HAMPTON, Ga. -- Whether it's the final 30 seconds of a Super Bowl or the final 30 laps of a stock car race, Joe Gibbs never gets too comfortable with winning.
As his driver, Bobby Labonte, made the final passes around the Homestead-Miami Speedway last Sunday to clinch the team's first NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship, Gibbs nervously paced pit road the same way he used to stalk the sidelines.
As a football coach, he used to hold his breath as the Washington Redskins ran out the clock in all three of his Super Bowl victories. He did the same thing a week ago when he won his first stock car championship.
"Different sport," he said, "same feeling."
Super Bowls were easy compared to becoming a championship car owner on the Winston Cup Series. Gibbs won three National Football League championship games in his 12-year stint as has coach of the Redskins. It took him nine years to win his first title in racing.
"I wouldn't trade the Super Bowl for this, but I wouldn't trade this feeling for a Super Bowl, either," Gibbs said. "It's been some long, hard years. We've taken just about every kind of lump, from missing races to finishing 19th (in the point standings) in a season to fighting our guts out trying to win a race."
Gibbs used a simple formula to win Super Bowl games capping the 1982, 1987 and 1991 seasons: Surround himself with good people and let them do their thing. The same game plan has worked with Labonte's race team.
He put crew chief Jimmy Makar in charge, then stepped back and allowed him to meticulously build a championship race team. Even as Labonte was closing in on the championship last week, Makar was calling the shots.
As the laps evaporated to a precious few at Homestead, Fla., Gibbs suggested his stock car driver take a knee to run out the clock. It works in football, why not in auto racing, too? After all, Labonte virtually was assured the Winston Cup Championship in the final 30 laps since his closest competition in the point standings was several laps behind. So why press his luck while jostling for a top-five finish?
"I climbed (on the tool box) and I went, `All we've got to do is ride in the back, man. Let's just get back there,' " he told Makar.
Makar, stoic and determined to the very end, looked his boss squarely in the eyes and said, "We came to race."
So Labonte raced while Gibbs held his breath. And when it was over, they shared gulps from the same champagne bottle as the celebration that's been years in the making spilled across pit road and onto the main straightaway.
"The thing is, in football if you have a 30-point lead, you can coast," Gibbs said. "In this, you can't coast at all. You don't know what's coming."
Joe Gibbs Racing knows exactly what to expect at the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday. They are champions no matter where they start or where they finish. In fact, they could skip the race -- something they wouldn't do -- and still have enough points to beat Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt for a championship worth at least $3 million in postseason bonuses.
For Gibbs, the championship is more about redemption than money. After simultaneously coaching football and running a race team in 1991, he stunned football a year later when he walked away for good. He said racing had always been his first love, so the decision was easy.
"People always asked me if I thought about championships when I got into racing, and I've got to tell the truth: The only thing I was thinking about was surviving," he said.
"I remember when my wife and I went to a party and once we left, she said I was in the wrong deal (racing). I looked at her and said, `I know, and I don't know if we'll survive.' You start out like that. In three years, we only won one race. This is a tough deal, and I think that's why I appreciated it so much. I certainly didn't think we'd be like this."
As a football coach, Gibbs was careful not to control his players' emotions. He's done the same in racing. Labonte is a quiet man with a raspy sense of humor, while his other driver, Tony Stewart, has a fiery temper that already has challenged the sport's fans, competitors and sponsors.
"Everybody is different," Gibbs said. "Our personalities are different. You can have great competitors. I think I've coached some of the greatest competitors there were. Some of them were quiet. Some of them showed very little emotion. Other guys, a Gary Clark, would explode at the drop of a hat. His personality, that's something that wasn't faked.
"In Tony's case, let me say this: I am absolutely convinced that this guy has one of the best hearts of anybody I ever worked with from the standpoint of being a great competitor. It is an absolute thrill for me to go to the racetrack with Tony Stewart because I know that this guy is going to give me every single thing he's got. That is a rare experience to be a part of something like that."
Pick your people, and let them do their thing.
Stewart, now in his second season, won the race at Homestead. He's currently fifth in the point standings with a series-best six victories this year, prompting many to believe Gibbs has built the same kind of racing dynasty that he enjoyed in football.
"Jimmy is the coach over here," Gibbs said. "My role as an owner is to get the resources, get the sponsors and keep them happy. You don't win with cars in racing and you don't win with Xs and Os in football. I think the enjoyable part of getting to a Super Bowl or a championship is the struggle."
After 33 races, the struggle is over for Joe Gibbs. All that's left is the celebration of another championship and the idea that another struggle starts Feb. 18 at the Daytona 500.
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Television -- ESPN; Radio -- Performance Racing Network.
What it takes to win:
Atlanta is the fastest racetrack on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series with speeds reaching 200 mph along the front straightaway. Since so much of the layout includes a towering 24-degree banking, the secret to success is being able to run through the corners without lifting off the gas pedal. The driver who can find the necessary grip -- and the nerve -- to hug the lower groove at full speed will be the one to beat
Morris News Service pick:
Other drivers to watch:
Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Ricky Rudd and Mike Skinner
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