It's early into the NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Dover International Speedway, and J.D. Gibbs is standing in what has become his trademark race-day posture -- headset over his ears, one foot propped on the pit wall, arms folded across his chest, seriously focused.
Clean-cut, handsome, lean at 6 feet and 175 pounds, the 35-year-old is reminiscent of a younger Joe Gibbs, his famous father, standing on the sideline during Redskins games in the '80s.
As 43 stock cars lap this mile-long concrete oval every half-minute with a gut-jarring roar, J.D. watches intently for Bobby Labonte's No. 18 MBNA Chevy and Tony Stewart's No. 20 Home Depot Chevy -- his racing team in the Nextel Cup Series, NASCAR's big-league races. He appears oblivious to the smell of hot rubber and 112-octane gas permeating pit row, to the crewmen in bright sponsor-plastered fire suits scurrying to prep for the first hurried pit stop.
On the 12th lap, car No. 41 suddenly gets bumped and spins out. It crashes hard into the inside retaining barrier 60 feet directly in front of Labonte's pit stall, where J.D. stands. Debris hurtles toward him, pelting the pit road. He doesn't flinch, just looks to make sure his drivers skirt the trouble spot.
Why didn't he duck? Car wasn't going fast enough to fly over the ramp, he says matter-of-factly. "Pieces of tires do occasionally," he explains, "but you need more speed than that."
For 400 laps and more than five hours, moving back and forth from the wall to the satellite TV monitor in the pit's "war wagon," J.D.'s calm focus is steady, whether Stewart takes the lead or Labonte falls back.
Smart, calm, intense -- they're the traits Joe Gibbs was relying on when, to the shock of the sports world, he decided in January to return as the Washington Redskins' head coach, leaving Joe Gibbs Racing in J.D.'s hands. They're characteristic of Joe, winner of three Super Bowls, an NFL legend. But what about J.D.? As Redskins fans celebrated the surprise decision like the Second Coming on the gridiron, some auto racing die-hards wondered if sitting Joe's oldest boy in the corporate driver's seat could keep one of NASCAR's most successful operations on track.
Even J.D.'s self-deprecating quip addressed the concern during his first meeting with the racing team after his dad left: "Don't stop winning or you'll make me look like a moron."
At Redskins Park, Joe Gibbs, 63, says he has no doubts: "I always said J.D. is the kind of kid you could drop him in a minefield and he would walk out."
Running a Curl Pattern
He's known as "J.D." to all except, occasionally, his mother, Pat Gibbs, who came up with the name "Jason Dean" to fill out the initials his dad had bestowed on him in utero. He was born in 1969, when Joe was the new guy on John McKay's coaching staff at Southern Cal.
But to connect the dots between Gibbs football and Gibbs racing, you first need to go back to when Joe was in his early twenties. Just out of San Diego State, where he played football, he was contemplating his future -- in racing.
See, the NFL Hall of Fame coach that Redskins fans know and love wasn't busy drawing up X's and O's on a locker-room blackboard back then. He wasn't devising newfangled offensive plays that one day would alter the game of professional football. No, he was burning rubber, racing souped-up cars on quarter-mile straight tracks.
Joe and a teammate from high school and college, Rennie Simmons -- yep, the same buddy who became a Redskins assistant coach in the first Gibbs era and is back for the second -- built a dragster together. They raced that hot rod until it blew up. And that changed everything.
"They couldn't afford to fix it," says J.D. two days before the Dover race, sitting in his office at Joe Gibbs Racing headquarters in Huntersville, N.C. He can't help but smile at what must have seemed like momentous misfortune.
Joe decided to earn some money at the other thing he thought he might be good at: coaching football. He joined the staff at San Diego State, where, coincidentally, future pigskin legends John Madden and Don Coryell were coaching.
"A good career move," J.D. says.
Over the next couple of decades, that career moved the Gibbs household from one assistant coaching stint to another -- to Florida State, the University of Southern California, the University of Arkansas, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the San Diego Chargers -- until Joe landed the Redskins' top job in 1981.
Being the new kid in sixth grade is hard enough, but J.D. remembers when his father's first season with the Redskins kicked off with five straight losses. "I was trying to make friends at school," says J.D. of his year at Flint Hill Elementary School in Vienna. Instead, he says he got snide comments like, "Tell your dad, 'Way to go, Lombardi!' Fortunately, he started winning a few."
But J.D. and brother Coy, three years younger, did get opportunities other kids only dream about. During J.D.'s junior high years, they started spending summers as ball boys at the Redskins training camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
Along with Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard's three boys and other coaches' sons, they would fetch balls during practice and run pass patterns for quarterback Joe Theismann, clean up the "dirty jocks and towels," then stay up into the night goofing off.
They lived on the dorm's first floor, where the coaches and players seldom ventured from their upstairs quarters. "The only players who came down there were those coming in late trying to get around curfew," says J.D. "Like Dexter Manley knocking on the windows at 2 a.m., saying, 'Let me in and don't tell your daddy.' "
Next door was a girls' ballet camp. After practices, the boys hung out at the swimming pool where the ballerinas went.
"My dad just turned us loose," says J.D., recalling one summer when his mother found out what was going on and yanked little Coy back home. "Dad was so busy he didn't even know we were there. It was a perfect setup."
At Oakton High in Vienna, J.D. quarterbacked the football team and gained a reputation for working hard and playing smart. His coach, Bob Herb, says J.D. was the first player at practice and the last to leave.
"People thought he was going to get everything handed to him just because he was Joe Gibbs's son, but that was 180 degrees wrong," says Herb, whose team went 9-1 J.D.'s senior year. "Coach Gibbs just outworks people. He takes care of the details, never a stone unturned. He puts the time in. That was the environment J.D. grew up in."
But Joe's hard work translated into workaholic habits. During the season, he regularly slept on the couch at Redskins Park. Pat Gibbs did most of the parenting during football season.
"He feels bad that there were times he wasn't there, but I keep telling him that at that point in our lives, we wouldn't hang out with him anyway," says J.D. "I don't have anything to compare him to, but I'd have to rank him as a pretty darn good dad."
When it came time for college, Pat took J.D. to William and Mary his freshman year. Before leaving, she says, she opened an account in his name at the campus store so he could buy clothes and supplies.
"He went for four years and never charged one thing," she says. "It just wasn't important to him."
J.D. was a kinesiology major and football player at William and Mary. Head football coach Jimmy Laycock says Joe couldn't make their games because they conflicted with the Redskins schedule, but once in a while he'd helicopter in to watch a practice -- always from the stands.
"Joe never interfered," says Laycock, adding that J.D. changed positions from quarterback to defensive back to help the team. "When you bring in somebody with a famous parent, what you want to be aware of is whether the kid is spoiled. [J.D.] came in and didn't ask for anything special. He was one of the guys -- low-key, cool and always under control."
While in college, J.D. asked Melissa Robin Miller to marry him. They first met in seventh grade at Thoreau Intermediate School in Vienna. Over the years, they'd "meet up again, then go their separate ways," recalls Pat. "It was real cute. He asked her in the gym of the school" where they met.
Now J.D. and Melissa have three sons -- Jackson, 6, Miller, 4, and Jason, 1 -- with a fourth due in the fall. Joe and Pat Gibbs dote on their grandchildren, who also include Coy's two children, Ty, 19 months, and Elle, 7 weeks. And that meant one difficult decision for Joe about returning to the Redskins and distancing Pat and himself from the little ones. He says he already has plans for them -- and they're not going to race cars or coach football.
"They're going to play golf," says Joe.
He has had golf clubs cut to size for the grandchildren. "They're not going to get hit and they're not going to get wrecked. . . . I got their life programmed. I don't care what they want."
J.D. keeps in mind that one reason his dad resigned from the Redskins in 1993 was that he wanted to spend more time with J.D. and Coy before they were completely grown up. He doesn't intend to let that happen to himself and his own children. He goes to as many of Jackson's baseball games as he can. He takes most Friday afternoons off to spend with the family before flying out Sunday mornings to the races. And when he left Dover, he was headed to his family's annual vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"J.D. has always had a real good balance," says Joe. "You can watch him. He's much better at it than I was."
Where the Gears Mesh
At the headquarters in Huntersville, no big sign reads "Joe Gibbs Racing."
"When we first started, we were trying to cut every cost of anything that didn't make us go faster, and the sign was the first thing to go," says J.D. "Now it's just kind of a tradition. But they find you."
Thousands of fans visit each year. During a recent Charlotte race weekend, 6,800 found the modern and spacious complex, hidden in a campus-like industrial park about 15 miles north of Charlotte.
NASCAR fans Dave and Claire Keister of Olney were visiting the week before Dover. "I've kind of followed the Gibbs family's life," says Dave, a longtime Redskins fan. "J.D. has taken over, but Joe still has his hand in there."
Gibbs Racing designed the headquarters with a curved, three-story glass front to showcase two NASCAR Chevrolet Monte Carlos in the front lobby -- Stewart's and Labonte's. Behind the main reception area is a glass viewing wall about 100 feet long overlooking "the shop," the main body-works and mechanical assembly area. The shop is about 240 feet long and 100 feet wide; Joe and J.D. were going to paint its floor green and put down yardage markers, but the crew chiefs didn't think that was funny.
Thirty-five race cars are being built there. "My mom's biggest question is, 'Why do you need more than one car?' " J.D. says as he gives a reporter a tour. With two Nextel Cup drivers competing weekly in a 38-race season, he explains, the cars get beat up, several backup cars are needed, and other cars are always being designed for more speed.
Behind the shop is a maze of maybe a dozen smaller shops -- including the machinist shop for making engine parts, a body shop designing cars within NASCAR rules, a tear-down shop that dismantles engines, a hangar-like test-truck garage where hundreds of thick, black, treadless Goodyear Eagle radials costing $1,400 a set are stored, and a weight room almost as big as the Redskins' where the pit crews work out.
There's even a full-time chaplain, though J.D. handles many of the morning prayer meetings and weekly Bible studies himself, as Joe did.
About three-quarters of NASCAR's racing teams are located within a 50-mile radius of Charlotte. NASCAR, headquartered in Daytona Beach, has offices in nearby Concord. And if you're looking for what planted the racing seed in Joe Gibbs's life, he grew up about 125 miles east, in Asheville.
Joe launched the operation here in 1991 when he was still coaching the Redskins. He started with 17 employees in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse. Today, it has more than 240 employees in a 130,000-square-foot headquarters that more closely resembles a pristine laboratory than a greasy garage. Plans are underway for expanding.
"Never envisioned it," Joe says of the growth.
Since then, Joe Gibbs Racing has helped drive the mainstreaming of the sport. Once largely the domain of the rural southeast, NASCAR's now the sweetheart of national corporate sponsors from Miller Lite and Viagra to Cingular and AOL. And when Joe Gibbs Racing last year initiated a diversity plan that put a racing team with African American and Hispanic drivers on minor-league tracks, NASCAR followed suit with its own diversity program.
"It grows on you," says J.D., who a few years ago told the William and Mary alumni magazine that one of his goals was to "make everybody at William and Mary into a redneck" because "there's not a whole lot of race fans" there.
When J.D. graduated from college in '92, he headed straight to Huntersville. Soon after, Coy arrived from Stanford, where he had played linebacker. Longtime friend Todd Meredith, who majored in accounting at Virginia Tech but didn't know the front end of a race car from the back, came, too.
"We didn't know what we were doing but we kind of got a race team going," says J.D., who started out changing tires and mopping up oil from the shop floor while Coy tinkered with engines. "I figured I'd do this for a couple of years and then I'd go coach. But we got in at a perfect time, the Lord kind of blessed us, and it has grown."
Now six months since his father abdicated the gigantic office down the hall, J.D. has given moving into it about as much thought as he did that campus store account.
"He's got the big one, but I'm kind of enjoying this one a little bit more," says J.D.
Outside his door are two children's pedal racers -- one painted green like Labonte's car, the other orange like Stewart's. Inside, beside photos of Melissa and the kids, is an action photo commemorating the Redskins' Super Bowl XXVI victory over Buffalo. There's the NASCAR Winston Cup (the predecessor to today's Nextel Cup) championship trophies Labonte won in 2000 and Stewart won in 2002, and a large framed photo showing J.D. and Coy in driver fire suits alongside the two trucks they drove against each other that day.
Over two seasons, '98-'99, J.D. raced five times in the Busch Series, NASCAR's "minor leagues," one step below the big time. He ranked 64th one year and 130th the next. His total earnings were $38,220. Over the following three years, he raced in the Craftsman Truck Series -- eight races earning nearly $60,000.
"If it was just me, I could be a pretty good racer," he says. "But then you put 42 other cars out there and that causes some issues."
Now that Joe's gone, J.D. handles just about everything other than driving the cars, particularly courting sponsors and juggling money. "Racing is not like a regular business," says J.D. "You spend what you need to spend to go fast. And then you hope you get a sponsor. You know if you go fast, you get a sponsor."
Says Joe: "He has always been good with people."
Labonte says: "He's like his dad, the same genes as far as being that way."
J.D. says while he and his dad are "probably similar," one difference is temperament: "I don't get quite as excited or as down as he does. He has bigger mood swings. . . . I'm probably more level."
And Joe's more in-your-face with people. Spirited driver Tony Stewart caused controversy this season by "bumping" other cars. Where Joe would have given him a good talkin' to, J.D. talked to him.
"I'm able to relate to a lot of stuff he's going through easier than my dad," J.D. says. "Dad's more like, 'Hey, if you need to get something done, I don't care if it hurt someone's feelings or what, get it done and move on.' For me, I don't want to get people upset. You want to have a happy family here."
But J.D. knows Joe's been putting winning teams together for decades. "That," he says, "is something I'll have to go about learning how to do," he says.
Donning the Corporate Cap
As J.D. comes out of the MBNA trailer parked in Dover's infield, he's carrying a green race cap from Interstate Batteries and an orange cap from Home Depot, Gibbs Racing's two main sponsors. He's headed to the roped-off "hospitality village," where NASCAR owners and drivers schmooze with corporate bigwigs and guests.
He dons the Home Depot cap and strides inside a tent filled with 150 contractors and professional buyers, who applaud loudly. "Joe's actually coaching today and couldn't make it," he tells them, "but I'm cheaper."
After fielding questions from the audience, J.D. emphasizes the upside of his dad going back to coaching: "I think it's neat we're tying into the NFL and NASCAR. As my dad says, if you're not a fan of the NFL or NASCAR, you should be on life support."
Minutes later, outside the Interstate Batteries tent where J.D. is speaking to 350 distributors and dealers, Charlie Suscavage, Interstate's vice president for marketing, says he has watched J.D. grow up at the Huntersville operation. "Terrific kid," he says. "And like he said, 'My dad's a phone call away.' He'll do fine."
But more than five hours later, Joe Gibbs Racing hadn't done as fine as J.D. had hoped at the finish line. The race turned into a demolition derby, a last-man-standing crashfest.
Stewart held the lead for 234 laps before missing a pit stop and falling back, then avoided a 19-car crackup to come in second. Labonte, suffering mechanical trouble, limped in for a 25th-place finish.
Joe Gibbs watched parts of it on television back at Redskins Park. "Broke my heart," he says. "I kind of figured we were going to win that thing."
And J.D. comes about as close as he ever does to swearing. "We got two friggin' shots every time we go and we haven't won yet" this season, he says, then adds, Joe-like: "But we'll be all right."
Stewart and Labonte are now ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in the standings and remain in striking distance of the Nextel Cup Championship.
"The great thing about sports is you know how you did every week," says J.D. "The scoreboard says you either did well or you didn't."