The Frontstretch: From Cocky To Crippled: The Snowball Effect Spiraling At Gibbs by Thomas Bowles -- Monday November 7, 2011

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From Cocky To Crippled: The Snowball Effect Spiraling At Gibbs

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday November 7, 2011


One year ago, Texas equaled triumph for a Joe Gibbs Racing operation cocking back to deliver what they thought was NASCAR’s equivalent of a knockout punch. While Jimmie Johnson’s team imploded, their pit road area turning into a deleted scene from Days Of Our Lives, driver Denny Hamlin won the race, crew chief Mike Ford talked some trash and the four-year title reign for Johnson’s No. 48 was left hanging by a thread. JGR, whose risky move to Toyota once cost them superstar Tony Stewart, was on the verge of handing the manufacturer their biggest piece of hardware yet. Add in Joey Logano finishing fourth that day at age 20, along with three-time season winner Kyle Busch, just 25 that Sunday, the organization posed a triple threat of twenty-something drivers peaking years from reaching their prime.

“We’re on the cusp of trying to get our first championship,” admitted Hamlin, so convinced the hardware was all but sitting in his living room. “As long as we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we should be okay.”

Denny Hamlin’s dramatic win at the Texas Motor Speedway one year ago never seemed further away than it did Sunday, as Joe Gibbs Racing limped through an ugly weekend both on and off the racetrack.

12 months later, it’s Texas, 2011 and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing is wondering when, if ever, things are going to start being OK once again. On the heels of Kyle Busch’s suspension, Sunday’s race could best be described as “rugged” for the three-car team whose season has tilted on a downward spiral for sometime. Hamlin was the best of the bunch; he ran 20th, two laps back and nursed his car home after longtime rival Brad Keselowski made contact with the No. 11 on pit road. Talk about what a difference a year makes; this once confident, borderline title contender spent his day on the radio sounding more like a deflated Ron Livingston from Office Space than a Chase participant.

“We just fought an ill-handling car all day,” he said, ready to trash those TPS Reports and head towards a racing offseason two weeks early. “It’s probably one of the worst that we’ve had in a long time and we just couldn’t fix any of the things that we had wrong in practice. Thought when the race started we would be a little bit better, but it wasn’t better. We just — 20th is where we ran all day.”

Hamlin’s handling, of course was made conspicuously worse by Kyle Busch’s on-track absence, forcing the No. 11 team to crumble when faced with “doing it themselves.” What does that say about their chemistry now? In the meantime, parked for the weekend, perhaps suspended for the season from his No. 18 Toyota – we’ll know more on Monday – Busch spent the day on top of the pit box as an innocent bystander. Gone was the feedback Hamlin could have used in practice, the fine-tuning that comes from longtime teammates working together. Instead, all he could do was sit there sickeningly as substitute Michael McDowell tripped, fell, and stumbled his way to 33rd.

On camera, McDowell was exactly what Gibbs needed: a churchgoing, G-Rated politically correct face to start a long-term repair job for angry sponsor M&M’s. But this type of ugly result, in which McDowell was never competitive, isn’t exactly the type of audition that’ll wow the candy company on life A.B. – After Busch. A lap down early, McDowell missed pit road during a set of green-flag stops, needed to be reminded the race was 334 laps long and was outrun by the likes of rookie Andy Lally, David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil. Don’t know the names? Know their finances combined don’t add up to the money M&M’s just paid to run in the back.

“We obviously were hoping for more and were hoping for a big day, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” McDowell said. “Gave it all I had and we just struggled pretty much all day long. We needed a couple of cautions so we could work on it.”

“We know the expectations. My ability is not going to change overnight. You get into a car. You haven’t worked with the crew chief (Dave Rogers). It’s still pretty tough.”

Should Busch stay on the sidelines, a 50/50 proposition at this point, it’s likely Gibbs will still give McDowell another shot. But will his team, and more importantly the sponsor have healed from the wounds their star driver left behind?

“The recent actions by Kyle Busch are not consistent with the values of M&M’s and we’re very disappointed,” the company said in a Sunday statement. “We hold those who represent our brand to a higher standard.”

As Monday morning dawns, Kyle Busch can do nothing but wait as his job, his sponsor and future NASCAR consequences hang in the balance.

What’s left in the dog-eat-dog world of NASCAR’s desperate economy are plenty of suitors looking to provide those standards elsewhere. Jack Roush, part of a Ford Racing camp that partnered with Mars for five seasons (on a Robert Yates Racing car) needs money for 2012 and would be happy to have them come on over. David Ragan, Trevor Bayne, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are all young drivers with impeccable reputations who won’t do what Busch just specialized in – rock the boat and create a national public relations nightmare. Could a sponsor shift happen? Friday night, it seemed a virtual impossibility. But this Sunday, when 55% of fans polled claimed Busch should be fired from the No. 18 ride… those are the type of numbers that make Fortune 500-style companies pay attention. Bayne, a younger version of McDowell with talent, stirred the pot further by winning the Texas Nationwide race; by far, that’s his best performance since February’s upset victory in the Daytona 500.

As it is, this Kyle Busch drama has distracted Gibbs from his other problem child, the driver who seemingly can’t get over being placed on the firing line himself. Just this August, it looked like Joey Logano would move to the bench while Carl Edwards took over the prized No. 20 Toyota. It was the boost JGR sorely needed; but for Edwards, it was merely the counteroffer necessary for Ford to give him the keys to the company. Logano, whose season has imploded in every sense of the word, became an innocent bystander that saw his 21-year-old sense of confidence shattered to smithereens.

Once compared to Jeff Gordon, a man who won the title in his third full season Logano has instead matched the No. 24 team in another way – by sitting a disastrous 24th in points. Blowing his engine this weekend, another JGR weakness (they have five such failures in 2011) is merely par for the course for a man asking for a pink slip: he has yet to sniff the top 10 since a fifth-place finish at Watkins Glen back in August.

So it goes for one of the sport’s storied franchises: with three Cup titles since the year 2000, only Hendrick Motorsports has more. But parity in today’s stock car upper class comes paired with a razor-thin margin of success and failure. Now, for the first time since 1997, JGR could finish the year without a single driver inside the top 10 in Sprint Cup points.

“Sometimes in life, you go through tough things and you don’t like it,” said Joe Gibbs when questioned about Kyle Busch’s transgressions this Saturday. “But we’re certainly going to try to work our way through this one, try to do the right thing and try to handle it the right way.”

Of course, more than ever those decisions are crucial. This team is facing an almost guaranteed overhaul in the offseason, with Denny Hamlin – Mike Ford seemingly headed for certain divorce. As for Busch, the sponsorship question looms more important than ever before; as a source told me off the record this offseason, Gibbs lives in fear just one sponsor defection takes him from three-car juggernaut to two-car “Earnhardt Ganassi 2011,” incapable of having the money or the horsepower to compete. And then, there’s Greg Zipadelli, still rumored to leave the team for the comfy confines of Stewart-Haas Racing where former driver Stewart – pushed out in favor of Toyota in 2008 – is three points from a title and on the verge of getting the last laugh. What happens to Logano without the best mechanic sitting by his side?

So while Busch may be the focus, and deservedly so, Sunday proved one man can be the catalyst for a long-term domino effect that puts hundred of hard-working employees in the line of fire. Coach Gibbs has a history of turning around the disenfranchised; but this slump, this maturity problem may be his biggest NASCAR challenge yet.

Ironically, that Texas race last November was one of Busch’s worst Chase performances. Running 32nd, two laps behind, he was exasperated on the radio to the point Joe’s son, J.D. Gibbs was asked about the star driver’s erratic behavior.

“Around that race car, when things don’t go well, I think there’s a real frustration there,” he said. “I think that’s just something that he’s going to have to continue to work on, and I think he acknowledges that, he admits that, but right when it happens it’s hard for him to control that. I think that’s just an area that in general and in life he’s going to have to address and that’s nothing new. We’ve just got to make sure it happens sooner rather than later.”

That problem, like many others within this organization was never completely corrected. And now, 12 months removed from what should have been the ascension to the top, everyone within JGR this Monday must sit and wonder just how big this snowball down the mountain is going to get.

Contact Tom Bowles

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phil h
11/07/2011 01:25 AM

there ain’t no way M&M’s is gonna leave JGR and Kyle Busch. If they do,bad move.

KB is just too good a driver to throw to the curb.

Hendrick threw him out and took Jr Nation into the fold. How’s that working out for you Rick??

Yeah,Kyle made a STUPID mistake…remember when Smoke would get into all kinds of shit when he drove for Joe! Ain’t nothing Gibbs hasn’t seen be4!
Even if Gibbs would fire Kyle….owners would be biting at the bit to sign him! Hell maybe even Hendrick would admit his screwup and try to get him back.

Stephen HOOD
11/07/2011 07:33 AM

Hey Phil,

Junior isn’t winning but he’s bringing cash to the table. In fact the Junior cash cow is funding Jeff Gordon’s resurgence (Drive to End Hunger is not a $$$ sponsor). I think Joe Gibbs now understands why Mr. Hendrick saw it wise to trade a driver capable of winning on the track for a driver capable of winning in the board room and winning the hearts of the fans. I agree that Kyle can probably outrun Junior 8 out of 10 races on the track, but this isn’t Jr. High and Junior drives well enough to keep the cash flowing and the sponsors happy. Whether Joe Gibbs and M&Ms keep Busch is yet to be seen. If he’s fired I bet he’ll end up somewhere driving a top tier car with Mike’s Hard Lemonade or some other beverage as his sponsor. Bad boys can find rides but its usually with RCR or Chip Gansassi, not lilly white Christianfied JGR. For those who think Kyle is gone from NASCAR, well that’s seems stupid to me. But, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him loose his ride at JGR only to be picked up by someone else.

Bill B
11/07/2011 08:56 AM

The only way KB gets fired is if M&M Mars dictates it. Otherwise, they slug through the next two weeks, put the bad year behind them, and start over next year.

The only way the complete overhaul of JGR takes place is if M&M Mars forces the dominoes to fall.

11/07/2011 09:55 AM

I’ll have to agree, Mars holds the bag here. We’ll just have to see where the candies fall. I doubt that they could get any more exposure from another driver and I wonder if dropping the sponsorship altogether would have any effect on sales. I would imagine that it’s only a nice advertising/promo expense write off for the company. I was also thinking that Kyle would be great at RCR if Harvick didn’t have the old man in his pocket. Bring back a tough chevy badass themed sponsorship… I also agree that Reuty would be a great fit at Gibbs.

but I guess this is all really quite moot if the quality and watchability of “the product” doesn’t improve. time spent in front of the DVR:
Nationwide = 10 mins
Cup = 35 mins
commercials/promos watched = 0

11/07/2011 10:03 AM

Park him in the trucks and maybe in the Cup Lite..fine him extra heavily..(The cost of one KHI truck possibly) put him on super secret double probation across all three series thru 2012…or don’t allow him to run trucks next year. As far as Cup goes let the sponsor and Gibbs take care of it….

11/07/2011 10:08 AM

As you’ve said, M&M sponsorship is the key here. Personally I hope they do pull out on this driver- simply because Kyle doesn’t represent their brand well – yes, he’s quite the wheel man, but this is a company that markets to children – of all ages. Gibbs should have stood up a while ago – he’s allowed this behavior and the off track craziness too, to continue under his watch. Now he gets to pay the price in the level of scrutiny from corporate sponsors, the public and NASCAR.

phil h
11/07/2011 10:24 AM

and don’t forget our current points leader Carl Edwards….where was the outrage and why wasn’t he parked a race or two for his actions when he deliberately,not under caution,but during the race,wrecked Brad Keselowski and sent him into the catchfence on his top!!

11/07/2011 10:27 AM

Fire him and then let’s see what “tremendous” driving skills he can show us over at Robby Gordon racing! Oh wait…that would never work!

11/07/2011 10:46 AM

Gibbs certainly dealt with some less than stellar performers with the Skins. There though he was able to keep it pretty low key. Team sport you know.
With KB and too a lesser degree the other two, its harder to hide. Nascar after all is all about the personalities.
So unless Mars, decides they’ve had enough of this circus, I wouldn’t expect any substantive changes.

11/07/2011 10:51 AM

Said this elsewhere and I’ll repeat it here: JGR needs to re-evaluate its organization from top to bottom. Since Stewart was forced out the one thing JGR has lacked is team leadership and maturity with its drivers. Kyle Busch needs a mentor that can temper his temper, Denny Hamlin needs mental toughness which he seems to lose whenever the Chase is within his grasp, and Joey Logano isn’t the driver his early promise showed.

All the talent in the world won’t ever overcome mental immaturity. JGR may be finally realizing that fact and be forced to make driver changes.

11/07/2011 10:53 AM

Nice write-up of an ugly situation. Kyle is fun to watch while driving, but not so much during his tantrums. I say park him in all 3 for the remainder of 2011 and maybe, just maybe, it’ll start to sink in that this isn’t his personal playpen.

11/07/2011 10:59 AM

I wonder what M&Ms’ email account looks like this morning. I emailed them on Saturday asking why they would want this driver representing their company.

With so many teams looking for sponsorship, they could hook up with a team/driver who could serve them better. So he wins races. To me, it’s important to have a driver who doesn’t act like KyB. Someone said on Twitter that Jack Roush should call them on Monday. LOL

As we have seen in the past, JGR will do nothing to punish KyB. Did we ever hear anything after KyB drove like a maniac on the streets of Charlotte? Now he’s shown in a comml driving a Toyota sans seatbelt.

Bill B
11/07/2011 11:02 AM

phil h,
Agreed!!! NASCAR dropped the ball on that call. Carl should have been suspended for a week as well.
But don’t use that as an excuse or in defense for what Kyle did. Making a second wrong call wouldn’t make it right or fix the fact that NASCAR dropped the ball with Carl. Using past instances to “deflect” or “water-down” the actions of Kyle on Friday night is also a lame attempt to justify his actions.
He got what he deserved. Carl got away with one.

11/07/2011 11:28 AM

Great article, but I think it is a little unfair to JGR to say that they forced out Tony Stewart. While Tony wasn’t thrilled about running Toyotas (to the point of not ever mentioning their name in interviews), I think he was content to stay in the #20 until the golden opportunity to become part-owner of Haas came along (undoubtely sweetened by a truckload of Chevy money).

As loyal as Zippy has been to JGR (which is to be admired), you hafta wonder how much more he can take of Lagano’s underachieving. Especially since his former driver and “little brother” is on the verge of taking championship #3.

11/07/2011 11:33 AM

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.:impeccable reputation?

check the ARCA title chase he was involved in

Robert Stafford
11/07/2011 12:34 PM

I think Kyle is on DRUGS !! All his actions are that of a drug addict. If I was a driver I would demand a drug test before I would be cought on the track with him.

Kevin in SoCal
11/07/2011 12:40 PM

Carl was not suspended at the time because he doesnt have a reputation of payback and a bad temper. Kyle Busch does. That’s the difference and why NASCAR acted against Kyle this time.
If Mark Martin or Jeff Burton went out and wrecked someone, would you be calling for them to be parked as well?

11/07/2011 12:47 PM

hey! can someone give me the e-mail address for mars incorprated? thanks!

11/07/2011 12:47 PM

I went over to the M&M’s site and unless I missed it Kyle Busch is not shown on there. They show the crew but unless I missed it I could not find Kyle on there. Does this mean he is already canned?

Moe Foe
11/07/2011 12:49 PM

I wouldn’t ask Gibbs Racing to fire him, though losing their only chance at a chase win certainly would be enuf to do so. I would be personally gratified with Kyle to be sat, by his owner, for the race at Phoenix, his backyard. Gibbs is also going to have to work extra hard pulling in sponsors for this bad boy. I was distressed watching that, thinking the insanity would stop any second…but it didn’t! When Kyle purposely went to Hornaday’s right corner, I thought, “He’s gonna kill him!” I would be seriously aggrieved to get on a track with this madman. One more race, to show him how bad it was, in all ways. Then trust him, but verify.

Joe W.
11/07/2011 01:27 PM

I have to agree with the writer about Stewart. He was forced out at Gibbs. I think he would have stayed there if they don’t switch to toyota. The offer never comes for Haas racing if Gibbs still runs Chevy. Gibbs probably missed out on Edwards because of toyota also. Now look who is 1, 2 in points. Edwards in his Ford and Stewart in his Chevy and no Gibbs toyota in sight. I would love to see M&Ms come back to Ford and sponser Trevor Bayne in the 6, 21 or whatever car number he would be in. That would be great. Busch’s suspension along with Trevor winning the Nationwide race and clinching Ford’s Manufacturers title in Nationwide made my weekend!!

11/07/2011 02:11 PM

M&M Mars knows “even bad publicity is good publicity”. How many times is their name mentioned in this article and comments?

Bill B
11/07/2011 02:24 PM

Everyone may want to pay attention to Larry’s post above about the M&M’s racing website.

He is right.

11/07/2011 04:54 PM

I noticed that kyle wasn’t even wearing any mars gear on top of the pit box. YES, what he did was wrong. It’s not like he robbed a little old lady of her church donation, certainly noth worht the crucifiction that people are demanding… this makes me wonder (in a sad way.) it takes this type of thing to get people fired up and vocal. who’s up in arms and actually doing something about how many tracks have dangerous areas not covered in safer barriers, the asinine amount of money that it takes to attend a cup race, the crappy cookie cutter aero tracks, the poor to mediocre racing that seems to be what we get, a championship that is won by being the best at taking no chances and well… boring, the generally boring mid race strategy, the telecasts that cater to the least common denominator and are over a third veiled or straight ads, the amount of luxury that the teams allow themselves at the cost of someone else’s money aka “sponsorship” and now the “nascar nation” is out to get rid of one of the only drivers with personality (albeit at times a pretty poor one?) no wonder why this form of racing is where it is today…. You want the sport you love controlled by big business corporations… well, you let it happen and now you’ve got it. go ahead and write another e-mail to Mars why don’t you?

11/07/2011 04:59 PM

Just wanted to add another comment. I did go to M& and KyB is not there. His car and crew are though. Just read on Jayski and now hearing it on nascar now, nascar has fined him and put him on probation. Will Joe Gibbs think this is enough punishment?

andy hunt
11/07/2011 07:30 PM

Maybe Joe Gibbs should have signed Mark Martin to teach the young lads a think or two about driving and life skills. Too bad Mikey got Makr all signed up before Joe had the chance. Martin would have been a good mentor to Hamlin and Logano. In fact, I remember in Hamlin’s rookie year he complained to the media about Mark Martin racing him hard at Dover. Mark Martin was asked about this by the media and Mark Martin said that Hamlin should shut his mouth and concenrate on driving instead of mouthing off to the media.

Shayne Flaherty
11/07/2011 08:13 PM

Joe Gibbs should fire Kyle’s punk ass and be done with it. It’s the will of the F.S.M.

phil h
11/07/2011 11:48 PM

@ Bill b
I’m just using past instances to say that its been done before and more than likely will again. Just depends on who the driver is to Nascar whether their punished or not.Thats just a fact.They seem to pick and choose.
Carl wrecked Brad K more than one time..the others in Nationwide racing.
Edwards has been guilty multiple times.

11/08/2011 12:01 AM

Well said Phil H.

Nascar DOES pick and choose.

They should just call it the Chevy/Hendrick Cup and be done with it.

11/08/2011 03:34 PM

Unfair to trash McDowell for a terrible finish. You can’t just put someone in a car he’s unfamiliar with, with a crew chief he’s never worked with and expect great things in the Cup series. He did the best he could and Rodgers commended him for a good job under the circumstances. Give the guy a break. Did you actually expect a top 10 out of him?

11/08/2011 05:07 PM

People compare some other drivers with Kyle but the deal is there is no one driving that has had the altercations in all three series as Kyle. And, Kyle sit out the weekend but this $50,000 fine and two race weekend probation will not get anything over to a guy who makes probably $10,000,000 a year. Maybe the next time Kyle can injured someone or kill someone and Nascar, Joe Gibbs and Kyle can all get it at the same time. Take my word, this will not be the last time you will hear from Kyle Busch.


Contact Tom Bowles

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