HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Coach Joe is back, but he's not calling the shots in NASCAR anymore.
"We're still trying to figure out how big a pay cut he's going to get," J.D. Gibbs said Tuesday night in welcoming his father back to the race team. "It's going to be large. A couple of zeros off of it. But we're excited to have him back."
Gibbs stepped down as coach of the Washington Redskins on Jan. 9, and has quickly settled back into his role as owner of one of NASCAR's most successful race teams. But unlike Washington, where he led his football team into the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, Gibbs isn't in charge down here. That role belongs to his oldest son, J.D., the team president of Joe Gibbs Racing who took over day-to-day control when his father went back to the NFL.
It leaves Gibbs fighting with his son for permission to drive the company Lexus, and figuring out just where he's needed in the family business he started in 1992.
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"My role will be — they will roll me into the corner," Gibbs joked during a media reception at team headquarters. "They don't miss me much, the way they have taken off the last four years. I felt like my role has always been to work with the sponsors — because I am not the technical guy — to keep the resources going and to pick the people, because you win with people."
No matter what job they give him, it was clear the team is thrilled to have him back, evidenced by the large "Welcome home Joe" banner that hangs above the entrance to the race shop.
And his top executives couldn't praise him enough, obviously elated to have Gibbs' calming presence back at headquarters.
"His presence is positive. He walks through the shop and the guys are just thrilled to see him," crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. "One day you will see him in the break room with guys he doesn't even know. He just wanders around offering encouragement. He's a motivator. He's just a cool guy, he really is."
Around the race shop, Gibbs is known as the guy who offers encouragement when things seem pretty bleak. Zipadelli remembers losing a chance to score his and Tony Stewart's first career victory 10 years ago when Zipadelli incorrectly gambled on fuel strategy and the car didn't have enough gas to race to the finish.
Dejected and worried how it might affect his job at JGR, the first-year crew chief was put to ease when he arrived back in North Carolina after the race.
"He was the person when I got off the plane to call me and tell me 'Hey, you did a good job.' It was not, 'Don't do that again, you'll lose your job,'" Zipadelli said. "He's not a pat you on the back guy when you do well, but he's there for you when you need encouragement."
Jimmy Makar, the first crew chief hired at JGR when Gibbs formed the team, said the owner has always had a sense for people. It's helped him build this team from a one-car operation to the three-car team that has won three championships since 2000.
"Joe is the greatest people person I have ever been around," Makar said. "He reads people well, he motivates people and he does everything to get the best results out of every person we have here."
After two weeks to reflect on his decision to leave the Redskins, which he praised as "the greatest place to coach," Gibbs said he was certain he made the correct decision in stepping down. He's still an adviser to owner Daniel Snyder, but said he plans to attend a good deal of races on NASCAR's 36-event schedule.
"The whole time I was in football, we knew football was going to be for a limited amount of time," Gibbs said. "And we knew, hopefully and Lord willing, racing was going to be forever. We want this to be something we continue into the future."
Stewart thinks he knows the best way to ensure Gibbs' return won't interfere with the success JGR has had during his absence.
"We're going to start changing all the codes on all the doors that go downstairs at the shop, so he can't do much," Stewart joked. "And we'll definitely lock him out of the accounting office."