DOVER, Del. — The Sunday morning chapel service had just concluded, and the line for Joe Gibbs’ autograph snaked beyond the tent at Dover International Speedway.
This is not only NASCAR country, but it’s NFL nation, just 93 miles from Washington, D.C., where Gibbs carved a Hall of Fame career as the only coach to have won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks.
As if that’s not enough, Gibbs is on the cusp of achieving another distinction in sports by joining Rick Hendrick as the only car owners to win Sprint Cup championships with three different drivers.
In football, quarterbacks Joe Theismann, Mark Rypien and Doug Williams led Gibbs’ Washington teams to Super Bowl titles.
In NASCAR, Bobby Labonte (2000) and Tony Stewart (2005) won Sprint Cup championships for Joe Gibbs Racing. And either Matt Kenseth or Kyle Busch could become Gibbs’ third Sprint Cup champion this year.
Kenseth, in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, takes an eight-point lead over Jimmie Johnson into Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, the fourth stop in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Busch is third, just 12 points behind.
“I’ve been fortunate to have been around great, great quarterbacks,” Gibbs said, “and you don’t win over here unless you have somebody really great behind the wheel. “We have three right now (including Denny Hamlin) who can win at any place we go to …”
It’s been seven years since Joe Gibbs Racing has won a championship, largely because of the five-year dominance of Jimmie Johnson (2006-10), who gave Hendrick his third champion, along with Terry Labonte (1990) and Jeff Gordon (1995, 1997-98, 2001). Stewart, driving for his own team, won in 2011 and Brad Keselowski gave Penske Racing its first title in 2012, extending Gibbs’ dry spell.
“It seems like it’s been forever since we’ve won a championship,” Gibbs said. “Everybody there has a burning desire to do it. We all know how hard it is. We’ve suffered through a lot of disappointments that can happen to race teams. We’ve gone in No. 1 (seed) before and haven’t done well. You’ve got great people competing … it’s the best people in the world.”
Indeed, Hamlin was the top seed in the Chase in 2010 and led the standings going into the season finale at Homestead, only to lose out to Johnson. Busch was a strong contender in 2011, only to fall by the wayside midway through the Chase.
But the signing of 2003 Sprint Cup champion Kenseth in place of 23-year-old Joey Logano changed the dynamics at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“It’s been an unbelievable year when you think about it,” Gibbs said. “First of all, we get Matt. You’re never quite sure how that’s going to go. There are so many parts to it … the crew chief, our cars are different, he’s driving Toyotas in place of Fords …
“But he came over and took off. That helped everything. Kyle had an off year last year, nothing went right, like Denny, nothing went right this year. Typically, we haven’t gotten off to good starts in the Chase ... we’ve won races but haven’t got off to good starts. It’s been great for us, but we know it’s just three weeks.”
Gibbs, 72, was a racing buff as a teenager in Southern California, running hot rods and dragsters as well as playing football.
“My first job offer was in football,” said Gibbs, who began his career at his alma mater, working for Don Coryell at San Diego State, in 1964. “I thought I better take that. All I was doing was spending money in racing.”
When Gibbs’ two sons, J.D. and Coy, went from the college football field to driving race cars and trucks, he decided to make it a family affair.
Gibbs didn’t own a shop, didn’t have a driver or a major sponsor when an NFL chaplain put him in touch with Norm Miller, owner of Dallas-based Interstate Batteries in 1991. Miller had a partial sponsorship in racing and was looking to get more involved.
“We did a survey, and it showed all the people who sell our batteries liked NASCAR and the NFL,” Miller said by phone from Dallas. “And so when Joe called, I thought, ‘Hmm, we can get football and NASCAR … I knew he didn’t know anything about NASCAR, but most everything he had done, he had been a winner.
“So I thought if NASCAR is so-so, we can still get the football (fan) … It gave us great credibility to hook up with Joe, a Super Bowl-winning coach.”
The relationship has lasted more than 22 years, and helped Gibbs land more sponsorship that has helped produce 111 Sprint Cup wins and two championships.
“This sport is different than any other sport,” Gibbs said. “Football, you’re going to play, no matter what. You don’t need a sponsor. Over here, you’ve got to have a great sponsor. We’ve been fortunate to have FedEx with Denny … Home Depot and Dollar General with Matt, and Interstate Batteries and Mars with Kyle …We’ve had Coke for 17 years …
“So we have great sponsors which gives us stability and a chance to surround the technical people with the things they need. The best way to get a sponsor is to keep a sponsor. My job is to help keep the sponsors, pick the (racing) people and try to keep the people happy. And I tell everyone, the first of every month the real thrill is to try and pay the bills.”
Like his first Washington team in 1981 that started 0-5, Gibbs’ initial racing team struggled. Dale Jarrett, his first driver, went winless in 29 races in 1992. But Jarrett delivered Joe Gibbs Racing’s first victory in the 1993 Daytona 500.
Jarrett left Joe Gibbs Racing in 1995, and went on to win a championship in 1999 for Robert Yates Racing, but he never lost his appreciation for Gibbs’ impact as an owner.
“He’s the best I know at getting the most out of people,” said Jarrett, a NASCAR Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst. “He changed my life, not just as a race car driver, but more in my personal life. When you get better as a person, you can become a better driver.
“It helped me become a champion, and it will speak volumes for Matt Kenseth. Even though he’s won a championship before, we’re seeing Matt have a season like he’s never had before. We’re also seeing a transformation in a young man that a lot of people didn’t think could change. That’s Kyle Busch.”
Just as Gibbs had to deal with three diverse personalities in his quarterbacks, he has managed distinct individuals behind the wheel.
At Washington, he coached the loquacious Theismann, a golden boy from Notre Dame; the underdog Rypien, a sixth-round pick from Washington State; and the barrier-busting Williams, the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl.
In NASCAR, he won championships with the workmanlike Labonte and tempestuous Stewart. Kenseth is as low-key as they come, but Busch, like Stewart, has had his outbursts on the track, in the garage, and with reporters.
“Over the years, the one thing you get from team sports is everybody is different,” Gibbs said. “ You’re not going to find two people the same. You’ve got to be able to adjust to that. You can’t treat everybody the same.
“Denny is a country guy, but can revved up … Kyle wears all his emotions on his sleeve, and you have Matt, the matured, settled-in guy … All three are extremely competitive. The only time I worry, to be quite truthful, is on the race track when they get side by side with each other.”
Busch, who is enjoying his best season since he won eight races in 2008, is grateful for how Gibbs has stuck with him through some dark days.
“Joe has a huge following with his Christian faith, what he feels and believes in that respect,” Busch said. “He obviously sees a lot in me. That’s why he’s been so passionate in order to continue to stand by me and help me through things, difficult situations.
“He does a lot for people in their lives in general, including myself, my wife Samantha. He’s a huge inspiration to many. Everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing looks up to him. Without Joe there, it wouldn’t be Joe Gibbs Racing.”