When Joe Gibbs first introduced himself as one of NASCAR's new team owners in the old Benny Kahn Media Center in Daytona prior to the 1992 season, a few miniature footballs were tossed out to the gathered media. One was dropped by a writer seated near the front of the room. Gibbs, at the time still the head coach of the Washington Redskins, chided him. "Typical non-athlete sportswriter," he said.
Make no mistake: When dealing with reporters or athletes like the very large and headstrong John Riggins or the equally headstrong Tony Stewart, Gibbs can be a hard-ass. But as those familiar with his spiritual dedication and more supportive side also know he can be a very sensitive guy. He now finds himself in a situation when he has to be supportive, yet demand the most from his team. It's a little bit of deja vu.
When three-time Super Bowl winner Gibbs retired from his first and highly successful stint coaching the Redskins in March of 1993, he cited "migraine equivalent" as the medical condition that put him on the sidelines. Not long before the Easter break and just a little over 22 years later, Gibbs' team announced that his son and team president J.D. Gibbs was suffering from "brain function" problems concerning speech and cognitive issues.
The problems of the father and son are not considered to be related other than for the second time a highly successful member of the Gibbs family will have a career disrupted by a brain disorder. One can only hope the outcome is similar in that J.D. Gibbs will have a good response to his medical treatment and resume his career at a full-time pace.
As a solution continues to be sought for a condition that has persisted for several months, the current point of view is that J.D. Gibbs' condition results from a head injury suffered earlier in a very active youth, which included high school and college football as well as motorbike racing. His father's illness resulted from having all the symptoms of a migraine without the actual headache.
The prognosis for Joe Gibbs Racing remains very good. At Martinsville, Denny Hamlin ended the Gibbs team's 22-race Sprint Cup losing streak by holding off Brad Keselowski at the finish. It was a symbolic turnaround. The victory also meant that for 23 consecutive seasons the team has gone to victory circle, a streak that began with Dale Jarrett's Daytona 500 victory in 1993 in just the team's second season.
Joe Gibbs and son Coy Gibbs, who currently runs the family's AMA Motocross team, will take up some of the duties for J.D. Gibbs while he continues undergoing treatment. One must admit that as team leaders go, Joe Gibbs is not a bad substitute. For instance Hamlin cited a pep talk of sorts in a pre-race meeting prior to Martinsville, where the former Super Bowl winner exhorted his team to execute better in a voice louder than normal.
The secret to success in professional coaching may be keeping the few players who hate you away from the few who are on the fence. The rest is motivating the guys who are there to play. Presumably, Gibbs used the same tactics that were successful with Riggins to help the tempestuous Stewart stay out of trouble with sponsors, the media, his own team and NASCAR officials long enough to win two Sprint Cup championships.
Going forward, the challenges for the leading Toyota team are considerable.
The team won just two races last year and Matt Kenseth was shut out one year after winning seven times. Hamlin has won just three races in the two years since his back injury at the Fontana, California track. Kyle Busch, the team's most successful driver over the past eight seasons with 25 victories, is on the sideline with a broken leg. Carl Edwards recently switched over from Roush Fenway Racing and has yet to impress.
The team's last of three Sprint Cup championships was delivered by Stewart ten seasons ago.
Denny Hamlin came close in 2010 and Kenseth in 2013, but sponsors and manufacturers can't post win ads behind getting close. Busch, meanwhile, has yet to figure out the post-season.
It probably still stings that Joey Logano, who spent four desultory seasons at JGR, has blossomed into a star at Penske Racing and has won the Daytona 500 and been in the thick of the Chase since leaving.
To win a Sprint Cup, a team has to come up with a combination that others don't have in addition to executing. It could be said that Hamlin lost the title to Johnson in 2010 largely on execution. The same could be said for Busch's inexplicable failure to perform well in the Chase over the years. Maybe a little more of that ol' Joe Gibbs motivational magic is what the team needs in the absence of the incomparable Stewart, who has won a third championship since leaving to form his own team with Gene Haas.
Whatever the outcome to the season, to weather the personal storm the Gibbs family will rely on its devout Christian faith, which helped J.D. Gibbs successfully get through a trial-by-fire with his son Taylor's bout with leukemia several years ago.
"I think J.D. gains his strength from the fact that he has a personal relationship with the Lord," said Joe Gibbs during a meeting with the media in Martinsville. "And I have to tell you that he's my hero. I kind of watch him, and I don't know if anybody has ever dealt with anything as courageous as J.D. does."
It has long since been a family of winners and one can only hope that fortune as well as faith will again be on its side.