Few in professional sports have had a second career like Joe Gibbs. The three-time Super Bowl winning coach in Washington retired the first time from the NFL in 1992 and devoted his attention to his race car operation and things have gone, one could say, very well.
“I had a simple formula,” Gibbs said. “I’ve always been involved in team sports and made up my mind to get around good athletes and let them make all the plays. I did the same thing with NASCAR and the NFL. The NFL world was challenging, exciting, and gave me some of the greatest thrills in my life.
“When I came to NASCAR, I wasn’t as involved in technical things. I spent my time with team building and keeping my sponsors happy. They are two different worlds. I’ve been around some great people and [for some reason] I get pushed up front and get an award.”
It’s clearly not as simple as the 79-year-old Gibbs makes it sound, and it goes without saying he understates his role.
Joe Gibbs Racing will have four cars in Sunday’s Daytona 500, including defending champion Denny Hamlin. Last year, Gibbs also had the NASCAR Cup Series champion in Kyle Busch. But it was a season that started in tragedy before a surreal aura of success enveloped the team as it went on to win 19 races.
Gibbs’ 49-year-old son, J.D., died of a degenerative neurological disease on Jan. 11, just weeks before the start of last season. J.D. ran Gibbs Racing on a day-to-day basis.
When race day came, NASCAR decided to pay tribute to J.D. on the 11th lap, 11 being the number of the car he drove when he raced. Hamlin, the winner, was driving car No. 11. Busch and Erik Jones, both Gibbs racers, finished second and third.
“I don’t know how you can go through things like that,” Gibbs said. “For me and my family … it was a very emotional time. We all felt like the Lord was there. It couldn’t have happened by accident. J.D. was right by the Lord’s side. All of our people loved J.D. and I feel he was there with us all year long.”
When Gibbs was with Washington, he was known for his work ethic, often pulling all-nighters. No one could outwork him. In his second career things haven’t changed.
“I think when he … was getting toward retirement in coaching, he was looking at what he was going to do,” Hamlin said. “He’s not one of those guys that sits at home, just hangs out and does chores around the house. He likes to work hard.
“That really is, in my opinion, the difference in him and any other team owner is that he’s at the race shop every single day at 8 a.m. calling sponsors, walking the shop, figuring out how we can be faster.”
Teammate Martin Truex Jr. echoes that sentiment.
“It’s amazing to see the way he leads the place and the amount of work he puts in,” Truex said. “I think he eats, breathes and sleeps racing. If he’s not meeting with a sponsor, he’s at the shop. It doesn’t matter what time of day, I always feel like he’s there.”
Speaking to Gibbs is a lesson in civility. He calls you by your first name and prefers to be more self-effacing than self-aggrandizing despite his accomplished resume. He values loyalty and is proud to have 35 employees who have been with him 20 years or more.
When asked about his drivers, he says: “I learned early on, I work for the drivers, I work for them.”
But his drivers see it a little differently.
“Joe’s not an intimidating guy from the outside, but when you get a call from him and he wants to meet you in his office, and you don’t really know what it’s about, it’s pretty intimidating,” Jones said. “Joe can be an intimidating figure without wanting to be one. I don’t know if he does it on purpose, but he probably does.”
Last year was Gibbs Racing’s third Daytona 500 win, the first one coming with Dale Jarrett in 1993 and the second with Hamlin in 2016.
“Our first year racing, we were just getting started, and we didn’t win a thing,” Gibbs said. “The second year, winning the Daytona 500 was unbelievable. We didn’t know where the winner’s circle was. Once we found it, we didn’t know what to do. You drank some champagne and I thought that was it.”
So, Gibbs got in the car with his two boys and the Daytona 500 trophy, headed north about two miles and came upon a Steak ‘n Shake, a hamburger restaurant.
“The boys said they were starving, so I said, ‘Let’s eat,’” Gibbs said. “There were about 75 race fans there and we spent 30 minutes in the parking lot talking to them. … I said if we ever win the Daytona 500, we would do it again. But we went 22 years without winning and then we finally won it.”
He took a few people, the Harley J. Earl Trophy and went down the street for some burgers and fries. Even Hamlin showed up.
It remains to be seen if a Steak ‘n Shake visit is in the cards this year. The Gibbs team — Jones (14th), Truex (15th), Hamlin (21st) and Busch (28th) — will start the 40-car race in the middle of the pack.
It also seems unrealistic for Gibbs’ team to have a season such as last year.
“The hardest thing in pro sports is to stay at the top and perform at the top level,” Gibbs said. “Last year, winning the 500 and the championship … well, you would like to do that again.”
No one is counting Gibbs out.