ATLANTA - The journey, not the destination, has been the driving force for Joe Gibbs.
He won three Super Bowls as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, then he walked away. The journey had become too routine, maybe even too easy.
Now he's one of the most successful car owners on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. His passion for organization and keen eye for talent worked in football, and it's working in stock cars.
Even though the opposition never changes, each race presents a new set of challenges because the playing field is always different. One week, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series is at the fast 2.66-mile Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, a raceway with five-story-tall turns and a racing groove wide enough for five cars. The next week, the high-octane circus is at the 1.058-mile New Hampshire International Speedway, a track with flat corners and only one racing lane.
Maybe that's why Gibbs feels more at home at a race track than football sidelines. The journey is forever changing.
"The decision to leave coaching was really independent of racing, but the fact I had already started a race team (while he was still coaching the Redskins) was a natural when I got out of football," Gibbs said. "I just made the dive into racing because that's where I wanted to be anyway. I'm still doing some things to make a living because it's hard to make a living in racing. You spend more money than you make."
Until this year.
Gibbs not only saw a lot of potential in Bobby Labonte as a driver, but he saw even more in an untested driver named Tony Stewart. Gibbs signed Stewart away from the Indy Racing League. He figured Stewart's background as an open-wheeled racer would give him a different perspective in stock cars, a sport that seems to re-vitalize itself every five years with a new wave of talent. He was right.
Stewart won last week's race at the Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, a speedway located a little more than an hour away from Gibbs' old football digs with the Redskins.
The win made Stewart the first rookie winner since Davey Allison in 1987 -- and only the fourth driver in the sport's modern era that started in 1972 -- to win in his first year. The other two were Dale Earnhardt and Ron Bouchard.
Labonte has won four times this year and is third in the current point standings with $2,548,156 in earnings, while Stewart is poised to be the most successful rookie with a fourth-place standing and $1,729,356 in earnings.
At Richmond, Gibbs' teams were one-two.
"It was one of the biggest thrills of my life," Gibbs said. "The Lord blessed us with a great night. I'm so happy for Tony. He's raced his guts out all year."
The series shifts to New Hampshire on Sunday for the Dura-LubeKmart 300. It's the same track where Stewart led 118 laps last July, but his chances for victory ended when he ran out of gas with four laps to go.
"I think Joe Gibbs Racing put together two great race teams," Labonte said. "And I'm glad Tony's on our side instead of somebody else's side. They've stepped into a great situation, and they've made it even better. We're real happy both teams are on the same page when it comes to racing."
It wasn't always that easy for Gibbs. When he got his only head coaching job in the NFL, he lost his first five games with the Redskins.
Gibbs built a reputation in the NFL for doing whatever it took to win. Reports of him sleeping in his office during the week were commonplace. His attention to detail was unmatched.
He brought those same ethics to auto racing. His teams are well-funded and well-organized. And yet, the work is far from oppressive. Success has a way of keeping everyone happy.
"I'm the weak link," Stewart said. "Joe always shows his support. When we're in the shop, it's one big race team. When we get to the race track, we're two separate teams that race each other. That's the way Joe wants it."
Gibbs' original plan was to remain in coaching while serving as car owner in his spare time. The choice to devote 100 percent of his effort into racing was difficult at first, but a decision he's never regretted.
"It was really hard," Gibbs said. "It took me probably three to four months of laboring over that decision. Coaching was the only thing I had done. I was scared to death because there wasn't anything else out there I could do. You have to remember, you're not dealing with a real intellectual person here. You have to remember I was a physical education major at San Diego State.
"So anyway, after the decision not to coach, I was thinking, `Am I going to be able to make a living?' I labored over that for so long. I prayed about it. I got away with the family, and I became convinced that I needed to get out. When I got out, racing was a natural."
Gibbs used to be mentioned regularly as a candidate for every vacancy in the NFL. But after turning down a handful of jobs, the football community finally got the message: Joe Gibbs was a racer who coached football, not a football coach in racing.
Next race: Dura-LubeKmart 300 (Race 26 of 34).
Where: New Hampshire International Speedway (Loudon, N.H.).
When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
Broadcast: Television - TNN; Radio - Motor Racing Network.
Track: 1.058-mile oval.
Last year's winner: Jeff Gordon.
Last year's pole sitter: Jeff Gordon (129.033 mph).
What it takes to win: New Hampshire is a superspeedway with all the characteristics of a short track. There's only 12-degrees of banking, so cars have a difficult time hugging the inside groove. The key to getting around quickly is being able to exit the second and fourth turns at full speed to have a running start for the straightaways. Tire and fuel management usually are critical. In last July's race, rookie Tony Stewart led 118 laps, but his chances at victory ended when he ran out of gas in the final four laps..
Morris News Service pick: Tony Stewart.
Drivers to watch: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Rusty Wallace, John Andretti, Jeff Gordon.
Winston Cup point standings: 1. Dale Jarrett, 3,858; 2. Mark Martin, 3,588; 3. Bobby Labonte, 3,548; 4. Tony Stewart, 3,508, 5. Jeff Burton, 3,416.
Other races: none.
-- Don Coble
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