The connection and fondness was immediately evident as Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs took their seats Friday morning to talk about their respective teams’ chances in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race the Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Gibbs was dressed in a suit and Stewart was dressed more casually in a team button-up shirt and baseball cap – the juxtaposition causing them both to laugh.
“Well this is how you dress when you have one car in the championship and that’s how you dress when you have three," Stewart joked immediately.
The truth is, although the two are competing against one another for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title, the former teammates concede they are much more alike than dissimilar. And this is a big weekend for both.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin will compete against Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick for the series championship Sunday afternoon. And although the competition will undoubtedly be intense for NASCAR’s biggest prize, the two 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees leading the organizations bring a similar mind-set into the big race.
Stewart, a three-time Cup champion driver, has won two titles as an owner – his third series trophy in 2011 and Harvick’s in 2014. Gibbs is a four-time Cup champion owner – earning two titles with Stewart (2002 and 2005) and one each with Bobby Labonte (2000) and Kyle Busch (2015).
Stewart competed in 22 NASCAR Xfinity Series races for Gibbs in 1998 before moving to the JGR team full-time from his 1999 rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series through the 2008 season. He joined forces with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009.
“Every driver is different, and Joe [Gibbs] can tell you better than anybody, because he’s dealt with more, quote-unquote, professional athletes than anybody, and how you get people to respond is different from person to person," Stewart said of his ownership style. “Sometimes you’ve got to be a little stern with them. But there’s that one button in each of us that gets us to respond."
“I think that’s kind of what makes good leaders and good owners and good crew chiefs and good competition directors. You have to know your people. You have got know what that button is. You need to know what you have to do to get the best out of them.”
Stewart looked over at Gibbs and smiled, “I learned a lot from this guy in the years I was there," Stewart said. “And I’ve said it a million times, if I didn’t work for him, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. I wouldn’t be doing the things I’m doing now.
“I also wouldn’t be in debt like I am now, and I blame all of it on Joe."
COLE CUSTER ASCENDS TO CUP SERIES AS DANIEL SUAREZ SEEKS NEXT CAREER STEP
A stern, non-nonsense conversation at the start of the season apparently did the trick, where Cole Custer was concerned.
And now Custer is ready to take the next—and largest—step in his NASCAR career.
The driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, who will race for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), will drive the No. 41 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Ford for SHR next year.
Custer will succeed Mexican driver Daniel Suarez, who ran out of time while trying to put together a deal for a second year in the No. 41. Suarez is the only foreign-born driver to win a championship in any of NASCAR’s top three touring series, having claimed the Xfinity title in 2016.
While Suarez is seeking his next opportunity in the stock car ranks, Custer will be the third driver of the No. 41 Ford in three years, following Kurt Busch and Suarez in the ride co-owned by Gene Haas and Tony Stewart.
“This is obviously a dream come true,” Custer said on Friday before opening Xfinity Series practice. “I’ve been around the garage for a long time, and when I was a kid, I never thought I would be good enough to be a Cup driver. It’s pretty unreal to have that happen.
“We obviously have a big race tomorrow, and that’s where our main focus is. It’s the biggest race of the season, and it all comes down to this race, so that’s what we’re focused on.”
At the start of the season, Custer was told by the ownership in no uncertain terms what was expected of him. The 21-year-old from Ladera Ranch, Calif., responded with seven victories in 2019, bringing his career total to nine.
“You always put a lot of pressure on yourself,” Custer said. “I know we have fast cars and stuff like that, so you try to find ways and look at yourself to see what you can do better. I know there are still things that I can do better. It’s constantly looking back on it and trying to make yourself a better driver.”
For Suarez, the ouster from the No. 41 car came as a surprise.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Suarez acknowledged on Friday. “A lot of people have worked very hard on this team to try to put everything together, and unfortunately it wasn’t enough. We needed a few months. We had to find a big amount of money to keep the ride for next year. My group of people, friends and a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing went to work, and we actually did a pretty good job.
“We pretty much got the goal, but, unfortunately, part of the money wasn’t on the table at this point. It was going to come a few months later, and it wasn’t enough. It was a little unfortunate. It was a surprise. I was as shocked as you guys are probably right now, just a couple of nights ago. It is what it is. One door closes, another door opens.”
Where that other door will open remains to be seen. Stewart said on Friday that he would like to help Suarez remain in the series, but it’s Haas who has the final say about personnel for the No. 41.
“Tony is a great guy,” Suarez said. “In the last six months, I have learned that he is a very good friend. In the last week I have been talking to him a lot. He was talking to a lot of people and he was pushing very hard for me.
“Unfortunately, the 41 team, and especially the 41, he doesn't have a lot that he can do with that car because the 41 is not his car. He pushed. I am sure that he pushed as hard as he could, like a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing did. It just didn’t work out.”
DENNY HAMLIN AND JOE GIBBS HAVE SHARED HIGHS AND LOWS TOGETHER
Speedweeks at Daytona this year were an apt microcosm of Denny Hamlin’s career.
During practice for the Daytona 500, Hamlin decided to draft with a pack of cars—despite strict team orders not to do so.
The inevitable happened.
“Basically, we had a practice plan, and I felt like I needed to get in the pack and draft,” Hamlin said. “As soon as I made my way to the back of the pack, someone wrecked and I got in it. They were furious, to say the least, absolutely furious.
Team owner Joe Gibbs read Hamlin the riot act.
“He's like, ‘You're going to pay for that car,’” Hamlin said.
Hamlin found an antidote for his team owner’s wrath.
“Luckily I won the Daytona 500,” said Hamlin, who described Gibbs’ response as: ‘Don't worry about that. Sorry I got so mad at you. It's fine.’”
Reminded of the incident on Friday morning, Gibbs laughed.
“I was upset with what happened,” Gibbs said. “And then he turned around and won that next race, and I said, ‘OK, you can forget that. I don't think I've ever penalized anybody for anything, but I threaten them every now and then.”
That Daytona 500 win, Hamlin’s second in the Great American Race, signaled the start of a remarkable turnaround for the 38-year-old Virginia driver.
Winless in 2018, Hamlin has visited Victory Lane six times this year. Last week at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, his win in the Bluegreen Vacations 500 wiped out a mistake of his own making at Texas—a solo spin off Turn 4—that looked to have ended Hamlin’s Playoff run.
Like the mistake and recovery at Daytona, the last two races in the Round of 8 are emblematic of the volatility of Hamlin’s career. Teaming with crew chief Chris Gabehart for the first time this season has helped smooth out some of the extremes.
“If you go through a whole year like he did last year and not win a race and you get everybody kind of… the rumors start: ‘Is this guy over the hill?’” Gibbs said. “I think Denny was fighting through that, saying that's not the case. But I think the fact that Chris came on board, and I think Chris really helped, because Chris has a different outlook on things.
“And then I think Denny getting off to the start the way he did winning that Daytona 500, I think that we all know that people mature and grow up. Different things happen in their life. So I think Denny is… I think he's in a part in his life where he says I get a second chance really in a lot of ways, and he's making the most of it. And I think certainly Gabehart has really, really helped him with that.”
Gibbs has three drivers in the Championship 4—Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. along with Hamlin—but Hamlin is the only one without a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
That could change on Sunday, and that’s a pinnacle the driver of the No. 11 Toyota would be happy to ascend.