ATLANTA -- Joe Gibbs is building a championship-contender NASCAR team the same way he might have built a Super Bowl football squad in his former profession. He's getting a little better in key areas each year.
Driver Bobby Labonte is in his fifth year with Gibbs and, for the first time, the 35-year-old driver from Corpus Christi, Texas, is regarded as a legitimate championship contender. In the last three years, Labonte has improved from 11th to seventh to sixth in the final standings.
Labonte experienced an engine problem in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac in last Sunday's Daytona 500, and he finished 25th. But he demonstrated clout by winning a Twin 125-mile qualifying race and by leading the 500 early.
"What I've found is that auto racing is exactly like football," said Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins before retiring from the NFL after the 1992 season. "It's people. You win with people in football; you don't with X's and O's. Over here (in NASCAR), it's not with cars as much as it's with people."
Gibbs is right, of course. The driver is an important part of the equation, but he has no hope of competing for a championship if he's not with a well-financed team that gives him fast and durable race cars and provides a quality crew chief and crew.
That's where Gibbs comes in as the owner.
Gibbs has steadily expanded his operation since starting it in 1992 while he was still coaching. He began with 18 employees, and the number now is 85. In the early years, Gibbs bought his engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Now the team has its own engine department.
"This thing (racing) is so hard because you've got to be good at everything," Gibbs said. "There's the business side of it, the sales side the promotion side, the fabrication side, the engineering side. In football, certain amounts of that were taken care of to where all I had to do was focus on coaching. But I think the building process is similar.
"If you're going to run in that top five every week, you've got to have engineering. You've got to spend a lot of money doing a lot of things."
Gibbs took a big step this winter by adding a second team with rookie Tony Stewart as the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac.
Multi-car teams have an advantage over single-car operations because they receive more test dates, they can share technical information, and the drivers can sometimes work together on the track. All five of the drivers who finished ahead of Labonte in last year's standings drove for multi-car teams.
"With Bobby, we want to take that last step," Gibbs said. "We want to be there every week in the top three and have a chance to win the championship. We want to be in that top echelon and make a run at the thing."
The new Chevy Monte Carlo was supposed to make its racing debut at Charlotte in May, but the latest word is that it may not be ready until August.
Chevy team owner Felix Sabates says he would just as soon wait until next February at Daytona to start with the new model.
"I can see Chevrolet's point of view in wanting to get the car out (on the track) as soon as it's available for sale, but for us to change cars in the middle of the year, that's tough," he said. "From the manufacturer's view, they've got to sell cars. They've got to have a car on the race track that is being sold in the dealerships. From our point of view as car owners, it could push us way behind."
Sabates said that if Chevy asked the race teams to switch to the new model in August and one of his drivers -- Sterling Marlin or Joe Nemechek -- was in championship contention, he would stay with the current Monte Carlo. In order to switch to the new model, the race teams would have to strip the cars of their sheet metal and apply new bodies.
The design of the new Monte Carlo has not been approved by NASCAR yet. As usual, politicking by the Chevy, Ford and Pontiac camps is slowing the process.
Chevy owners and drivers claim that NASCAR gave Ford a lot of leeway in making a race car out of the four-door Taurus, and they want some creative license in designing the Monte Carlo. Ford wants to make sure NASCAR doesn't give Chevy a car that's superior.
"The (current) Monte Carlo that you see on the street is a race car," Sabates said. "Ford came out with a four-door taxi-cab that they converted into a race car." Actually, the Taurus is a rental car. They sell a lot of them to Avis and Hertz.
Think Jeff Gordon's daring pass for the lead with 11 laps to go in the Daytona 500 was magnificent driving? If so, columnist Dave Kindred of The Sporting News disagrees with you.
Kindred asserts in a column posted on TSN's Internet site that Gordon's move was reckless and also cites it as an example of why Gordon is disliked by so many fans.
As Kindred sees it, Gordon had no business going to the bottom of the track in Turn 1 to pass Rusty Wallace when the slow-moving lapped car of Ricky Rudd was in his path. Gordon pulled off the pass only after Rudd moved left and Wallace right at the last possible instant.
Writes Kindred, "Anyone who understands big-time stock car racing knows that Gordon's bully-boy tactic invited catastrophe. It was foolish at best. At worst, it was homicidal." Kindred adds that Wallace was the real hero of the race for giving Gordon room.
My view: Gordon's move was no less aggressive than what any of the other all-time greats might have done in a similar situation with a Daytona 500 trophy and more than $2 million on the line.
Gordon played a game of "chicken" at 190 mph and won. Since no catastrophe did occur, how can we rip him?
Tony Fabrizio is based in Atlanta and can be reached at email@example.com
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