It was February 1993 when J.D. Gibbs first worked on his dad Joe’s Winston Cup car. J.D. was a front-wheel tire changer, and the car won the Daytona 500.
On Sunday, J.D. will be back for the 500, but this time as the man in charge of the Joe Gibbs racing team, having moved up to the top position after Joe abruptly returned to football last month as coach of the Washington Redskins.
“I hope that ['93 race] was a good omen, and we can repeat it,” the young Gibbs said during a lull in practice for his two drivers, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte, who have won two of the last four Winston [now Nextel] Cup championships.
“On the other hand, I hope I’m not as nervous as I was that day. On the last pit stop, I left a lug nut loose and I was scared to death something would happen before Dale [Jarrett] got to the finish line. Lucky for me, it didn’t.”
Joe will be here this weekend for the race, but J.D., 34, will be running the team, just as he has for the last several years. He became president in 1997 and each year since has taken more control of the day-to-day operation.
“My dad was never a hands-on owner,” J.D. said. “His idea is to get the best guys, guys like Jimmy Makar, put them in the right place and let them do their thing. Without Makar [team vice president], we would not be where we are today.”
Stewart, the 2003 champion, says the only time he might miss the elder Gibbs is Sunday mornings “when he gives us a little pep talk.”
“I guess I’m going to have to learn how to do that,” J.D. said, grinning. “The guys will miss him, that’s for sure, but hopefully enough [of my] watching him coach over the years has rubbed off on me.”
Labonte, the 2000 champion, said the timing was right for Joe to return to football without hurting the race team.
“If this were five or seven years ago, he wouldn’t do this,” Labonte said. “This is the time he can go and do this and feel comfortable with it because of the people he’s got at the race shop.”
The announcement that Joe was replacing Steve Spurrier as the Redskins’ coach this year shocked racing, even the members of his team. But J.D. said he saw it coming.
“The only thing that really surprised me was that Mom agreed to it,” J.D. said. “Before Spurrier resigned, when there was some talk that he might leave, Dad started saying, ‘What if?’ Then, when Spurrier quit, [Redskin owner] Dan Snyder was on the phone the next day, and that did it. Dad was ready to go back.”
Gibbs called a special meeting at team headquarters that had nearly everyone, including his drivers, puzzled.
“I figured I wasn’t going to be fired, but I sure didn’t dream Joe was going back to football,” Stewart said. “I could see how happy he was to get back into coaching. Here’s a guy who is 63 years old that’s ready to go out there with all those big football players and work 16 hours a day. He was like a 6-year-old kid opening Christmas gifts on Christmas Day when he was telling us about it.”
Gibbs started his JGR team in 1991 in partnership with business associate Don Meredith, no relation to the former Dallas Cowboy quarterback of the same name, hoping to spend more time with his sons, J.D. and Coy. Gibbs coached for two more years before announcing his retirement from football in March 1993.
When J.D. first began helping in the shop, there were only about 15 employees, and Jarrett was the team’s only driver. A year after J.D. became president, Gibbs broke ground on a 120,000-square-foot shop on a 14-acre site in Huntersville, N.C. Later that year, he announced that JGR would become a two-driver team with Stewart and Home Depot joining Labonte and Interstate batteries.
Although J.D. had dabbled in racing, going through the go-kart, Legends and late-model stock-car circuits near his home in North Carolina, he’d planned to go into coaching after graduating from William and Mary, where he was a quarterback and defensive back from 1987-1990.
“I loved racing, I won a couple of races, but I cost the team more than I ever brought in,” he said. “I knew I’d never make it as a driver.”
He was good enough to win rookie-of-the-year honors in a late-model division at Concord and Anderson Motor Speedways in 1996 and was runner-up for the same honor in the NASCAR Busch North series in 1999.
“All the time I was racing, I thought it was short-term, that I would be a coach, but I was working with the racing team, and it kept growing so fast that I found myself getting more and more involved,” he said. “Now here I am.
“I just wish we could have found a little more speed Sunday in qualifying. Now we have to hope we get a better race setup for later in the week.”
Labonte was a disappointing 35th in qualifying at 185.536 mph, and Stewart was 37th at 185.219. Both will be in twin 125-mile qualifying heats Thursday to determine their starting positions in the 500.
Coy, J.D.'s younger brother at 31, played linebacker at Stanford, but has decided to join his father as an assistant coach after a brief racing career in NASCAR Craftsman trucks.
J.D. also oversees a two-car JGR team in the Busch series.
Mike Bliss, the 2002 Craftsman Truck champion, will drive the full Busch season, starting with the Hershey’s Kisses 300 on Saturday. Rookie J.J. Yeley will run selected races, starting at Las Vegas on March 6.
“We’ll run J.J. in some [Nextel] Cup races later,” J.D. said. “He did all the things Tony [Stewart] did in USAC, so we’d like to see him do the same thing in NASCAR.”
Yeley won U.S. Auto Club championships in midgets, sprint cars and silver crown cars last year, equaling Stewart’s sweep of the open-wheel titles in 1995. Although he is not running in the Busch race Saturday, Yeley is here for the IROC opener on Friday night.
Labonte’s No. 18 Nextel Cup car Sunday will have a paint scheme featuring Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus Christ in the movie, drove the Chevrolet Corvette pace car at the beginning of the 2002 Indianapolis 500.
* When: Sunday.
* Where: Daytona Beach, Fla.
* Time: 10:30 a.m. PST.
* TV: Channel 4.
* Pole sitter: Greg Biffle.
* 2003 winner: Michael Waltrip.