Last November, on the eve of his team fielding an unprecedented three of the four cars eligible for the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy, Joe Gibbs sat alongside his team’s former driver – now championship rival team owner - Tony Stewart and reminisced about their time together as they previewed the next day’s season finale.
Stewart won two of his three Cup titles driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and the two men smiled and patted one another on the back as they shared their fondest memories of working together with an audience of rapt media members. They laughed. They told tales. They spoke about the many triumphs and happy times and teased about overcoming the inevitable challenges of their large personalities.
And of course, each of these two great competitors wanted to beat the other.
The next day Gibbs raised his fifth NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy after Kyle Busch drove to his second Cup title with his JGR teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin finishing runner-up and fourth.
Next week all of NASCAR will be celebrating Gibbs again, this time as a new member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame during the Jan. 31 formal induction ceremony in Charlotte, N.C. As it turns out, Gibbs will – perhaps fittingly - have the three-time Cup champ Stewart and Bobby Labonte, who won the 2000 Cup title driving for Gibbs, as Hall of Fame classmates. Waddell Wilson and the late Buddy Baker round out the Hall’s 2020 class of five.
“Well obviously, it’s a thrill for me and what you think about when something like this happens is, I get pushed out front, but I think about all the people that built the race team and are a part of it," Gibbs said upon receiving his selection news last May - deferring as usual to those who work on his team.
“I think about the people and I am thankful."
This year has been particularly challenging for Gibbs and his family. He lost his son JD, 49, who served as the team president, last January after a lengthy illness. But Gibbs and the team have already been lifted by JD Gibbs’ legacy.
Busch’s championship is the organization’s fifth and it was a fitting conclusion to a season that featured a third Daytona 500 trophy to open the year and ultimately the most wins (19) earned by a single team in a single season in the Modern Era (1972-Present). Gibbs now has 341 national series wins – the most by any team in NASCAR history. And all four JGR Cup Series drivers – Busch, Truex, Hamlin and Erik Jones – hoisted trophies last year.
The 2019 season was certainly the exclamation point to a humble beginning in the sport. Dale Jarrett, a 2014 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, was the first driver Gibbs hired in 1992 when the former Super Bowl-winning coach decided to launch a NASCAR career too. Jarrett earned the JGR team the first of its 176 Cup wins in the 1993 Daytona 500 – one of the most iconic moments in NASCAR.
It was a momentous afternoon providing the former Washington Redskins head coach the assurance that his racing venture was the right call.
“He might be the first person to come into the sport as a car owner and had a sponsor lined up before he had anything done," Jarrett recalled. “Not many do that.
“That tells you just how good he is and how motivated he is once he gets to that point he wants to make something happen.
“You talk about humble beginnings. He sat [Jarrett’s crew chief] Jimmy Makar and I down and said, ‘Look, I’ve borrowed $800,000 and that’s all I’m borrowing. If we can’t make this thing get up and going … I’ll shut this down and chalk it up to a bad investment. But hopefully we make it happen.’
“And he has built this 500-plus employee business up from literally 18 people that first year and an $800,000 loan. It’s just incredible."
Added Jarrett, “Once you get to know Joe Gibbs you realize he’s going to be successful at whatever he does but this was a venture he had no idea really how to go about things. So, he was relying on people - just as he did when he was coaching – he had good people around him to get the best players and put his plan in place.
“It was kind of the same thing with this when he got into racing."
The approach – Gibbs’ philosophy and his great faith – soon transitioned from new venture to championship caliber standard-setter. After Jarrett, who competed for the team’s first three seasons (1992-94), Gibbs hired the 1991 Busch Grand National [now Xfinity Series] champion Bobby Labonte in 1995.
Labonte spent 11 years with Gibbs winning the 2000 NASCAR Cup Series championship and their fellow 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame classmate Stewart contributed another two titles to the Gibbs organization in 2002 and 2005.
With Labonte and Stewart, Gibbs’ team during those seasons from the mid-1990s to late 2000s were perennial championship favorites – claiming race trophy after race trophy. It was high octane performance in some of the sport’s most celebrated days. And it remains so today.
It was also good preparation – a test for the coach who was enjoying great results but managing a team of big personalities.
“I used to try and get to the hauler as fast as I could if he [Stewart] had a bad night because he was going to tear up the inside of the hauler," Gibbs joked with Stewart in that championship pre-race news conference at Homestead.
The two exchanged stories, long looks, laughter and pats on the back while sharing tales of their pairing. And then Stewart got serious.
“I learned a lot from this guy in the years I was there," Stewart said, turning in his seat to speak directly to Gibbs. “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 that I’m doing now. I wouldn’t be in debt like I am now," he said allowing a smile. “And I blame it all on you Joe.
“But it’s great to have worked with somebody like him because he has worked with so many great people. It’s not something you always see at the race track.
“A lot of it pertains to everyday life, too and when you get a chance to sit with him long enough and when you shut your mouth and listen, spend more time listening than talking you can learn a lot from this guy and I promise you, it helps.”
Certainly with Gibbs’ upcoming NASCAR Hall of Fame induction and his 1996 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, this 79-year-old natural born leader from tiny Mocksville, N.C. – where Daniel Boone’s father Squire once served as Justice of the Peace – has proven the kind of leader that great drive, abundant faith can produce.
With Jarrett already in the great Hall, Labonte and Stewart joining Gibbs, next week’s honor will likely feel as comfortable as it is so deserved.
“You couldn’t write a book and have this happen," Labonte said of this Hall of Fame class. “I just sit back and reflect on the times with Joe and it’s awesome we’re all three going in at the same time.
“You just couldn’t ask for anything better than that."
For all the record number of trophies, major races won and championship celebrations, Gibbs’ most endearing legacy to the sport may well be his philosophy and leadership. His heart and mind - his ability to motivate and to embrace the joy in a job well done.
“He helped me as a driver and I’m pretty sure that Bobby [Labonte], Tony [Stewart], Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin would tell you he just makes you a better person," Jarrett said. “He gives you the tools to be a better driver but just conversations with him – if you listen, pay attention and just watch his reactions – then you become a better person."