Their drivers will be 100% serious as they battle for the NASCAR Cup title Sunday, but on Friday Joe Gibbs and Tony Stewart injected quite a bit of levity into Championship Weekend.
Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, and Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, met with the media and matched each other for quips and one-liner banter that produced a great deal of laughter.
They were so good that they could probably turn Friday’s session into a popular sitcom, like NASCAR’s version of the Odd Couple.
Here are some of the highlights:
* Stewart started the press conference feeling a bit, well, underdressed. While he had a SHR team polo shirt, Gibbs was nattily attired in an expensive suit.
“Well, this is how you dress when you have one car in the championship, this is how you dress when you have three,” Stewart said, pointing first at himself and then Gibbs. “I walked in, I’m like, are you going to court today? Oh, wait a minute, he’s got three cars in, this is the way you’ve got to dress. You’ve got to step it up.
To that, Gibbs quipped his reply, “This is the way Tony dresses, this is the way Joe dresses. Go.”
* It didn’t take long for trash talking to start. And of course, Stewart – one of the best in the game when he was a driver – couldn’t resist to try and get into Gibbs’ head.
“He’s nervous, I’ve got him all tore up,” Stewart said of Gibbs. “We were back there talking and he’s rubbing his forehead and everything else. He doesn’t know what to do.”
Gibbs apparently was anticipating that Stewart would start trash talking, so he injected his own reply.
“I had a flashback to my years with Tony,” Gibbs said with a smile. He demurred and didn’t elaborate further.
* Stewart and Gibbs obviously both touted the fortunes of their respective drivers and teams that are battling for the championship, but Stewart had an interesting analogy, going from momentum to poker to a bullet and gun.
“I’m proud of our group,” Stewart said. “I feel like we didn’t get off to the start that we were looking for, but as the season has come on, I feel like we’ve gained momentum and keep gaining momentum. We’re here, and that was the goal all along was to at least have one car here. I feel like it’s kind of like poker. It’s a chip and a chair. We’ve got one bullet in the gun, and we’ll give it everything we’ve got.”
* Gibbs had a little nudge at Stewart when the former was asked about his legendary work ethic, both as a NASCAR team owner and his previous tenure as a three-time Super Bowl winning coach.
“I take it you didn’t talk to Tony, he thought I loafed all the time,” Gibbs laughed.
After that, Gibbs talked about his family, particularly his grandchildren, who he has tried to steer in the direction of coaching football rather than being in NASCAR like their fathers, including Gibbs’ sons Coy and the late J.D.
“Now it’s Coy has a big part of this, and we know J.D. spent his entire occupational life, and I’ve got grandkids coming,” Gibbs said. “And honestly, I’ve tried to talk a couple of them into do you want to coach and things like that. I swear, each and every one of them said to me, no, I want to do what Dad did.”
* Normally a stoic and gentle human being, Gibbs can lose his temper at times. He was asked about chewing out Denny Hamlin for wrecking during a practice session for the Daytona 500, telling Hamlin “You’re paying for that car!” only to have Hamlin come back and win the race.
That made Gibbs reconsider the punishment he imparted upon his driver.
“I was upset with what happened and then he turned around and won that next race, and I said, ‘Okay, you can forget that,’” Gibbs said. “I don’t think I’ve ever penalized anybody for anything, but I threaten them every now and then.”
Ehhhh – busted, according to Stewart.
“That’s not true,” Stewart said to laughs.
Not missing a beat, Gibbs responded, prompting this exchange between the pair:
Gibbs: “On second thought, there is a driver I’ve worked with where we …”
Stewart: “I had to pay for two TVs in the lounge of the trailer that I broke.”
Gibbs: “I used to try and get to the hauler as fast as I could if he had a bad night because he was going to tear up the inside of the hauler.”
Stewart: “I feel like I got pretty good odds out of it because I think I broke five TVs where he said if you break another one this one is coming out of your paycheck.”
Gibbs: “I got him at Richmond one time, and I beat him in there real quick, and you were ticked off and he’s in there all flustered and everything, and he goes like, they usually turn to me after tearing stuff up, he goes, ‘I’m going to go out there and kick his’ — and I went like this, I started to go, ‘Okay, I think you should. Hoping somebody will put a lump on you.”
Stewart: “See, as a good owner you should have thought of that first and I would have saved the trailer.”
A few moments later, Stewart sheepishly admitted “honestly, I can’t say that he did me, either,” meaning Gibbs actually never did tongue lash Stewart.
* Stewart then complimented Gibbs for his way of how he handles his drivers and how he has a knack of calming them down – even Stewart.
“A tongue lashing is because you’re upset about something,” Stewart said. “But when you take a step back and you say, what are you ultimately trying to accomplish out of it, what’s the right way to go about it with this particular individual. So I think it’s — I learned a lot from this guy in the years I was there.”
But Smoke couldn’t avoid getting in another zinger:
“I’ve said it a million times, if I didn’t work for him (Gibbs), I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. I wouldn’t be the things that I’m doing now. I wouldn’t be in debt like I am now. And I blame all of it on Joe.”
To his credit, though, Stewart wasn’t afraid to take a shot at himself.
When asked about the difference between being a driver and a team owner, Stewart spoke about his own maturing.
“Like Joe said, with time guys grow up,” Stewart said. “It took me a lot longer. I’m not even sure I’m there yet. I’m still a work in progress.”
* One of Gibbs’s favorite memories – and nightmares at the same time – was chasing Stewart to sign him originally back in the late 1990s.
Stewart had an attorney to help him, but pretty much negotiated his first deal with Gibbs by himself. Gibbs wanted to sign Stewart so badly that he was willing to concede to some special addendums to the contract, including allowing Stewart to compete in a number of dirt late model races.
Just when the deal was finalized, Stewart got a bit mischievous. He had one more demand.
“Cary Agajanian was my attorney at the time, and I looked at Cary, I said, ‘Do you see anything that stands out that we need to look at?’ He goes, ‘No, I’m happy. Are you happy?’ I go, I’m happy. We walk back in, and Joe goes, ‘So, what do you think? I said, Well, everything is good except for one thing, and Cary looked at me and Joe looked at me funny.
“I said, I want to drive the Top Fuel car at the (NHRA) U.S. Nationals next year, too. And immediately (Gibbs’) head started spinning off. It looked like a horror movie.
“I let him go for about five seconds and Cary is literally kicking my leg under the table like what in the hell are you doing. And then I told him, I’m just messing with you, we’re good, we’re ready to do this.”
But Gibbs retaliated: Stewart was laid up at his parents’ home in Indiana after a bad wreck in an IndyCar race in Las Vegas.
“My buddies had been calling,” Stewart said. “I’d been really depressed because if you live with your mom and stepdad for a month, you’ll be depressed. But my buddies had been calling all day and it was AJ Foyt and then it was Mario Andretti and then it was Steve Kinser and this and that. None of them were (actually calling); it was all my buddies saying who they were.
“So my mom answers the phone. It’s 10:00 at night, and my mom goes, ‘It’s Joe Gibbs.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, great. Sure, here we go, which one of these assholes is it now. So they hand the phone over to me, and I’m like, ‘Hey, Joe, how the hell are you?’ He goes, Tony? And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, it really is Joe Gibbs.’
“That’s the way our whole relationship literally was from the first phone call on because I obviously had to explain to him why I was being an idiot other than I was heavily medicated. Had to explain to him why I was being the way I was. That’s the way we’ve always been with each other. We’ve always had fun with each other. But I think as much as we’ve had fun, we’ve always had a high level of respect for each other, as well.”
Gibbs wasn’t going to let Stewart have the last word – or laugh.
“I couldn’t find him lots of times, I would call the girlfriend,” Gibbs said of Stewart’s girlfriend at the time. “I would call the girlfriend, and she would tell me where he was and everything. So about the third time I called the girlfriend, she goes, ‘That no-good rotten — don’t you ever call this house again.’ I went, ‘Well, that was done.”
To which Stewart quipped, “We were ready to hold auditions again (for a new girlfriend). It was time. What can I say?”
And then they got back to talk to racing. But that wasn’t nearly as funny as the rest of the press conference, for sure.