How the family business continues to drive Joe Gibbs

We tend to think more about our life’s journey around the holidays, don’t we? About the triumphs and tragedies and the winding path, of the cast of characters who add the color and feelings and make it what it is.

For Joe Gibbs, any excuse to rejoice in family time is a victory. Thanksgiving this year finally offers the 79-year-old treasure of American sports the chance to reflect on perhaps the most extraordinary year of his life.

Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls as head coach of the Washington Redskins and has now collected five NASCAR championships as a team owner, likes to say he has been fortunate to have lived through two “dream jobs.”

He wasn’t a football man who became a racing man. He’s still both; still talks about the Redskins with passion and a desire to see the franchise move past its current struggles. He cherishes his Super Bowl rings and his first four titles in NASCAR, where he will enter a second Hall of Fame in 2020.

There was, however, more to the recently-completed 2019 season than ever before, stronger feeling and emotion, a heightened personal tug, and ultimately, bigger success than his team — Joe Gibbs Racing — could have dreamed of.

“Out of everything I’ve done in sports, this was the greatest,” Gibbs told me in a lengthy and heartfelt telephone conversation. “I could feel J.D.’s presence all year.”

Gibbs’ son J.D. served multiple roles on the racing team, from over-the-wall pit crew membership to part-time driver, before rising all the way to president and later co-chairman of the entire operation. In 2015, it was announced he was suffering from a degenerative neurological disease. He died on Jan. 11 this year, just as preparations for the new NASCAR campaign were getting into flow.

Two weeks later, he was memorialized in a remarkable ceremony at Davidson College’s Belk Arena. Then, on Feb. 17, the Gibbs team swept the podium at Daytona, on a weekend where the greatest race on the stock car calendar dedicated a lap to J.D.’s memory. Lap 11 was chosen — that was the number J.D. wore as a high school quarterback. Hours later, the winning Daytona driver was Denny Hamlin, also No. 11, who had been directly recruited by and became a close friend of J.D.’s.

Over the course of the season, Joe Gibbs Racing went on a tear. For the first time in NASCAR history, all four drivers from a single team won a race. Never before had three of the four finalists in the championship race hailed from the same banner. The tally of 19 wins from 36 races was the most in the modern era.

Ultimately, Kyle Busch ended a 21-race win drought to take the title, and head up another 1-2-3.

Given that his racing team is a family business, with J.D.’s brother Coy heavily involved and a pair of grandchildren soon to come on board, Gibbs says he feels as much pressure as ever to keep things running smoothly.

It has been 28 years now since Gibbs stepped into NASCAR’s unique world but still believes there are skills gleaned from his football life that help him thrive.

“Both occupations are so hard,” he said. “I was fortunate to win a Super Bowl in my second year, but it took us nine years in racing. It’s two different worlds, but in both you try to recruit people and then you ask them to sacrifice their individual goals for the goals of the team.

“That’s very hard to do. I love that part of it. It’s challenging because you are going against human nature.”

FOX NASCAR reporter Bob Pockrass said Gibbs has masterfully handled some of the biggest personalities in motorsports — drivers like Busch and Tony Stewart — and is relentless in his commitment to success.

“He is extremely competitive and he knows how to handle people, to put them in the right positions to be successful,” Pockrass told me. “If there is an issue, he tries to get it resolved immediately. He’s used to dealing with situations that are fiery and emotional.”

Gibbs won Super Bowls in 1982, 1987 and 1991, the last coming after a swashbuckling 14-2 regular season campaign, and the Redskins remain close to his heart. He doesn’t turn on them … if anything, the franchise’s highly publicized on-field struggles have forged the bond tighter than ever.

“I am the biggest Redskins fan there will ever be,” Gibbs, a close friend of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, said. “It is very hard to get things moving in the right direction and we’ve had terrible luck with injuries.

“It’s hard to get things going, but it is possible. Look at the (San Francisco) 49ers three years ago, and now they are on top of the football world. It just happens — and it only takes a few decisions that you take from the organizational standpoint and the coaching standpoint, and a bit of luck, and it can all go your way.”

With a new coaching appointment coming after Jay Gruden was fired, Gibbs couldn’t resist sending a message to prospective candidates.

“I would say to anyone out there that is being considered as coach: you want to be with an owner who will do whatever it takes, and Dan (Snyder) will do that,” Gibbs added. “He is not in it to make money; he just wants to win.”

Turnover is incessant in the NFL. In auto racing, Gibbs has done his best to eliminate it. A major part of his role is in pitching sponsors, who provide the funding for the team to invest in its drivers and technology.

“It probably doesn’t hurt in sponsorship meetings,” said Pockrass, “that it’s not just Joe Gibbs the team owner, but Joe Gibbs the Super Bowl champion.”

Yet with the most meaningful NASCAR season of all in the books, Gibbs has made sure to take time to reflect why he’s still going and what it all means. He’s thankful for a lot of things, but the way his work and home lives mesh together is a big one.

“The sweetest part about all this is that it’s a family business,” Gibbs said. “That’s why I’m still doing it and why it means so much to me. You work together, you go through the tough times together. And hopefully, if it all goes right, you get to celebrate together.”