Phoenix International Raceway has been reconfigured with progressive banking and a slightly different layout. This week, all NASCAR Sprint Cup teams tested on the new track in lieu of the upcoming Chase race there.
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Phoenix International Raceway has been reconfigured with progressive banking and a slightly different layout. This week, all NASCAR Sprint Cup teams tested on the new track in lieu of the upcoming Chase race there.
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 9, 2011) – Kyle Busch and the M&M’s team are shooting for several firsts as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season warms up with Saturday night’s non-points-paying Shootout, continues through next week’s Duels, and begins in earnest with the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway on Feb. 20.
For starters, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) will be seeking something he badly wants to add to his resume: his first win in NASCAR’s biggest race – the Daytona 500 – and in the process bring M&M’s and Toyota their first victory in the Great American Race.
[singlepic id=76 w=320 h=240 float=left]And while the talented 25-year-old will enter his seventh full season as a Sprint Cup competitor, this season will be his first as a married man as he wed longtime girlfriend Samantha Sarcinella on New Year’s Eve in Chicago.
Finally, Busch’s primary backer M&M’s will debut the company’s first-ever dedicated NASCAR commercial during the Daytona 500 telecast. Filmed at the close of last season at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., the spot features on-track action, as well as the wildly popular “spokescandies” Red and Yellow starring alongside M&M’s driver, Busch. The TV ad will also debut the new M&M’s NASCAR advertising theme for 2011 – “M&M’s Makes Race Day More Fun” – which will play out in a variety of ways during the season.
In addition to M&M’s, Busch always has another very important thing on his mind that can make his race day more fun – winning. Nobody visited victory lane more times across NASCAR’s top three series in 2010 than the Las Vegas native.
Busch made 81 total NASCAR starts in 2010 – 36 in the Sprint Cup Series, 29 in the Nationwide Series, and 16 in the Camping World Truck Series, the latter of which he served as driver-owner of Kyle Busch Motorsports during its inaugural season. He won 24 races in all – three in Sprint Cup, a record-smashing 13 in Nationwide, and eight in the Truck Series – for an incredible winning percentage of nearly 30 percent. Coupled with his 21 overall wins in 2008 and 20 in 2009, Busch has recorded an astounding 65 NASCAR victories over the past three seasons.
But for all of that winning across NASCAR’s top three national series the past three seasons, Busch and second-year M&M’s Toyota crew chief Dave Rogers know full well that the focus of everything they do in 2011 needs to be on winning the Sprint Cup championship. The crown jewels of Busch’s title chase are three races he’s dreamed his whole racing career of adding to his winning resume – the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the aforementioned Daytona 500.
So, as Busch heads to Daytona to kick off this year’s Speedweeks, he is as determined as ever to take the Daytona 500’s Harley J. Earl Trophy back to his home in Mooresville, N.C., and lay the ultimate groundwork for a championship run in 2011.
What is your level of excitement heading into 2011?
[singlepic id=65 w=320 h=240 float=left]“I feel pretty good about it. I’m pretty confident with the guys and with the team and with the cars and everything we have with the 18 team. Toyota has come a long way and, hopefully, we can make up some more ground this year at being able to compete for the championship. Denny (Hamlin, teammate) running the way he did last year was really great for Joe Gibbs Racing, being able to be in contention until the last race. Overall, we’re all pumped up and ready to go. You sit around all winter long and you think about when the season’s going to start and it turns around and it’s here, already.”
How much ground is there to make up for you this year?
“I think anything you don’t capitalize on and any races you don’t win, any championship you don’t win, there’s obviously ground to be made up. There’s ground to be made up somewhere. With us, we just need to put the total package together and be able to go out there and reach our potential to be able to win.”
Have you pinpointed areas where you and your team can improve for 2011?
“I think we need to be better at preventing some things. Whether it’s car problems or myself losing my temper or maybe just working with Dave (Rogers, crew chief) a little better. Communication and being able to talk goes a long way in this sport now. It seems like it’s that way more than ever. It used to just be laid on the crew chief: ‘Bring me a good car and I’ll win the race.’ Now, you have to work on making a good car. The competition is so close.”
Do you feel like you are able to win a Sprint Cup championship?
“I would certainly hope so. I feel like there are a lot of ways that people try to sidetrack you, but you have to forget about that stuff and know what’s important. What’s important first and foremost is family, with what’s at home, and then, of course, you look at your career and your business and what happens here at Joe Gibbs Racing – making the most of the effort for Toyota and M&M’s. With that, we try to look forward at making the most of this year and try to bring home a championship for JGR in their 20th year.”
What type of goals do you have for race wins in your career?
“I haven’t achieved any of my race win goals that I’ve wanted to achieve since I’ve come here. I’ve achieved everything else under the sun that I’ve never thought about achieving. The ones that I really want, like the (Daytona) 500, like the (Brickyard) 400, like the (Coca-Cola) 600 – a Charlotte Cup win at all – an All-Star race, the championship, all that stuff. I haven’t gotten any of that. I’m hoping one of these days I’ll have the opportunity to win those. I don’t think it’s at the point, yet, where you’re worried about it. But when you get to be probably about 35, then you’re like, ‘Man, I only have five more chances to get some of these because they only come once a year.’ Hopefully, by then, I can have some of that knocked out.”
What does it mean for you to be the first NASCAR driver M&M’s has featured in a commercial spot?
“It’s great to be involved with the characters and I’m excited to be a part of the first M&M’S commercial about the racing program. This has been a neat experience and I’m hoping everyone likes it. It’s a little difficult to act with the characters because it’s almost like talking to nobody, but you have an idea of what the final spot will look like and you know what the characters are all about, so that makes it easier.”
Saturday’s Shootout at Daytona International Speedway will mark Denny Hamlin’s sixth start in the non-points, pre-season exhibition event. Hamlin earned a lifetime invitation into the race with a Shootout victory in his very first try as a rookie in 2006. The Chesterfield, Va., native captured a pole at Phoenix in 2005 — a year he made just seven Cup starts — to gain entry into the 2006 Shootout under the old format, an opportunity he took full advantage of. Driver eligibility for 2011 is based on Chase participants from 2010, past NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions, former Shootout winners, points race winners at Daytona and Sprint Cup Series ‘Rookie of the Year’ winners from the previous 10 seasons. As the 2006 Shootout winner, 2006 ‘Rookie of the Year’ and a 2010 Chase participant, Hamlin is more than qualified to compete Saturday night. Hamlin finished fifth in the 2010 Shootout, behind winner Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. It marked his best finish in the event since his 2006 victory. Starting order for Saturday’s event will be determined by a blind draw Friday night, with Hamlin’s best “qualifying effort” of fifth coming in 2009. He started 24th one year ago. Hamlin has led a total of 20 laps in Shootout competition — 16 in 2006 and four in 2009.
What are your thoughts heading into the Shootout?
“The Shootout is a fun event and it’s a race that we all want to win. It’s unique because you aren’t worrying about points, about how it’s going to affect your season. You’ll probably see guys try things in the Shootout that you won’t see in the 500 but it’s a short race and the format means that there is nothing to lose at the end. I think that’s what the fans like about this race. We just go out there and race.”
What is your outlook for the 2011 season?
“I’m ready to go. I feel as confident as we’ve ever been. Every year we’ve steadily made a progression towards the top and obviously had a career year last year. We know we can do it and we can win at all different kinds of race tracks. For me, I think we have everything in place. I’m keeping all of my key personnel from what we had last year. No changes there. Pit crew is the same. The driver will be a little bit better. Everything is in place to hopefully pull out a first one.”
Are you the driver to unseat Jimmie Johnson this year?
“I hope so. This is almost a free year for me. A lot of people are going to expect us to have a bad year coming off such a good year, because the expectations were so high last year. We came through and succeeded in winning a bunch of races like we said we were. We were championship contenders — almost won the championship. And this year, a lot of people expect a letdown year because it’s happened to guys before. For me, I know my passion for racing, and it’s impossible for me to fail in that aspect. Unless something crazy happens, we’re going to be right back in the same position this year as what we were last year.”
How do you feel about the new points system?
“I think (NASCAR) hit it right on the head. I really don’t think they could’ve made it any simpler for the new race fan coming into the sport or the driver that knows he’s 10 points behind. He’s got to pass 10 cars. It makes things so much simpler and for me it’s well understood. I think it’s going to reward those guys that go out and win during the regular season. It’s going to give you three bonus points. That’s three spots — that’s like 15 points going into the Chase versus last year’s 10. It’s going to pay to win races nowadays.”
Does the new points system change your strategy?
“I think you’re going to have to run it the exact same way. The only difference is that wins are obviously going to pay more points. I like it. Of course, we won a lot of races last year. If we don’t win any going into the Chase this year, I’m not going to like it that much, but it should pay the guy that wins. You should see a battle — a guy that’s giving it all he’s got running second trying to win the race. I think NASCAR set that up for us, teed it up for us, and now it’s up to us to go out there and put on the show.”
How do you put last year behind you to focus on 2011?
“Nothing fuels me more than losing. We’re all competitors and each one of us knows that when you finish second, it’s fuel. It doesn’t matter what sport I’m in — if I lose, I’m going to work to try to be better at it. For racing, it’s my number one passion and my number one focus to try to be the best at. We’ve gotten close to the top, we just need one more position. And I consider anything less than a championship a failure. A lot of guys will say that, but for me, finishing second in points, there’s no other room to go up other than winning a championship. Taking a step back is finishing any worse than I did last year.”
NASCAR recently announced a new point system for all three of its major touring series. In the so-called “43-1″ format, race winners will earn 43 points, plus three bonus points for the victory. Winners also can earn an extra point for leading a lap and leading the most laps, bringing their total to a possible maximum of 48 points. All other drivers in a finishing order will be separated by one-point increments. A second-place finisher will earn 42 points, a third-place driver 41 points, and so on. A last-place finisher earns one point.
As far as the Chase is concerned, the top-10 in points after 26 races will be locked in. The 11th and 12th positions in the Chase will be awarded to drivers outside the top-10, but inside the top-20 with the most wins accumulated in the first 26 race.
As head coach of the Washington Redskins, Joe Gibbs was accustomed to flying to Dallas for “meetings” with the Dallas Cowboys. He was also accustomed to flying back to Washington, D.C., with a smile on his face thanks to the Redskins scoring five victories in nine games at Texas Stadium from 1981 to 1990.
But Gibbs was never more nervous for a meeting in Dallas than he was in May 1991. It wasn’t the Cowboys who were waiting for him this time, however. It was Norm Miller. And Gibbs wasn’t looking to defeat Miller, like he so often did the Cowboys. Rather, he was looking for Miller’s company, Interstate Batteries, to sponsor Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR).
If all went well at the meeting, Interstate Batteries would sponsor JGR’s first season in what was then the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 1992.
The only problem was that Gibbs didn’t have a race shop, employees, a driver, or any racing experience. All Gibbs really had was two Super Bowl rings, an agreement from Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick to provide cars and engines, and a dream.
What Gibbs didn’t know was that he would essentially return the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
“We hit it right off,” said Miller, who is chairman of Interstate Batteries. “You could tell there was warm communication between us right away.”
So how did the meeting come about?
Fittingly for two men who are devout Christians, a minister helped put them in contact.
“Joe talked to Max Helton (founder of Motor Racing Outreach),” Miller said. “I had never met Max, nor had my brother Tommy (retired Interstate president and CEO), but Max told Joe he heard that the Miller brothers from Interstate Batteries were decent guys and that he ought to call them.
“What’s funny is that Joe didn’t even know we were in racing. We had agreed to something like four races in 1991 as an associate with Stanley Smith. Joe was at a race (in May 1991 at Talladega, Ala.) and saw our car and it shocked him. He almost didn’t call.”
Gibbs decided to call, anyway, and nearly ran into a bit of a roadblock getting in touch with Miller. And the roadblock was none other than Miller himself.
“He called down to Dallas and my assistant answered,” Miller said. “I was down the hall doing something and she came and got me and said, ‘There’s a guy on the phone named Joe Gibbs and he wants to talk to you.’ And I said, ‘Oh that’s just some goofy friend screwing around. Get the number.’ She said, ‘No, I think it’s really him.’ So, I went and took that call and it was, indeed, Joe.”
Like they would in the first face-to-face meeting just a few weeks later, the duo hit it off right away.
“I think, in that first phone conversation, we may have talked 45 minutes,” Gibbs said. “We just talked about all sorts of different stuff and ministry things and we just hit it off right away. So I asked Norm if we could come down to Dallas for a meeting.”
A few weeks later, at 7:30 p.m. CDT in the fifth-floor conference room of Interstate Batteries’ headquarters, Gibbs pitched his dream to Norm and Tommy Miller and a small group of Interstate Batteries executives.
“I kid everyone today, but when we went down there, I almost felt kind of embarrassed,” Gibbs said. “We met with them and we didn’t have a driver, we didn’t have a manufacturer, we didn’t have a building – we didn’t have anything. Basically, all we had was a dream. I just kind of laid out for them our dream and what we wanted to do. And we had a great meeting and really hit it off.
“Now, when I walked out of there, I thought, ‘Gosh, this is too much to ask somebody to do. To be a major sponsor on something like this when we don’t have the practical parts and pieces put together is too much to ask.’ Two days later, I made up my mind that that was the case, and I decided I’d call Norm back and say, ‘Would you consider being an associate sponsor?’ So, I called Norm back and described my feelings and said, ‘This is a lot to ask of somebody,’ and pitched him the idea of being an associate sponsor.”
Miller’s response just about knocked the wind out of the future Hall of Fame football coach.
“I remember I was downstairs in my house,” Gibbs said. “And Norm goes, ‘I’ve got to tell you the truth. We talked it over and we’re thinking about doing this.’ I thought, ‘Holy Mackerel,’ and I think I almost fainted.”
It turns out that Gibbs’ dream was just what Interstate Batteries was looking for.
“What Joe didn’t realize was that we had surveyed our dealer base and approximately 70 percent had responded that they watched a lot of NFL football and NASCAR,” Miller said. “I’m looking at the numbers and then looked at Joe’s past and he had been a winner in everything he’d done. At the time, he had won two Super Bowls, so I said, ‘If we get him, we’ve got football, because he’s still coaching. We know they love that. We’ll also have NASCAR, and since he’s won everywhere, he ought to win at that. And, even if he doesn’t, the combination of the two is worth the price of the NASCAR sponsorship, only.’
“We had to be there, anyway, because our people told us they loved racing, so we backed up the racing with football. And two weeks before our first race ever, Joe won his third Super Bowl with the Redskins.”
Less than a month after the meeting, the deal with Interstate Batteries was signed and JGR had a full-time sponsor and was able to begin preparations for the 1992 Winston Cup season. Now all he needed were cars, engines, employees and a driver.
“In June of 1991, on Sunday night after the race at Dover, Del., Joe called me,” said Dale Jarrett, now an analyst for ESPN’s NASCAR coverage. “I had seen Joe in May of that year walking around the garage area at Talladega with Max Helton. Max brought Joe over to say hello to me, knowing I loved sports. That was the first opportunity I had to meet him and, at that time, I just thought he was there hanging out. Then I started hearing that Joe was looking at getting involved as an owner. When I got the call that Sunday night, I was driving for the Wood Brothers and we hadn’t had a very good day.”
Jarrett finished last in the 35-car field at Dover after a crash on lap 18 on the backstretch left his car unable to continue. Ironically, Bobby Labonte, who would take over for Jarrett at JGR in 1995, was making his Sprint Cup debut and finished just one spot ahead of Jarrett in 34th place after engine problems sidelined him 88 laps into the race.
“Joe expressed an interest in me as a driver for when he got involved,” Jarrett said. “That was the first real knowledge I had that he was serious about getting involved. He said he had a sponsor lined up and knew what an undertaking it was going to be. He had talked to Rick Hendrick and said he was going to get cars and engines and some technical support to help him get started. He seemed to have things in line but, to me, I’m looking at getting my career moved along further and did I want to take a real chance?
“Even though I knew what kind of person Joe was and how successful he’d been at coaching people and coaching football teams to the highest level, how was that going to translate into being successful on the racetrack with something new?”
A face-to-face meeting later that summer with the Miller brothers and Gibbs helped convince Jarrett to make the move to JGR. He signed a contract just prior to scoring his first career victory on Aug. 18, 1991, while driving for the Wood Brothers at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
“My request to them was that we have someone very knowledgeable to put all of this together from the racing side of it and my first choice was Jimmy Makar,” Jarrett said. “And it turned out to be a pretty good choice because he is still there today.”
Makar had come up through the NASCAR ranks working with legendary crew chiefs Harry Hyde and Buddy Parrott, as well as driver-turned-owner Junior Johnson. After serving as the chassis specialist at Blue Max Racing when Rusty Wallace won the 1989 Winston Cup Series championship, Maker spent seven races as crew chief for Wallace at Blue Max during the 1990 season. By 1991, Makar, along with Wallace, had moved to Penske Racing South.
“I got a phone call from Dale one night,” said Makar, who is married to Jarrett’s sister Patti. “He called the house and said he was going to drive for Joe, who was starting a new team. He wanted to know, out of courtesy, if I’d be interested in talking to them about the crew chief job. Just because I was curious, I said, ‘Sure.’ I don’t think he expected that because he’d been a little hesitant on the phone. So, we set up a meeting with Joe.
“Patti and I met with Joe at the Sheraton down by the Charlotte airport. He was coming through town and had a couple of hours and Patti and I were going on vacation and flying out of the airport that night and it was the only time we could get together. So, we met in the lobby of the Sheraton and we talked for about two hours, just getting to know each other. I was trying to get a feel for him because I didn’t really know him other than knowing he was the coach of the Redskins.”
From day one, Gibbs’ philosophy was that an organization “wins with people.” The idea sold Makar that summer day in the lobby of the Sheraton.
“Through that conversation, the thing that struck me the most was his philosophy on building teams and people,” Makar said. “It’s the story we’ve all heard a million times – ‘You win with people.’ That just resonated with me. In racing at that time, there wasn’t that feeling from the owners that people really mattered. The thought at that time was, ‘There are a thousand people hanging on the fence and a hat and a T-shirt will get them in here and they can do your job.’ It was a different mentality and he was putting a value on people, and I really wanted to be a part of it. That’s probably what sold me.”
In the summer of 1991, Gibbs pulled off what amounted to a stunning upset in the motorsports world. With no cars, engines, employees or a building, he landed a big-name sponsor, an up-and-coming driver and a crew chief with an impressive 15-year resume in the sport.
Even 20 years later, it’s still a little surprising to everyone involved.
“Knowing the sport and how difficult things are to put together, to go about it the way he did it is almost unprecedented,” Jarrett said. “I don’t know that it’s happened since and don’t know that it will ever happen again that someone can come in and do it that way. It took the perfect scenario for two people to come together like Joe and Norm. That’s the relationship that really started all of this. It was their beliefs that really got them started in this. They felt very strongly that the way they lived their lives and their common interests were going to carry them through this.
“They believed, and it obviously came to fruition for them, that if they put their resources together, it could be very good for both of them. Joe had been successful (in the NFL) and was a very hot property at the time, and Norm and Interstate were looking to grow the company and they both felt they could do good things in the sport and also outside of it. I think it’s still very surprising to a lot of people that they were able to get a sponsor before having a team or even a driver at the time.”
Even Gibbs knows what he pulled off was nothing short of a miracle.
“It was kind of a miraculous meeting,” Gibbs said. “I don’t think anybody today would think you could walk into a place, propose something to a big corporation and have none of the practical parts and pieces and have somebody say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about doing this.’ To me, it’s one of the most miraculous things in our life and I attribute the Lord with helping with this. If the Lord hadn’t been in this, we would have never gotten this done.
“I’ll say this about Norm: Norm has guts. If Norm believes in something, Norm’s going for it. Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen him over and over again in ministry and in different efforts we’ve put together in ministry. I’ve seen him just step out and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this.’ Norm’s one of those guys who has guts and, if he believes in something, he’s going to go after it.”