Steve Kinser

What championship? Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs laugh it up in Miami

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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.

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Friday 5: Can Jimmie Johnson repeat Tiger Woods’ Masters magic at Indy?

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A generation of drivers grew up watching Jimmie Johnson win races and championships year after year.

After year.

After year

After year

It was nearly all they knew from 2006-10 when Johnson won the Cup championship five consecutive seasons and visited victory lane in nearly 20% of the races run during that time.

Now, they see the seven-time champion winless in his last 84 races and fighting to make the playoffs. Critics question Johnson and expect his 15-year streak of postseason appearances to end when the checkered flag waves in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Those drivers who watched Johnson dominate when they were teens are not among the doubters.

“I would like to see him just win to shut everyone up,” said Kyle Larson, who was 14 when Johnson won his first Cup title. “When you are watching somebody like that dominate, you never expect to see them in this position, being winless for as long as he’s been, at risk of not making the playoffs and having a chance to win the championship.

Kyle Larson chats with Jimmie Johnson last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I think it just shows how tough our sport gets, how tough our drivers are, how close our equipment is, and how good of a combination him and Chad (Knaus) really were. Hopefully they can figure something out and finish upfront where he belongs.”

Xfinity title contender Christopher Bell also is rooting for Johnson this weekend.

“I love to see the greats win,” said Bell, who was a month shy of turning 12 when Johnson celebrated his first Cup crown. “For example, seeing Tony Stewart win at Sonoma (Raceway in 2016) was unbelievable. That was one of the coolest things ever. Sammy Swindell, Steve Kinser, the dirt drivers, seeing those guys still compete and win – Steve’s done now, but Sammy still runs – that’s the coolest thing ever to me.

“Like Tiger Woods winning the golf deal, right? How awesome was that when he won the Masters? I don’t think Jimmie is done by any means, but it’s going to be really, really cool whenever we see him win again just because he’s been doing it for so long and you have to respect how good he’s been for so long and we’re not sure if we’ll ever see that again, right?”

Alex Bowman was 13 when Johnson’s title reign began. Now he watches Johnson’s challenge up close as a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.

“We are doing all we can to get Jimmie into the playoffs,” Bowman said. “But, at the end of the day, they’ve had a lot of bad luck and a tough year. He is still more motivated and fired up than ever, at least since I’ve been around. He’s a big part in the success that I’ve had, I feel like. He definitely still has it and he’s not given up.

“I think everyone has learned over the years that you can’t count the 48 out by any means.”

Johnson enters the weekend 18 points out of the final playoff spot. He’s among four drivers vying for the final two spots. Clint Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Daniel Suarez, who holds the last playoff spot. Suarez and Ryan Newman have the same number of points but Suarez is ahead based on the tiebreaker of best finish this year. Then comes Johnson.

For those that have counted out Johnson?

“I can’t wait to shut up the keyboard warriors that are out there,” he said. “The people that are close to me and the people on my race team know the truth. They know the story. They’ve been working hard on it and when you work hard, wins will come. So, that’s where I find my peace. I know all the effort I’ve put into this program and for what my guys have put into the program.”

2. Sticking to the plan

For all the focus on Jimmie Johnson seeking to make the playoffs a 16th consecutive year, new crew chief Cliff Daniels continues to preach the need to build the No. 48 team at a deliberate pace.

While making the playoffs gives Johnson a chance to win a record eighth title, realistically, his odds of accomplishing that feat this year would be slim based on how the team has performed.

Crew chief Cliff Daniels is taking a “methodical approach” to building the No. 48 team. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It is Daniels’ job to manage building a team while pursuing the playoffs.

“Part of the reason for the methodical approach we took coming (to Darlington) and we’re going to take to Indy is to make sure we’re placing the building blocks correctly so that as we move forward we know why we have run good, why we’ve made the calls that we’ve made or made the decisions that we’ve made and all of that is in place,” Daniels said after last week’s Southern 500.

“Jimmie and I both know how important it is to meet our goals now but sometimes things just don’t work out. We’re still going to go to Indy with a really solid approach and things may work out and I certainly hope they do. But in the event that they don’t, we still have 10 races where this approach, this team, this energy, this vibe and just the whole process that we’ve built is really going to carry us. Now we get to go into the season one way or the other with a plan in place for how we’re going to meet our goals and take that into those final 10 races one way or the other and build on that for next year.”

A key is that Daniels is having more of an impact on the cars Johnson drives. Daniels was promoted from engineer to crew chief before last month’s race at Watkins Glen. With cars built or refined ahead of time, it wasn’t until last week’s Southern 500 where Daniels was able to do more with the car’s setup for Johnson. The result was that Johnson qualified sixth — his best starting spot since Chicagoland in June — scored points in both stage points for only the third time this season. 

3. Don’t look back

History can’t beat someone but history can show the challenges ahead.

Take Ryan Newman and Roush Fenway Racing. Newman enters this weekend outside of the final playoff spot based on a tiebreaker with Daniel Suarez.

Ryan Newman seeks to lead Roush Fenway Racing into the playoffs for the second time since 2015. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While Newman could finish deep in the field and still make the playoffs, that scenario isn’t as likely. Good chance he’ll need a strong finish, but history has not been kind to Roush Fenway Racing at Indy.

The organization’s last top 10 at Indy was in 2012 when Greg Biffle placed third.

Since, these are the organizations that have scored at least one top 10 at Indy:

Joe Gibbs Racing (16 top 10s since 2013)

Stewart-Haas Racing (10 top 10s)

Hendrick Motorsports (9 top 10s)

Team Penske (8 top 10s)

Chip Ganassi Racing (5 top 10s)

Richard Childress Racing (5 top 10s)

JTG Daugherty Racing (2 top 10s)

Furniture Row Racing (2 top 10s)

Wood Brothers Racing (1 top 10)

Go Fas Racing (1 top 10)

Michael Waltrip Racing (1 top 10)

If you wish to counter that, then look at what Newman did the past two seasons with Richard Childress Racing, finishing 10th at Indy last year and third the year before. And he won the 2013 race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

4. Familiar foes

Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have each qualified all their drivers for the playoffs. That’s nine of the 16 spots taken by Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson.

Hendrick Motorsports has qualified three of its drivers (Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and William Byron) with Jimmie Johnson trying to claim one of the final spots.

Stewart-Haas Racing could have all four of its drivers make the playoffs for a second year in a row if Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez both advance to join Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola.

Roush Fenway Racing is trying to break into the playoff picture with Ryan Newman.

Unless there is a surprise winner Sunday at Indy, the Cup playoffs could feature drivers from just five organizations. Last year’s Cup playoffs featured drivers from seven organizations.

5. High standards

Tyler Reddick could clinch the Xfinity regular-season title in Saturday’s race at Indianapolis (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Tyler Reddick could clinch the Xfinity regular-season title Saturday at Indianapolis. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

He needs to leave Indy with a 61-point lead on second in the standings. Reddick holds a 51-point lead on second-place Christopher Bell.

Reddick, the reigning series champion, is on the cusp of the regular-season title because of a season that ranks among the best in series history.

His average finish of 4.9 ranks second all time among drivers to compete in all 24 races. His 21 top 10s are tied for second most through 24 races all time in the series. His 19 top-five finishes are third most through 24 races all time in the series.

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