Gibbs drivers have high hopes
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Back in 1991, the head coach of the Washington Redskins decided he would start a NASCAR team at the Cup level.
Say what? Joe Gibbs might as well have said he was going to ski down Mount Everest on one leg. The chances for success were about the same, either way.
"We had 16 employees in a small building we leased," Gibbs said. "It was an extremely tough first year."
Two decades later, Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the most successful organizations in NASCAR with three Cup championships, 88 victories and more than 400 employees.
JGR enters this season with a solid trio of drivers. Denny Hamlin, the runner-up to Jimmie Johnson for the 2010 championship, and Kyle Busch, possibly the most talented driver in the sport, are serious title contenders.
And Joey Logano, who turns 21 in May, took a big leap forward last season as a Cup sophomore.
JGR's operation is envied by many teams in NASCAR, but Gibbs looks back now and sees he was out of his league 20 year ago in more ways than one.
Thankfully, he hired the right man to run things in Jimmy Makar, but plenty of people in NASCAR thought Makar was crazier than Gibbs.
"People asked me why I went to work for a football coach who had never owned a race team," Makar said. "I was leaving a team owned by one of the most successful guys in racing, Roger Penske. His driver was Rusty Wallace, who had a championship and many wins."
But Makar did it because he saw a dedication in Gibbs, a deeply religious man who Makar said was committed to making this venture as successful as his coaching career.
Gibbs, however, knew a lot more about football than he did racing. The team's first Daytona 500 in 1992 was a major learning experience for Gibbs.
"I was talking to Jimmy before the qualifying race that Thursday and he was sweating and pacing back and forth,'' Gibbs said. "I asked him, 'What's wrong.' He said, 'If we don't do well in this thing we're not racing.' I said, 'What?' I had no clue."
One year later, Gibbs was standing in Victory Lane when Dale Jarrett and JGR shocked the racing world by winning the 1993 Daytona 500.
"I got a call from Joe a few days later and he told me he was quitting as coach of the Redskins," Jarrett said. "I told him, 'Joe, I'm not sure one victory is enough to give up your day job.'''
It all worked out, including a return to the Redskins from 2004 through 2007. By the time of his second coaching retirement, JGR had earned three Cup titles over five seasons -- Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Tony Stewart in 2002 and 2005.
Labonte and Stewart returned to JGR for a 20-year celebration during the NASCAR Media Tour last month.
"A lot of the things we do at Stewart-Haas Racing are things I learned from Joe," Stewart said. "He has great leadership skills and knows how to organize people."
Gibbs admits leading Stewart wasn't always easy. He was warned from the start that Stewart could be hard to handle when he purchased Stewart's contract from Harry Rainier.
"I go to hand Harry the check and he looks at me and says, 'Are you sure you want to do this?''' Gibbs said.
Stewart chuckled at that line. "What a coincidence," Stewart said. "I remember handing you a check [when Stewart left JGR to become a team owner] and you telling me the same thing."
A lot has changed at JGR since Stewart won the 2005 title, but the organization has an excellent chance to win a fourth championship this season.
Hamlin leads the way after a heartbreaking end to 2010 when he lost the points lead in the final event.
"I'm as confident as I've ever been," Hamlin said. "We know we can do it. We kept all our key personnel from last year and the pit crew is the same. Everything is in place.
"But I never rest on what I have. You have to continue to improve or you'll get passed by in this business."
Busch won more races than anyone else in NASCAR last season, but most of those victories came in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series. He hopes to turn that around this year.
"We're crossing every T and dotting every I to make sure we're prepared," Busch said. "I have accomplished a lot of things, but none of the things that are on my list. I have a lot of goals on my list for winning the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the championship. So there's a lot I want to do."
There's a lot Logano wants to do, too, and he's getting a lot closer to doing it. He ended last season finishing seventh or better in five of the last six events.
I thought I would be fine, but you get a rude awakening on how tough this really is. It's a humbling experience. These are the best guys in the world, so it's very rewarding running with them now. I'm having a blast.” -- Joey Logano
Logano took his lumps from the big boys over the last two seasons, but he showed some toughness on and off the track last year, including a pit road altercation with Kevin Harvick.
"I feel I've been here long enough that I don't want to get pushed around anymore," Logano said. "I think we've shown we're capable of running up front every week."
Logano probably was rushed to Cup before he was ready in 2009 because of Stewart's unexpected departure.
"It's a tough gig and I didn't have much experience going in, just a year in Nationwide," Logano said. "Going full time to Cup at that point was crazy in my book, but I wasn't going to say no to doing it.
"I thought I would be fine, but you get a rude awakening on how tough this really is. It's a humbling experience. These are the best guys in the world, so it's very rewarding running with them now. I'm having a blast."
Logano gives one clear reason things have turned around: crew chief Greg Zipadelli.
"Me and Zippy figured out what makes each other's wheel turn," Logano said. "We started to understand how to tell each what was wrong with the race car and how to fix it.
"Before, if we unloaded with a 20th-place car, we stayed 20th. But late last year we could unload 20th and make it a 10th-place car. We got some momentum, which to me is the same thing as confidence."
JGR is a confident group, including an old coach who took a leap of faith 20 year ago.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is on the horizon, with a new racing surface greeting competitors heading into a new season of hope. It all begins Feb. 20 at Daytona International Speedway.