Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin: Who Exactly is Top Dog at Joe Gibbs Racing?
In the NFL, when a team has two great hurlers who have their unique traits and skills that translates into winning results on the field, the predicament is often labeled as a quarterback controversy.
While it may boggle some, who feel it's beneficial to have a pair of amazing players in one of the most pivotal roles on the football field, it's perhaps best described in an old adage: "There's not enough room for the two of us in town."
Football Hall-of-Fame coach Joe Gibbs experienced a memorable quarterback controversy in 1987, having benched starter Jay Shroeder for the unheralded backup hurler named Doug Williams. The Washington Redskins would reap the benefits of Williams at the helm a year later, as he would lead Gibbs to his second Super Bowl championship.
Having been an automobile and motorsports enthusiast all his life, Gibbs turned his attention to an investment and ownership opportunity in NASCAR, establishing Joe Gibbs Racing in late 1991 with Dale Jarrett signed to the drive his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet for the upcoming '92 season.
With some of his equipment purchased from Hendrick Motorsports, it took some time for the Gibbs organization to flourish but Super Bowl-like moments weren't too hard to find for the new team.
In 1993, Jarrett held off a hard-charging Dale Earnhardt en-route to a popular Daytona 500 victory, propelling Gibbs from novelty status to a legit team owner. A win heightened by family love with Dale's father, Ned, calling the final lap for the CBS Sports' coverage of the event, it also introduced NASCAR to a football luminary who was eternally established as a genuine racing figure.
Just seven years after that moment, Bobby Labonte, who was Dale Jarrett's heir to the No. 18's throne, piloted the team to a Sprint Cup championship, built with consistency and killer instinct for maximum points. That championship was not sheer dumb luck, as teammate Tony Stewart brought home a pair of titles in 2002 and '05 as the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot car.
It has been quite the 17-year journey for Gibbs, the prolific sports icon, whose son J.D. helps run the day-to-day operations for the successful team, now under the Toyota umbrella with sponsors like FedEx, M&M's, and The Home Depot.
Gibbs has seen more than he probably imagined when he signed the paperwork that started his dream career in NASCAR, now boasting three of the sport's most sensational racers.
So you might be asking yourself, why would I bring up the quarterback controversy example?
Well, Gibbs has one of his own again in his racing team, with Joey Logano clearly distinguished as the third but not so irrelevant wheel.
What's not so clear is who is the leading man and racer with the illustrious team, as it is difficult to determine if it's 25-year-old Kyle Busch, who's capable of winning as much as Lady Gaga gets talked about in the public, or 29-year-old Denny Hamlin, whose racing style can best be described by a Katy Perry song (take a guess at that).
First, let's look at the positives of both drivers, and there are plenty to choose from with these 20-somethings.
Kyle Busch was deemed as one of the most hottest commodities in terms of a stock car prospect as early as the 2001 season, having been recruited by Jack Roush, a prominent Ford Racing team owner.
At the time, it appeared as if the teenage sensation was following in his older brother's footstep, piloting a Roush entry in the Camping World Truck Series before NASCAR raised the minimum age limit in its top-three series from 16 to 18. In between those waiting years came a change of heart with Kyle Busch, who decided to drive for Rick Hendrick's organization.
From 2003 to the checkered flag in the Sprint Cup season finale in 2007, Busch drove Hendrick's Chevrolet entries for a total of 15 victories (counting wins in the Nationwide ranks as well as the Cup division), numbers which were stellar for a youngster. Still, Busch knew all too well that he would not be the top dog at HMS, always behind the shadows of his title-winning teammates in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. signing a multi-year contract with Hendrick's No. 88 entry, the writing was on the wall for Busch, who flocked to Joe Gibbs Racing prior to the 2008 season. Since then, both entities have prospered well, triumphing 37 times in NASCAR's top-two series as well as a 2009 Nationwide Series championship.
Equally as talented as the Las Vegas, NV native is the pride of Chesterfield, VA., otherwise known as Denny Hamlin. Touted as "the next best thing" by Cup stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick in the mid-2000s, both drivers' assessment of the Dominion State hero has proved true, as he elevated himself in Gibbs' racing ladder in 2005 as a Nationwide prospect to a Cup young gun in 2006.
Aggressive, brash, and outspoken, Hamlin's ruffled some feathers with his talk as well as his feet, often psyching his competition with his confidence in his team as well as himself when it comes to clutch moments.
As a long-term investment, Hamlin was surely going to see some Cup action in his career, but his entrance into the most premier series in stock cars initiated a bit earlier than expected when Gibbs released enigmatic Jason Leffler from the No. 11 FedEx entry. Not having to look so far for a replacement, Hamlin was chosen after a rocky summer for the FedEx team which saw a musical chair of drivers behind the wheel.
Since late 2005, Hamlin has established himself not only as a threat for wins but titles as well. Having placed a career-high third in points during his rookie season, he impressed just about everyone following the NASCAR circuit as Gibbs alumni Tony Stewart did during the 1999 season.
Amassing 21 wins in his Gibbs tenure as a Cup and Nationwide driver, it's clear that Hamlin can hold his own with the sport's younger talent like teammate Kyle Busch, who's elevated about everyone's game besides Jimmie Johnson, who's another story for another time.
Ironically, both drivers' failing is with their attitude, especially during the adverse times which are frequent and common with some of the series' best teams. When under tremendous pressure or failing to come through with a big moment, Hamlin and Busch are known to meltdown and put someone else to the fire, like their pit crew or sometimes, even their crew chief.
Hamlin berated his pit crew following a bitter loss in the 2007 Darlington race, in which he about dominated the Mother's Day event. Unfortunately, he was left fuming just as much as Jeff Gordon's DuPont Chevrolet's radiator was on that afternoon, prompting team owner Joe Gibbs to revamp his No. 11 team.
Last season, Busch's crew chief, Steve Addington, got the boot from the Gibbs collective, prompted mostly by the bewilderment known as the 2009 season. Touted as the top man to dethrone Jimmie Johnson from the Cup dynasty, it was instead a season to forget for the man affectionately labeled as "Shrub," who snubbed himself from a Chase seed.
His meltdowns are numerous to list down, but some of his memorable moments include walking away from his Nationwide car following a disappointment in the spring Bristol race. Busch exited out of his car prematurely, leaving his pit crew to push it all the way back from the third and fourth corner of the track and back into the hauler in the garage area.
Why? Well, simply put, his pit crew just didn't get it done that day, which was one of the reasons why he lost the race. Whether it was motivation or punishment, it was clear that Busch takes it to the nth degree when it comes to winning and losing.
Both drivers are extremely passionate about their efforts, with nothing but checkered flags and trophies on their mind instead of the usual feel-good talk and nonsense, in their eyes. It's the object of all drivers and any athlete on the field of play to win and have that desire to succeed.
However, in the tough game of auto racing, especially in NASCAR, victories are about as hard to come by as Jack Bauer having a day off. That's when the tough and aggressive step up to the plate like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
So who's Gibbs' top driver?
Who's his starting quarterback amidst all the media's microphones and the flashes from the photographers' cameras in the press conference room?
Author's Note: This article is dedicated to my late feline friend, Dexter, who passed away tragically and unexpectedly last Friday night. We watched many races together, having kept his eye on the cars and followed the events with me.
I was blessed to raise a wonderful cat for 10 years. May his memory live on with my family as well as his "brother" in Spock, my eight-year-old American Shorthair cat, and Freddie, my 4-year-old labrador.
Dexter, you shall be missed and watching races will never be the same with you in the heavens. Love and mercy to you!
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