Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR.
Joe Gibbs’ return to the Washington Redskins didn’t turn out exactly as he had hoped, but his decision to once again be a hands-on owner in NASCAR is already paying dividends.
When Gibbs decided to lend his presence to Joe Gibbs Racing, while his son J.D. ran the operation, he knew he had talented drivers in Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. But in 2008 it’s been Kyle Busch, a refugee from Hendrick Motorsports, who has helped the team become the one to watch.
“When you have a race team like that, you have three cars, and it’s almost like the emotions are all over the place,” Gibbs said following Busch’s April victory at Talladega Superspeedway, during which Busch came back from a lap down after a pit-road snafu and teammate Tony Stewart cut a tire to lose the lead. It was Busch’s second win of the season, followed by a third in the Dodge Challenger 500 at Darlington Raceway in May.
“[Busch’s crew chief Steve Addington] did a great job,” says Gibbs. “Everybody on pit road did a great job. Staying that calm and cool and finding a way to fight his way back – it was a great day for us, and I’m really proud of the guys.”
It was as relaxed as Gibbs has seemed in years. Whether it was the break from the day-to-day operations of a NASCAR team or not, the coach-turned-owner appears to be back in his element.
A large reason, of course, is the addition of Busch. While at Hendrick Motorsports, the younger brother of Kurt Busch was the odd man out on a team that featured Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears. The team already had six Cup titles to its credit, and when Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to leave DEI, the handwriting was on the wall. Owner Rick Hendrick would release Busch and hire Junior, creating a super team.
But it has been Busch who has helped give Joe Gibbs Racing new life.
What’s the secret?
“There’s no pat answer for it,” Gibbs says. “When we tested Atlanta in the fall, we realized we had something really personal there. You could see it in Steve’s eyes. I just think there’s a lot of things that really fit in that package.”
Gibbs says he’s “blessed” to be a part of Kyle Busch’s team’s success. “The thing is you forget how young he is and how many years we have left to grow together. He’s got at least five before he retires to an island.”
Busch is only 23 and has already shown the savvy of a championship driver. The pilot who started his NASCAR career as a 16-year-old in the truck series has been dogged by maturity and anger issues in the past and has also been accused of recklessness.
No doubt his driving style is aggressive, and sometimes he finds it difficult to make friends on the track. But now that he’s in the Gibbs camp, Busch appears to have settled down. He is accepting his role as an ambassador for the sport as well as one of its top competitors.
“Everybody is out for one thing and that’s to make Joe Gibbs Racing No. 1,” says Busch of his team.
Addington says Busch has revived a program that had been spotty in the past few seasons. “You look at the last three years – they haven’t been really good,” Addington says. “I’m just thankful to be with an organization that knew what was going on, and I have two great chiefs to work with every day, and you know, he probably had meetings with them to see what we were doing on the 18 car. We’ve just been very, very fortunate that Kyle has come in and he’s fit in and with time he’s getting better.”
Kyle Busch was the first driver to take the Car of Tomorrow to victory lane, and now he has helped make Toyota competitive in the Sprint Cup Series. He put the make in victory lane for the first time, and he could be the driver to lead Toyota to its first championship in stock car racing’s highest level.
“Right now so far this year, I’d have to say that we are pretty close,” Busch says.
He also says there are no hard feelings between himself and the Hendrick Motorsports team. Owner Rick Hendrick visited with him prior to his Talladega victory to wish him luck, and in the final analysis, the move has served both organizations well.
“I left there on some pretty good terms with all the guys,” Busch says.
Eleven races into the season and already with his third victory of the year (at Darlington May 10), Kyle Busch remained atop the 2008 NASCAR standings. Also with three wins for the year was Carl Edwards, but holding steady among the top ten was Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart in eighth and Denny Hamlin, who advanced two spots that week, to fourth.
- Kyle Busch
- Jeff Burton
- Dale Earhardt Jr.
- Denny Hamlin
- Clint Bowyer
- Jimmie Johnson
- Carl Edwards
- Tony Stewart
- Kevin Harvick
- Jeff Gordon