DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Growing up in the Joe Gibbs family, J.D. was the quiet one. The thoughtful one. Nothing much seemed to worry him, and it was rare that he felt so strongly about something that he would make a point of it.
"But when those times happened, he had this thing he'd do," said car owner and Washington Redskins coach redux Joe Gibbs. "His finger would come up and he'd point it at his mom and me and say very directly and very slowly, 'I'm ... telling ... you.' He was doing that to me a lot more lately. After two or three times, I said, 'OK, he's ready!'"
Joe Gibbs was talking about his son being ready to step into the leadership role at Joe Gibbs Racing, the family business he had turned into a two-time championship organization with drivers Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart in what is now the Nextel Cup Series.
Today, the Gibbs team has Stewart starting fifth and Labonte 13th in the 48th annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
"We really started this together," said J.D., 34, who is president of the company. "We built it. And now it's nice to let him go off and still have confidence the race team will still be well-run."
A restart for dad
Gibbs, 63, returned to his previous job as Redskins head coach Jan. 8, a place he said yesterday he had never planned to go.
"It just all fell into place," he said. "For 11 years, I was at peace and then Coy came to me and said he didn't want to race anymore, that he didn't think he was good enough."
Gibbs' son Coy, 31, finished 14th in the Busch Series standings last season but told his father he didn't want to continue, that he wasn't good enough. "He said he wanted to go coach," said Joe Gibbs. "It played a big part in my decision."
Coy, who was a four-year starter at middle linebacker at Stanford, has joined his dad as an assistant coach with the Redskins.
"The way I see it, football is a short-term opportunity, while racing is the family business and will be here forever, with J.D. or someone in the family running it, my grandbabies following into the business," Joe Gibbs said.
"Really, the first words they [the grandchildren] could say were, 'Booby' [instead of Bobby] and Tony. They don't know anything about football."
J.D. Gibbs doesn't seem too worried about his new undertaking, though he had a few nervous moments last Sunday when both his cars qualified slowly.
"Thank goodness, we did well in the 125s," J.D said. "I told everybody before we came down here, 'Don't screw this up. I'll look like a moron.' Really, I can still blame this one on my dad, though, because the cars were all done before he left. But, seriously, you want to do well with more responsibility."
J.D. can look around the team garages and the people he sees have all been with the program a long time. He also expects his father to be "at a bunch of races" through at least the early part of the season, and only a phone call away when he's not.
Over the years, Joe Gibbs' primary function has been to acquire and work with sponsors. Yesterday, he introduced a fertilizer company that will sponsor a 16-race Busch Series program for rookie J.J. Yeley. Others have run the technical and racing sides, and J.D. said that division of labor will continue.
"When Dad came into racing back in 1992, he used the NFL side to promote the racing side," J.D. said.
"Now, there are a lot of entertainment things in Washington with the Redskins that he can use to promote the racing side. We'll have a [race team] corporate box at the games where we can entertain sponsors. There can be tours at training camp. Sponsors can have lunch with him. A lot of things.
"The place he'll be missed the most is on Sunday mornings at the hospitality tent. I probably won't be quite as entertaining as he is."
J.D. is much like his father was when he became the Redskins' coach in 1980. Like his dad was then, he is relatively low-key, but also like his dad, he comes into his new role well-trained.
If you looked over Joe Gibbs' shoulder at any time over the past decade, J.D. was always somewhere in the background.
"J.D. has seen every nut and bolt go in place from Day One and couldn't have better preparation," Gibbs said. "He's real conscientious. He comes in early and stays late. He does all the things you do when you have a real passion."
Ricky Hendrick, who this year is also gaining more responsibility in his father's organization by sharing the ownership of the No. 25 car being driven by Brian Vickers, said he has watched J.D. Gibbs do all the grunt work associated with running a race team.
"He's been the hands-on guy, the guy who went to all the team test sessions and made sure everything was running smooth for three straight years," said Hendrick, who is the son of car owner Rick Hendrick.
"I know how he feels. He wants to be an asset to the team and not just someone who inherited it and goofed off.
"To me, moving into more responsibility is frightening, but J.D. has been preparing for it and he'll be fine."
Occasional jokes surface about Gibbs' decision to return to the NFL.
"NASCAR has made so many changes to try to save us money, Joe Gibbs had to go take a part-time job," said car owner Richard Childress.
"Joe had to go back to football to pay our salaries," said Stewart, Gibbs' driver.
Even J.D. chuckles that, with his father gone, "I'll be able to open the pocketbook a little more. We've got to win."
Focus of attention shifts
And though a lot of people are laughing, they're also watching.
"I do think it will be different at Joe Gibbs Racing," said car owner Jack Roush. "I don't know how. We'll have to see. But you know there has to be a plan for J.D. or someone to take over eventually. This is just sooner than any of us expected."
At Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart and Labonte voice no qualms about the transition, saying J.D. is very much his father's son.
"He's been in the shadow of his father and this is his first opportunity to step out," said Stewart, who won the 2002 Cup Series title. "Anyone would be skeptical, following in those footsteps. His dad is amazing.
"Here he is at a point in his life to be on cruise control and enjoying his grandbabies and golf and he's still a competitor. J.D. has a lot of his dad's values. I think he's a little nervous, but I think as he realized he has the legs, you'll see more of his dad emerge from him. He has the same passion."
And Labonte, who won the Gibbs team's first championship in 2000, added this: "J.D. is smart, honest and fair. That's Joe Gibbs. That's his son."
The younger Gibbs doesn't quite know what to do with all the compliments. He looks away and smiles almost bashfully.
"What Dad's done here has earned respect," J.D. said. "Me? I've got to earn it now. He's more demanding than I'll be. But watching him while I was growing up and he was coaching football, well, we're sure to be something alike.
The fact that he is still here and ready to run the business is, however, something of a surprise to J.D. He remembers when his father came up with the idea of starting a then-Winston Cup race team and he joined him.
"I felt we'd do it a few years and I'd wind up coaching somewhere later on," said J.D., who played defensive back at William and Mary.
"But every year, this became more interesting. I love the competition. I loved sticks and balls, but at the end of the day, I love looking up at the scoreboard at the racetrack and seeing where your car is running and where you finished."
J.D. said he expects his dad will want to return to racing after his five-year Redskins contract is up.
"And I hope he does," he said. "He built it. He'll come back and fit right in."
J.D. Gibbs file
Family tree: Eldest son of Washington Redskins coach and Nextel Cup car owner Joe Gibbs
Job: President, Joe Gibbs Racing, Huntersville, N.C.
Born: Feb. 21, 1969
College: William and Mary; played defensive back
Degree: B.S. in kinesiology
Residence: Charlotte, N.C.
Children: Jackson, 6; Miller, 4, and Jason Dean, 18 months
Daytona 500 today
Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Time: 1:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Pole winner: Greg Biffle
Last year's champion: Michael Waltrip
(Car number in parentheses)
1. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 188.387 mph.
2. (38) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 188.355
3. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 125 No.1-1.
4. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 125 No.2-2.
5. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 125 No.1-2.
6. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 125 No.2-3.
7. (42) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 125 No.1-3.
8. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 125 No.2-4.
9. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 125 No.1-4.
10. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 125 No.2-5.
11. (99) Jeff Burton, Ford, 125 No.1-5.
12. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 125 No.2-6.
13. (18) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet, 125 No.1-6.
14. (01) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 125 No.2-7.
15. (97) Kurt Busch, Ford, 125 No.1-7.
16. (21) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 125 No.2-8.
17. (77) Brendan Gaughan, Dodge, 125 No.1-8.
18. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 125 No.2-9.
19. (0) Ward Burton, Chevrolet, 125 No.1-9.
20. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 125 No.2-10.
21. (30) Johnny Sauter, Chevrolet, 125 No.1-10.
22. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 125 No.2-11.
23. (23) Dave Blaney, Dodge, 125 No.1-11.
24. (09) Johnny Benson, Dodge, 125 No.2-12.
25. (41) Casey Mears, Dodge, 125 No.1-12.
26. (22) Scott Wimmer, Dodge, 125 No.2-13.
27. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 125 No.1-13.
28. (32) Ricky Craven, Chevrolet, 125 No.2-14.
29. (1) John Andretti, Chevrolet, 125 No.1-15.
30. (31) Robby Gordon, Chevrolet, 125 No.2-15.
31. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 187.884
32. (4) Kevin Lepage, Chevrolet, 187.876
33. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 186.598
34. (43) Jeff Green, Dodge, 186.525
35. (25) Brian Vickers, Chevrolet, 186.505
36. (10) Scott Riggs, Chevrolet, 186.397
37. (49) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 186.274
38. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 186.193
39. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, provisional.
40. (7) Jimmy Spencer, Dodge, provisional.
41. (14) Larry Foyt, Dodge, provisional.
42. (50) Derrike Cope, Dodge, provisional.
43. (33) Mike Skinner, Chevrolet, 185.456.
Failed to qualify
44. (72) Kirk Shelmerdine, Ford,
45. (90) Andy Hillenburg, Ford
Note: Drivers are listed in original qualifying position despite being bumped to rear of field by engine changes and backup cars.