Joe Gibbs has lots on his mind heading into Saturday night's 'war' at Bristol Motor Speedway.
If the namesake of Joe Gibbs Racing seems a bit more nervous than usual this weekend, it's understandable.
Joe Gibbs' three Sprint Cup teams come into Saturday night's Irwin Tools 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on both sides of the qualifying bubble for the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Denny Hamlin has the most security—although he's still not a lock to make the Chase, either—sitting in 10th place in the standings. Remember the top 10 drivers after next month's race at Richmond, along with two wild-card drivers with the most wins, will make up this year's 12-driver field in the ninth edition of the Chase.
And then there's JGR's other two drivers, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Busch sits in 14th place, 58 points out of 10th, while Logano is 127 points behind teammate Hamlin. Both Busch and Logano have one win apiece this season, which means barring a complete disintegration by Hamlin in the next three races, the other two will have to win all three races to even have a chance at making the Chase—most likely as a wild card entry.
And if that disintegration indeed takes place and the other two drivers fail to win two or more of the next three races, there's a very realistic chance that no JGR drivers could wind up making the Chase.
No question, there's lots on the line for JGR on Saturday night. Now you can see why the company patriarch is probably as nervous as he was prior to any of the Super Bowl games he coached in.
"I'm going to be running around with my race cars, ready to throw up," Gibbs told Bleacher Report in a phone call Thursday, adding, "I'm very nervous.
"When you have three race cars out there, you never leave the race track on Sunday with everybody happy. There's going to be at least two guys mad."
The conversation with Gibbs was part of M&M's Best Seats in the House promotion, where four fans at BMS will watch the race in comfort in lounge-style seats, have Sprint Vision handsets, personal servers and all the M&M's they can eat.
"This place (Bristol) is going to be packed and we're going to have (some) lucky people in the M&M's lounge seats there," Gibbs said. The program kicked off last month at Kentucky and will also be featured at upcoming races in the Chase at New Hampshire and Charlotte.
As much as he likes popping M&M's in his mouth, with so much on the line for his organization, don't be surprised if Gibbs pops some aspirin or stomach medicine instead Saturday night, as well. Much of the attention that evening will not only center on Hamlin remaining in the top 10 in the Sprint Cup standings, but there will be equal focus on the younger Busch brother, who finished last in the Chase last season and comes to Bristol running a distinct risk of missing the Chase for only the second time in the last seven years.
"It's a big weekend for us," Gibbs said. "Denny is 10th in points with two wins, Kyle and Joey are both outside of the top 12. Kyle is 11 points behind Ryan Newman. … Can you imagine sitting up here on Saturday night, watching Kyle Busch and 42 of his buddies trying to tame the fastest half-mile in the world?"
But Busch isn't the only driver in harm's way, Gibbs concedes, further illustrating just how wild Saturday night and the next two races in Atlanta and Richmond have the potential to be, as well.
"I think we have some heavyweights that are in a battle right now, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Joey, Kyle, Ryan Newman, all those guys," Gibbs said. "I think what it says about the sport is there are a lot of very good race teams out there. And what you've got right now is you have a bunch of guys sitting on the outside, trying to get in.
"I think that's good for the sport, good for the fans and me sitting up here, and I think there's going to be a lot of excitement over these next three weeks. There's going to be a race to win the race, and then there's going to be a race to get in the Chase. It's going to be fun to see how this all plays out. It's going to be an exciting time. And then in the Chase, anything can happen. Tony Stewart's a good example: towards the end of last year, they weren't running very well, then got hot and ran the table."
Extrapolating the significance of Saturday night's race even further is that drivers will be competing on the "new" Bristol. Even though the track was reconfigured and resurfaced just four years ago, vocal criticism from fans that the new configuration took away some of Bristol's fabled close-and-tight racing prompted track owner Bruton Smith to once again reconfigure the track for Saturday's race, bringing the walls in close to two feet to bunch the pack up more, allowing for more of the beating and banging that made Bristol famous in the first place.
It's a move that Gibbs approves of.
"Whatever's best for the fans," he said. "I think the fans spoke and Bruton, being the kind of owner he is of race tracks, understands the sport and 'I'm listening to the fans. I'm going to fix this.' So what he did was kind of shrunk that top lane, so this is going to put us back in a situation where it's going to be hard to get up there and run, it's going to tighten everything up and it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out. I applaud (Smith) for being willing to go to the expense and doing the things he does to try and please the fans."
Busch's performance this season has been atypical, with just one win this late in the season. Some critics have said greatly reducing the additional racing he does on the Nationwide and Camping World Trucks series is to blame, that less track time overall has hurt Busch in his regular job as a Sprint Cup driver. It's a point not lost upon Gibbs.
"You can kind of second-guess that one way or the other," he said. "I think our cars have been very fast, Kyle's been very fast. What's hurt is finishing races and being consistent. Like at Watkins Glen, (Kyle) had that race won with a lap to go and just had a crazy set of circumstances there. He was very fast at Indy. He's been fast, we just haven't been as consistent as we need to be.
"I think racing in the other series, he is racing Nationwide with his own car, he'll probably do some trucks at the end of the year. We want to do to whatever we can to get Kyle in his best frame of mind to win races, but I think it's just been circumstances for us. I do look at it, though, as it's exciting being in a position where he's got a great chance to make the Chase. He loves Bristol, we're going to be going to Atlanta and Richmond. I think we're good at those places and it's going to be interesting."
What's also going to be interesting in a broader picture is the future of JGR. Rumors continue to swirl that this year's Daytona 500 winner, Matt Kenseth, will be joining the team for 2013, either to replace Logano or to headline a new, fourth team for the organization. There's also Logano's future with JGR, sponsorship renewals and other things that are weighing heavily on Gibbs' mind.
"A lot of things are up in the air with us right now," he said. "About this time of year, that does happen. We could go to four cars; we could stay with three. There's some other things there that we can't announce. Joey's situation is one where we'd love to have Joey sign back with us, but he has other options. I think a lot of things are up in the air, but I think they will be clarified in the next two to three weeks.
"At this time of year in this sport, you're trying to say to yourself, 'What is going to position us the best going forward to win races and to represent our sponsors?' I think we have a lot of options, a lot of different ways to go. So I think a lot of that is going to play out over the next couple of weeks, but that's part of this sport."
No matter how this year's Chase field plays out for his three drivers, Gibbs is very bullish on the direction of the sport.
"For our fans and the sport going forward, I think our best years are still in front of us," Gibbs said. "We've been going through a very tough financial situation across the country. I think it affects our fans, because our fans, many of them travel 100 to 200 miles to come to a race and they'll stay for three days. That's a huge deal.
"Our TV numbers are up some and I think going forward in the future, I think we're going to get a track in the northeast at some point and I think there's a lot of other exciting things going on in our sport. We have the diversity issue, we have Danica (Patrick), I think we're going to break through in some of these other areas, and I think the one thing that's going to propel this sport is our drivers and the way they represent themselves. … I think it's going to have a bright future."
But for now, the future weighs heavily on racing under the lights on Saturday night at Bristol.
"It's going to be a war, I'm telling you," Gibbs said. "There are some great race car drivers, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Joey, Kyle, Ryan Newman, all these guys are fighting for a spot that's left in the Chase.
"But what else can you ask for? Three weeks to go and you've got a chance in pro sports to get into the playoffs. I don't think you can ask for a lot more."