Rival owners Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs share long-standing connection

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 15: Team owners Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs speak to the media prior to practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 15, 2019 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

The connection and fondness was immediately evident as Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs took their seats Friday morning to talk about their respective teams’ chances in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race the Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Gibbs was dressed in a suit and Stewart was dressed more casually in a team button-up shirt and baseball cap – the juxtaposition causing them both to laugh.

“Well this is how you dress when you have one car in the championship and that’s how you dress when you have three,” Stewart joked immediately.

The truth is, although the two are competing against one another for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title, the former teammates concede they are much more alike than dissimilar. And this is a big weekend for both.

Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin will compete against Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick for the series championship Sunday afternoon. And although the competition will undoubtedly be intense for NASCAR’s biggest prize, the two 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees leading the organizations bring a similar mind-set into the big race.

Stewart, a three-time Cup champion driver, has won two titles as an owner – his third series trophy in 2011 and Harvick’s in 2014. Gibbs is a four-time Cup champion owner – earning two titles with Stewart (2002 and 2005) and one each with Bobby Labonte (2000) and Kyle Busch (2015).

Stewart competed in 22 NASCAR Xfinity Series races for Gibbs in 1998 before moving to the JGR team full-time from his 1999 rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series through the 2008 season. He joined forces with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009.

“Every driver is different, and Joe [Gibbs] can tell you better than anybody, because he’s dealt with more, quote-unquote, professional athletes than anybody, and how you get people to respond is different from person to person,” Stewart said of his ownership style. “Sometimes you’ve got to be a little stern with them. But there’s that one button in each of us that gets us to respond.”

“I think that’s kind of what makes good leaders and good owners and good crew chiefs and good competition directors. You have to know your people. You have got know what that button is. You need to know what you have to do to get the best out of them.”

Stewart looked over at Gibbs and smiled, “I learned a lot from this guy in the years I was there,” Stewart said. “And I’ve said it a million times, if I didn’t work for him, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. I wouldn’t be doing the things I’m doing now.

“I also wouldn’t be in debt like I am now, and I blame all of it on Joe.”

Greg Engle