When you know a piece of news is coming along for months – and you can’t even report it at first – press conferences don’t always work as the landmark information source you expect them to be.
That’s why a good journalist tries his best to read between the lines after a press conference in Huntersville, N.C. that, on the surface, provided more pomp and circumstance than specific details about Toyota’s newest special friend. Of course, Gibbs had made no secret a partnership was on the verge of occurring… leaks were rampant about it for weeks, even though the team claims a final decision wasn’t reached until last weekend. But the reasons behind and surrounding the move away from Chevrolet – that pesky little question of why – those answers proved a little unclear.
How could a team with so much success align itself with a manufacturer that has just one top-five finish to its name? How could an organization with three ’08 drivers that should be serious contenders for the title turn their eyes towards a program that has zero cars “locked in” to a Top-35 qualifying spot?
Well, the true answers are there… you just need to look for them. So… journey down this road with me, won’t you? Analyzing is always more fun when we do it together.
First, let’s delve into JD Gibbs’ reasoning behind the initial push to do something different:
“I really feel the burden of our 400 employees,” he claimed from his perch at the center of all that moved in racing yesterday. “All the families that work here, we want to make sure they can stay for their whole careers. And for me, I think the key to doing that is performance, week in and week out. And there are certain things we can do with Toyota that we’ll have a little more of a leadership role in.”
“And I do think within GM, you’ve got four really strong teams, so I think it is probably a little more difficult to say who has a leadership role there. Which direction are we going to go? And I think for us, it is just the right decision and the right time.”
These statements prove telling as to the position JGR thought it was in. Hidden in the shadows of Hendrick Motorsports dominance to start the season, JGR has since seen the other major Chevrolet teams, RCR and DEI, make significant moves to expand to four full-time operations for 2008; the latter organization has already gotten there, courtesy a merger turned desperation bankruptcy from Bobby Ginn. While Gibbs has continued to be successful in its own right – landing two of its three drivers in the Chase and winning four races this season – they’ve increasingly had to share the trophy room with other Chevrolets. Hendrick, DEI and RCR have combined to win another 14, with RCR’s number one driver, Kevin Harvick, taking home the trophy at this year’s Daytona 500 (yes, I know Tony Stewart took home the trophy at Indy… but still). Barring a Richmond collapse, Chevrolet teams not named Gibbs will land a total of seven of the 12 drivers competing in this year’s Chase.
That leaves JGR in an awkward spot. The program has no plans to expand until hot young talent Joey Logano moves up through the ranks – and that’s assuming he doesn’t peter out in the lower levels of trucks and Busch. Even if Logano moves up to Cup by 2010, Gibbs will find themselves fighting to stay above water against a total of 12 other cars within Chevrolet – all of whom are capable of competing at their same level. Clearly, no matter how much respect and loyalty the Bowtie Brigade held for JGR… they had other options.
Which brings us to the question of money.
“I think Toyota has a little bit different model than what GM has,” claimed Gibbs as he addressed the differences between the two manufacturers. “And I think for us, there will be some resources there. Down the road, there are certain things that we’re not going to be able to afford to do, period.”
“I think the other thing that I want to say about it is the partnership, I think – and that is the keyword. It is a partnership that we’re going to be entering into with Toyota. And from what they have in their camp and how we can use their resources, I just look at this as an extension of our team.”
“Partnership” and “afford” are the key words you need to remember from that soliloquy. Keep in mind that of those four Chevy teams mentioned above, Gibbs is the one that appeared in position to fall behind financially. RCR and DEI both have investors with a stake in their organizations (although Bobby Ginn could hardly be called full of money at this point, he technically does count); combine that with the seemingly limitless resources of Hendrick now that cash cow Dale Earnhardt Jr. has joined the fold, and Gibbs was on its way to becoming outmatched. Three primary sponsors don’t provide the money of four, and with no investor plans expected anytime soon, the next best thing for Gibbs to do was to align itself with a manufacturer that would “reward” them for their position as number one on the totem pole.
Clearly, that’s what went down. No financial terms were – or likely will be – disclosed, but chances are Toyota did the same thing it did two years back, wooing crew members with salaries that were tens of thousands above what any other organization was even capable of offering. Just replace “thousands” with “millions,” and you get the point.
That financial security offered comes as a lifeline, a level of support Gibbs, his father, and everyone involved in JGR would love to have. Not that Chevrolet wasn’t upset; by all accounts, they were not happy campers, and Gibbs deftly avoided a question about their reaction, only saying he expects to be fully supported throughout the Chase.
But in the end, any such backlash towards this organization paled in comparison to making the decision they thought was right.
“It is an extremely hard business,” JD mentioned at the press conference. “From a sport standpoint, I deal with some NFL owners and get to talk and spend some time with them. What they have there is a franchise that’s set. You’ve got it. No matter what, the values are going to go up for the most part. Over here, you don’t have that.”
“Now, I kind of like that. I kind of like the fact that the value over here is if you run well. If Tony Stewart sells a bunch of souvenirs, he keeps the money from those souvenirs. There’s no pot you have to share.”
What you get there – but don’t often see from JD – is the level of competitive drive that has been ingrained in him since day one. There’s something to be said for spearheading a movement, leading a manufacturer that has goals to change the landscape of an entire sport. This family isn’t one that shies away from challenges – and to be honest, taking on the Camry is a challenge they no longer had. They’ve won a title in a Pontiac, one in a Chevrolet; why not make the switch a third time and start all over again? It would be too easy to keep the status quo… too easy to fall behind.
Of course, Toyota knows that feeling all too well after starting the season with teams lacking the proper technology to move forward, highlighted by an engine that was never up to snuff. That should prove the biggest setback for JGR in the short-term; but chief engine builder Mark Cronquist, regarded as one of the best in the business, was up front about how he feels it’s nothing he can’t handle.
“Really, putting an engine together is easy,” he said. “It’s finding the combination that you need for that that’s hard. The one advantage we have switching to Toyota from, say the R-O7 engine, is with the (Chevrolet) R-O7 engine, nobody had raced it. If you look at everybody’s R-O7 engines, the alternator might be on a different side or the oil pump may be on a different side. This engine’s already built. It’s put together. So mounting the alternator and the oil pump, a lot of that is done for us.”
“The thing my group has to work on is making sure it is up to our standards of what we normally do, being the performance, the torque, the horsepower and stuff like that.”
Don’t underestimate the power of this group to get that done. Surely, Gibbs had that in mind when making the switch; if his team can fix the engine, then what else could be wrong with a car that will basically end up with the same common chassis template as Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge once the Car of Tomorrow goes full-time in ’08? When your team has given your top two drivers a total of two DNFs due to engine failures since February, 2006, it gives you the confidence they can handle anything that comes their way.
“Mark Cronquist and I, if we don’t talk to each other, we look at that as a good thing,” said Stewart. “We look at that as a standpoint that things are going really good in the motor department.”
“I think today’s the first time we’ve spoken in probably – other than you making a token appearance at a couple races this year – in probably a year and a half, two years. So things are pretty comfortable there.”
Comfortable was the word to describe Stewart, who was rumored to be upset about the switch but hardly seemed so yesterday. In fact, both he and Hamlin openly expressed they were in the middle of negotations to be with Gibbs for a long time to come.
“I’m excited about this. I feel like the only way that you constantly stay ahead of the game is by putting yourselves in positions to be leaders not followers,” That’s why I signed up with Joe Gibbs Racing in the first place, and that’s why I’m currently looking to extend my contract.
“I’ve always trusted JD and Joe, and this decision doesn’t change my feelings about their leadership qualities.”
Nor should it. Two years from now, expect to look back on this move as the one that catapulted Toyota to the next level of Nextel Cup.