Absolutely, J.D. Gibbs says: He and everybody associated with the No. 11 team of Joe Gibbs Racing had seen and heard the preseason media forecasts in which Denny Hamlin was picked as the guy who would end Jimmie Johnson’s reign as Sprint Cup champion.
But absolutely not, Gibbs said during a telephone interview, he has not been worried that that kind of publicity would adversely affect the young driver and/or his team.
“You don’t have to worry about it with them,” he said. “They know.”
They know, Gibbs, president of JGR, said; first, because of Hamlin’s team’s ability to think through that kind of media gaming. Secondly, because of steps taken to put media forecasts into perspective. Stick-and-ball kind of steps.
“Last year, and even the year before, certain publications would poll for preseason rankings for all the drivers,” Gibbs said. “And he (Hamlin) was nowhere to be seen. It’s kind of comical, and they pinned it up in all the haulers that they weren’t even in the top 10.”
Just to be clear: They pinned up the unflattering pre-season polls?
“Yeah they pinned it up,” Gibbs said. “Yeah, that’s a little motivation for ‘em. They like that stuff.”
And, they take it for what it’s worth.
But, yep, bulletin-boarding in NASCAR. It seems you can take the Gibbs family out of locker rooms but not the locker rooms out of the Gibbs family.
The thing is, though, it’s looking more and more like the forecasters – this year’s, that is – may have been onto something.
Hamlin and his team are surging. Ever since, it seems, the 29-year-old driver’s basketball-pickup-game-injured knee became big news in March.
That injury required surgery but it did not require Hamlin to miss any races. In fact, Hamlin may have turned the injury and the resulting pain into a plus – NFL style – by refusing to miss a single lap after the surgery.
Wanted to set an example for his guys, Hamlin said of staying in the car and keeping reserve driver Casey Mears in the pits.
In the five races since the injury, Hamlin has two victories. He has two other top-10 finishes and in the other of the five races, at Richmond, he finished 11th.
Ranked 22nd after the fourth race of the season, Hamlin will head into this weekend’s All-Star Race festivities fifth in points.
And with Johnson struggling at the moment, the talk of Hamlin ending the Sprint Cup Series’ longest championship streak is on again.
Except that the talk has expanded to include Gibbs’ other young star, Kyle Busch, who has won two of the last three Cup races, the latest coming at Dover on Sunday.
Cool, Gibbs said.
“Look, we think the same way – with all of our guys,” Gibbs, son of team-founder/owner/former NFL coach Joe Gibbs, said of championship talk. “If we didn’t feel like they had a chance to be No. 1, then we’re in the wrong business.”
But, he quickly added, “Until you do it, there is no sense talking about it. Our guys are more about doing it and letting somebody else talk about it.”
One of the somebody else’s talking about it last week was Rick Hendrick, owner of Johnson’s car.
Hendrick, also owner of the cars of Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon – who finished second and third to Johnson last season in points – said that it was his belief that Joe Gibbs Racing had supplanted Hendrick Motorsports as the top organization in Cup.
No word on whether that quote made the JGR bulletin board, but it sure got some laughs from team officials.
Said Joe Gibbs: “I’m always conscious (that) the knuckle sandwich is waiting right around the corner in pro sports. We’re just getting started really here. I’m thrilled that the last seven, eight weeks have gone so well for us, but the reality is that that can all turn in a week. That’s one of the things, I guess, about pro sports; the two that I’ve been in, and particularly this sport, we’ve got great teams out there we’ve talked about, the 48, and to say that we’re there would be ridiculous.”
J.D., a former quarterback at the College of William and Mary, got a hoot out of the Hendrick assertion, too.
“I saw the article,” Gibbs said of the Hendrick quote. “He’d be an awesome head football coach, trying to motivate his guys. But my thing is, and I think as I told them (his team members) too; until you’re sitting at the head table, you can talk all you want. Until the end of the year, you’re either there or you’re not.”
Gibbs has been at the head table several times since his team began racing in Cup in 1992. Bobby Labonte won the championship in 2000. His teammate, Tony Stewart, then won it in 2002 and 2005.
Since then, the team has been good, but not of championship caliber. That is, it has not been of Hendrick Motorsports’ caliber.
Perhaps, J.D. said.
What he does see, he said, is a bit of that old Labonte-Stewart character with his current bunch, which also includes super-promising Joey Logano.
“I’m a wait-and-see guy, but I would say looking back at those years when Tony won his and Bobby won his, there are a lot of similar things. We got a lot of hard-working, no-nonsense kind of guys. They’re not about the glory and the glamor. They just get after it because they enjoy what they’re doing.
“And they’re good at it.”
Guess so. But the best? Gibbs is not ready to say that. Too early and such a statement would surely end up on the Hendrick bulletin boards.
Jim Pedleyis a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who has worked at, among other places, the Boston Globe, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Kansas City Star. Pedley spent more than 10 years covering auto racing for the Kansas City Star. Pedley can be reached at