Sports legend Joe Gibbs inducted to Sonoma Raceway’s ‘Wall Of Fame,’ reflects on career after Truex victory

| June 30, 2019 | 0 Comments

Joe Gibbs, the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Washington Redskins who as race team owner has won four NASCAR Cup Series championships has been inducted to the Sonoma Raceway’s Wall of Fame.

“I’m thrilled to be on the wall. It’s an honor,” Gibbs said.

The owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, Gibbs also is a 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, and the induction came the same weekend that one of his four NASCAR Cup drivers, Martin Truex Jr., won Sonoma’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Gibbs joins Sonoma Raceway’s late founder Robert (Bob) Marshall on the Sonoma Wall this year.

Marshall was a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) member and a crew member for several local amateur SCCA racers. But he always wanted to create a road course track.

He collaborated with a carefully chosen group of investors, developers and racing advisors to make his dream of a “drivers’ track” a reality, and the group broke ground on what then was called Sears Point Raceway Aug. 14, 1968.

The Joe Gibbs Racing team, created in 1992, has five Sonoma wins, twice with Tony Stewart, in 2001 and 2004; twice with Kyle Busch, in 2008 and 2015; and again this year with Truex, himself a past winner of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 road course race.

His drivers have won Cup championships in 2000 (Bobby Labonte), 2002 (Stewart); 2005 (Stewart); and most recently, in a season that saw Kyle Busch overcome a nearly insurmountable handicap, in 2015.

That year, Busch was severely injured in a February crash in the Xfinity race on the eve of the season opening Cup race, the Daytona 500. He wouldn’t return to his No. 18 Toyota until May.

Busch was given permission to strive to qualify for the playoffs despite missing months of races. That year, Busch won at Sonoma Raceway, and in dramatic fashion earned the series championship as well.

Joe Gibbs Racing began a relationship with Furniture Row Racing, Truex’s former team that dissolved last year. The driver was invited to drive for Gibbs’ organization starting this season, joining Busch, Erik Jones and this year’s Daytona 500 champion, Denny Hamlin.

Not only did Truex outduel teammate Busch to win the Toyota/Save Mart 350 Sunday afternoon, all of Gibbs’s drivers finished in the top 10.

After the victory, Gibbs compared racing to other competitions.

“Our sport is so different. You have to have great partners,” he said, from tracks to sponsors and other affiliates.

Another contrast, especially when compared to football, comes from the makeup of teams.

As coach of the NFL team, Gibbs’s players were all on the same team, even if they were divided into offensive and defensive players.

As the head of Joe Gibbs Racing, his drivers and crews are a single team throughout the week, working together to make all their cars better and to develop winning strategies for the various tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup schedule and the races of the other series in which Gibbs competes.

But on race day, all that teamwork goes out the window. In fact, some fans believe Truex and Busch are in a rivalry.

“I love that aspect of it. Most sports, you got one team, everyone’s fighting. This sport, which I really appreciate, is four different teams,” he said.

“They have to work together, okay, because back at the shop, and everything we do back there, the crew chiefs are working together to be the best you can be. Then when you get to the racetrack, it becomes pretty much each one of them is after it (the win) for their sponsor, for their career, for everybody that’s pulling for them.”

Watching two of his drivers dueling for the win was exciting but worrisome. At times, Gibbs has had to smooth ruffled feathers of embattled drivers. “In our history, we’ve had a number of them, everything from the million-dollar (All Star) race where Kyle gets into it with Denny. It took us two months to settle that thing back down.”

In an incident that took place back when Truex was still driving for Furniture Row, he, Busch and their respective crews had a dustup on the Indianapolis, Ind., Motor Speedway.

As for the show Truex and Busch put on Sunday, Gibbs said, “I think that each fan expects what they saw today – going as hard as you can go, each team fighting for itself.

“I know each one of the drivers, and when you just hear them, they are competitive with each other. I know Kyle and Martin are at our meetings. Denny. Erik is the young guy,” he said.

And when they get to the track, “they really do want to beat the other guy.”

One reason Gibbs was lured into motorsports was to work with his son, J.D., a NASCAR driver in the truck and Busch series and a college football player who became co-owner of Joe Gibbs Racing back when the team had but six employees. J.D. also was a tire changer for Dale Jarrett.

J.D. took over the reins of Joe Gibbs Racing when his father returned to coach the Redskins after a 12-year break from the NFL until his return to the race team in 2007.

The younger Gibbs died at 49 of a degenerative neurological disease Jan. 11, and he left his mark on the race team, his father said.

“He found Denny Hamlin and broad him aboard,” Gibbs said.

His son also helped promote other drivers that don’t drive for Joe Gibbs Racing. One of them is the Grass Valley native Matt DiBenedetto.

That relationship started when Gibbs’s wife, Pat, got a letter from a California friend who said, “There’s a kid out there just killing it in race cars. Love to have a chance.”

That letter motivated J.D. to speak with Joe Gibbs Racing’s executive vice president Steve de Souza, who was looking for talented young drivers.

“J.D. told Steve, ‘Let’s get him back here.’ That kind of started Matt being back here, getting a chance to race at different places.”

DiBenedetto finished fourth in Sunday’s race, behind Truex, Busch and Ryan Blaney and ahead of Hamlin. After the race, DiBenedetto expressed his gratitude for the help J.D. had given his career.

“I was thrilled today for Bob (team owner Bob Leavine) and everybody over there at Leavine Racing, to see them up there running the way they did. I thought it was just great,” Gibbs said.

After the race, Gibbs went to DiBenedetto’s car and said, “Hey Matt, awesome job,” even though DiBenedetto is a competitor to his own drivers.

“I think about things like that all the time when I hear stories about J.D. and how he helped somebody, because he did that a lot,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs said people frequently ask him about the difference in football and racing, and his answer is, “Really, very little.”

He explained both sports involve personalities and people who work together.

“You’re trying to ask people to sacrifice their individual goals for the goals of the team. That’s so hard,” he said. But he likes the challenge of finding “the right group of people and having them work together. That’s not easy.”

He described speaking with sponsors, with leaders of corporations and other business people who put together a team, or is part of one.

“Because you learn a lot. We’re all trying to do the same thing. So you pick the right people that are going to make you look good,” he said.

The four drivers that make Joe Gibbs Racing look good at NASCAR’s Cup level have four different personalities, he said.

“You’ve got Martin, real kind of cool, easy, calm. Denny is a lot like that, comes across that way, too. You have the young kid with Erik, kind of soaking everything up.

“Then you got Kyle,” he said about the driver who joked that, after Sunday’s loss, he hated his teammate Truex, but who won the series championship under unprecedented circumstances. “I won’t use any adjectives with Kyle,” Gibbs said.

“Those guys – it’s interesting to watch them. The way they work together in our meetings is fascinating. Everybody shares everything. Those guys, I’m telling you, they share everything about the racecar, how they drive it. It’s kind of amazing to see,” he said.

Gibbs’s own role as an NFL coach and as a race team owner are so different, he called them “a whole different world.”

In football, he was a technical person, he said. “I was working on structure of the offense, calling the plays on the sideline.” He compared his football coach role to that of a race team’s crew chief.

As head coach, he recruited his entire coaching staff. Many depended on him – the coaching staff, the fans, the front office. “There’s a lot on you,” he said.

“I enjoyed it so much. Football was just a thrill – to be a part of that, get a chance to do all the things that you do there, go to Super Bowls,” he said.

But even with all his Super Bowl rings and other football championships, Gibbs said NASCAR gave him a special moment earlier this year.

“I said the greatest win of my life in any sporting event was the Daytona 500. Denny won that with J.D.’s name on the car and everything,” he said.

The Joe Gibbs Racing team indulged in the same victory celebration it had when Jarrett won the Daytona 500 in 1993. By the time the crew got through news conferences, inspections and other responsibilities that year, the only place left open to go to dinner was the Steak ‘n’ Shake restaurant near the track.

His Twitter account has a video of the team unpacking the Daytona 500 trophy, which Gibbs wasn’t supposed to pick up until the next morning at the Champions’ Breakfast, and taking it into the family-style restaurant, where the celebratory beverages are soft drinks and milk rather than champagne or beer.

Much of his NFL experience didn’t transfer once Gibbs switched from the gridiron to the race track.

“I came over to racing, and it’s a totally different deal because I’m not the technical person. For me, it was kind of ‘Pick the people, spend a lot of time with the people, try and keep the sponsors happy.’”

One of his biggest thrills, he said, comes at the first of every month, when he pays the bills.

“I walk out of meetings, I got to go talk to the sponsor. I tell the drivers, ‘I’ll going to try to get some money so you guys can throw it away!’” he said, chuckling at his own joke. “The crew chiefs come up with everything in the world.”

One thing NASCAR has let Gibbs do that the NFL could not is allow him to be with his family.

“The biggest thing for me is family over here. I get a chance. I worked with J.D. for those 27 years. it was a huge deal for me, because I missed so much of his life when I was coaching,” he said.

He now spends time with J.D.’s four sons, who have expressed interests in racing, engineering and football.

“Then I got one little guy that’s still making up his mind,” he said.

Gibbs’s son Coy, who also has been a NASCAR driver, works with the Gibbs team. Gibbs said he’s grateful “to be able to spend time now with Coy, what we did before, building the race team.”

Coy’s 16-year-old son, Ty, earned his first ARCA Menards Series victory June 22 with a last-lap pass around Sam Mayer in the Day to Day Coffee 150 at the World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Ill.

Ty had three runner-up finishes in five earlier races, and his grandfather was watching that night from the team hauler.

“I will be honest, I was awful uptight with that. It’s your grandson out there. It was a whole different emotion, you know what I mean?” Gibbs said.

He got excited about the Sunday race at Sonoma Raceway, too, he assured, but watching his grandson’s first victory “was a huge deal for us and the family.”

Gibbs said Ty has wanted to be a racer “from the time he was knee high. We’re going to see what he can do. It’s a tough world. It’s a tough world to be successful in.”

Gibbs was late getting to Sonoma Sunday. But he was there to see his drivers win and do well in a race that marks the track’s 50th year and the return of the Carousel to the road course.

“It was fun riding these guys’ coattails,” he said.

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