HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Joe Gibbs and Tony Stewart will become adversaries on Sunday afternoon when their organizations do battle for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crown.
However, Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Gibbs and Stewart were needling one another and cajoling with the media like the old friends they have been since working together two decades earlier.
It was a decidedly different feel than the Championship 4 owners’ press conference has had in years past, particularly in the fact that only two men were on stage as opposed to four team representatives.
That it was Gibbs and his former driver, who became a team owner because of the Super Bowl-winning coach and four-time Cup Series champion owner, was just an added bonus for both.
“It means a lot to me,” said Stewart of fighting Gibbs for the title as car owners. “At the beginning of the season, you don’t know who you’re going to be sitting up here with. It could be three other owners and this year it’s unique in that it’s one guy that I’ve spent a lot of time with and I think the world of. To be able to compete against him for a championship is a really cool deal.”
Tying the matter together even further is the fact that both Stewart and Gibbs will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January.
“This whole year and everything with the Hall of Fame, all of it is really special to be doing a lot of this with Joe,” Stewart noted. “Every week we want to go out and beat his guys as much as anybody else, but at the end of the year to be battling it out and think about where we were, what, 25 years ago now?
“God, we really are getting old, aren’t we?” Stewart quipped with a laugh.
“Yeah, we are,” Gibbs agreed as he grinned widely. “I’m in the fourth quarter.”
The wordplay and jabs started even before that moment, however, when Stewart came into the media center with a team polo on while Gibbs approached the stage in a full suit.
“I guess this is how you dress when you have one car in the championship and (how Gibbs was dressed) is how you dress when you have three,” Stewart joked. “I walked in and I’m like, ‘Are you going to court today Joe?’ Oh, wait a minute, he’s got three cars in and this is the way you’ve got to dress (in that scenario). You’ve got to step it up.”
“This is the way Tony dresses; this is the way Joe dresses,” Gibbs shot back.
Later, Stewart recalled a story about the day he signed his first contract with Gibbs and threw off the veteran owner with a joking question about driving a Top Fuel dragster during his JGR tenure.
“The cutting up and carrying on that we do … it started that day because I let him go for about five seconds believing I was serious when I was just messing with him,” Stewart laughed. “His head started spinning off. It looked like a horror movie.”
Even amid their pending title tilt on Sunday, Stewart was quick to recognize Gibbs’ contributions to his life and his professional career, both as a driver and now as a car owner.
“I learned a lot from this guy in the years I was there. And I’ve said it a million times, but if I didn’t work for him, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now and I wouldn’t be doing the things that I’m doing now,” Stewart said. “I surely wouldn’t be in debt like I am now. And I blame all of it on Joe. (Laughter)”
“But it’s great to have worked with somebody like him because he’s worked with so many great people. It’s not just things that you see that show up at the race track,” he continued. “A lot of it pertains to everyday life, too, and when you get a chance to sit with him long enough and when you shut your mouth and listen, and spend more time listening than talking, you can learn a lot from this guy.
“I promise you, it helps, and I know that I’ve taken a lot away from my years with him.”
And regardless of Sunday’s final outcome, the respect that emanates between Stewart and Gibbs will remain, no matter which one of them is celebrating with their driver after 400 miles on Sunday.
“The goal of every organization at the beginning of the year is to go out and win big races and contend for a championship, and then try to win a championship at the end of the season,” Stewart said. “To get one in was definitely a goal, but our bigger goal is obviously to be in the scenario Joe is in and have multiple cars in. It’s tough, but as much as we’ve always had fun with one another like this, we’ve always had a high level of respect for each other as well.”
“We do have great respect between us, and I think everybody in the garage area has a lot of respect for Tony and Gene and what they’ve built,” Gibbs added. “It has got us scared and worried, I’ll tell you that. If you look at Kevin and what Tony and his group have done, they’re there a bunch and they can win championships, and we know it. If they hit this thing, then we’re going to be in trouble.
“But we’ll just see what happens on Sunday and see which one of us is happy at the end.”