Going Green · Garrett Horton · Thursday November 10, 2011
It’s been a newsworthy week in the sport’s world of those named Joe. Long time Penn State coach Joe Paterno is out after this season amidst a sex scandal, legendary boxer Joe Frazier passed away this Monday at the age of 67, and in our sport, it has been Joe Gibbs in the headlines. Kyle Busch’s actions last Friday night became the latest issue for the car owner, one that may possibly be the most damaging to the organization. While Busch committed his act with his own team in the truck race, there have been cries from many for the owner to suspend, and even fire, the talented yet erratic 26 year old. Gibbs is well prepared to handle this situation correctly, as he has more experience than any car owner dealing with high strung individuals. What is most interesting about his near 20 years in NASCAR though, is how the perception of his team has changed in that span.
One year before Gibbs left his head coaching gig with the Washington Redskins, he started up his own NASCAR team. As was usually the case at that time, it was a one car organization. His driver? Dale Jarrett, who at the time had only one victory in what was then known as Winston Cup series. However, Jarrett was already very well respected amongst his competitors as he had been around the sport for over a decade, and his father Ned was a former champ and one of the most liked individuals in the history of NASCAR. For anyone unfamiliar with Gibbs before he came over from the NFL, it became clear how important faith and religion were to him. With a religious man in Gibbs transitioning over from football teaming up with the likeable Jarrett, Joe Gibbs Racing became a team that was very easy to pull for.
By the time Jarrett left the team at the conclusion of the 1994 season, JGR had picked up two wins, one of which was the Daytona 500 in 1993. That would be the biggest accomplishment for the team for several years. Following Jarrett’s departure, Gibbs signed Bobby Labonte to pilot the number No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet the following year. Labonte, much like Jarrett, didn’t have the accolades as an elite driver when he joined the team, but he had already developed a good reputation. His older brother Terry had been in the sport for over ten years and was a clean racer, something people quickly realized about Bobby as well. It was here were Labonte experienced his most success, and in 2000 gave both him and Gibbs their first championship. In doing so, Gibbs became the first, and only, man to win both a Superbowl and Sprint Cup title. It was another feel good story for the coach turned car owner.
A year before his first Cup championship, Gibbs started a second team with rookie Tony Stewart behind the wheel. Stewart made news his first season for all the right reasons, breaking the record for most wins by a rookie with three en route to a fourth place finish in the final point standings. Within a couple of years, however, Stewart became known for more than just his driving talent; he was a bit of a hot head, something Gibbs wasn’t accustomed to dealing with as a car owner.
Certainly, this was nothing new from his days as a head coach, where he had plenty of players who weren’t the nicest of guys. As a coach in the NFL, though, you have to know how to handle the unruly characters if you want to succeed. Gibbs was able do this, as he won the Superbowl not once, but three times. His coaching ability came in handy during the 2002 season, which was arguably one of Stewart’s worst from an off-track perspective. A clash with a photographer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway which Stewart allegedly punched him almost led to him being suspended. Fortunately for Smoke, he didn’t miss any races, and with leadership from Gibbs, he went on to win his first NASCAR championship, and the second for the JGR stable. While Stewart was quite unpopular at the time, he slowly earned the respect of the fans, and his competitors. By the time he left Gibbs after the 2008 season, he had become one of the most popular drivers in the garage. While he still remained outspoken, it was his honesty that helped label him as one of the leaders in the sport.
In the years since Stewart’s departure, Gibbs hasn’t had that well respected veteran. We all know Busch’s issues, but JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano have had on track problems in the past that you would not see from Jarrett or Labonte.
While Busch is the star driver, it is Hamlin who is the leader at JGR. He has been there the longest and certainly speaks his mind about team performance, but he may not be the lead driver Gibbs needs right now. Hamlin does appear to have matured greatly this past year after losing the title in the final race last season. He hasn’t had those on track feuds we have seen from him in the past, but with teammates like Busch and Logano, a reputable veteran would be a better fit as the leader. Sure, Gibbs is still the coach, but even the best coach would have problems guiding his team to the playoffs without some respected leaders on the squad. The results this year show it. With two races remaining, JGR has just five victories, which would be their lowest total since 2005, the same year Gibbs picked up his third title.
Even though it will likely be the sponsor’s call, don’t expect for Gibbs to give up on Busch. He has proven that if anyone can change a driver, it is him. Whatever the end result is, it could have a huge impact on Gibbs’ legacy. Should Busch take the Tony Stewart route and one day be respected and liked, Gibbs could look at that as one of his greatest accomplishments, right up there with his NFL and NASCAR titles. However, if Kyle continues his current ways, it would be a black eye for Gibbs. Instead of people viewing the car owner as a religious man who guides troubled individuals to success, he would be looked upon as a naive owner who doesn’t care what kind of personalities his drivers are. Knowing his history, I believe in the former, but newer fans will have trouble believing that, and Busch better change his act soon for Gibbs’ sake.
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