntersville, N.C.-based team continued to thrive after Gibbs rejoined the Redskins in January 2004. Led by his elder son, J.D., Joe Gibbs Racing added a third NASCAR team in 2005 and won a third NASCAR championship, with Stewart again taking the spoils.
But NASCAR's 2008 season represents a critical year of change and challenge.
Gibbs's team has ended a 16-year association with General Motors and is switching from Chevrolets to Toyotas.
The Japanese automaker had a disappointing debut in NASCAR's top ranks in 2007 and is pinning its hopes and prodigious resources on the conviction that Joe Gibbs Racing, as its new flagship team, can get the Camry to Victory Lane.
Gibbs Racing also adds a new driver, Kyle Busch, 22, whose talent is rivaled by his tempestuousness. And it's an open question how he'll blend in, if at all, with a stable that already includes two talented, often tempestuous drivers in Stewart and Denny Hamlin.
Gibbs has always played down his role in his NASCAR team's success, portraying himself as ignorant about the workings of racecars and a liability, if anything, to the operation. But his role is invaluable -- particularly in cultivating and keeping corporate sponsors that bankroll the teams.
The budget for a front-running NASCAR team is roughly $20 million per year. Gibbs has three top teams, sponsored by such Fortune 500 companies as FedEx and Home Depot.
Said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing: "Technically, we have our key leadership here, and stuff goes on whether he's here or I'm here or not. But from a corporate standpoint and being a leader, he's the backbone of this team."
Gibbs will continue spending time in Washington as an adviser to Redskins owner Dan Snyder, but he made clear yesterday that his NASCAR team will be a major part of the next phase of his life.
"We started a family business there that's real important to all of us," Gibbs said.
"Selfishly, I'm thrilled," said Lee White, senior vice president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development USA, after hearing about Gibbs's football resignation. "This is a pivotal year for his race team, for his family, for his family business. J.D. has done an amazing job.
"But they have a huge task facing them with a new manufacturer and a new driver. They have sponsorship issues to renew and extend; they have driver contracts to extend. I have no doubt Joe will be a very positive influence on all those things."
Interstate Batteries has sponsored Gibbs's NASCAR operation since its launch. And Gibbs, whose personality meshed perfectly with that of Interstate's chief executive, Norm Miller, was a major reason.
"It's his presence," Miller said yesterday. "When you know somebody as a friend, you don't always see in them the esteem that they carry. But to Americans and especially people on the East Coast, Joe is a pretty big man. His return is going to add a lot. Not that J.D. hasn't. But it would be like Ronald Reagan going back to the ranch after being president."
Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations at Gibbs Racing, put it in similar terms.
"Joe just brings a special feeling to the team when he's back in the shop," said Makar, who was one of Gibbs's first NASCAR employees. "He's a great motivator. Just to have him around for a few hours on the shop floor -- the guys are still in awe of him and have great respect for him. When he left to go back to football full time, it sort of left a void here. Not to say that J.D. didn't do a fantastic job of filling Joe's shoes. But it'll be great to have them both back here, working together."