It's time to let the fun begin again

Joe Gibbs Racing past and present was on hand to celebrate kicking off the team's 20th season. HHP Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C -- As the 2011 NASCAR Media Tour came to close on Thursday afternoon and the assembled members of the media began to head out for the buses, I stood by the exit doors at Joe Gibbs Racing and held my arms out, waiting.

What for? The big group hug.

The last stop on this year's tour was also its most entertaining, as JGR kicked off its season-long 20th anniversary celebration with an event that turned into a raucous edition of "This Is Your Life." Team president J.D. Gibbs called his famous father to the stage, who walked the room through his decision to start the race team back in 1991, despite his full-time job as Washington Redskins head coach. "Looking back," he admitted, "a football coach deciding to go racing was not very smart."

He also admitted that his wife, Pat, "who is a little tight with the dollar," nearly pulled the plug on the operation after the team wrecked two cars during its first Daytona Speedweeks. "I came back to the motorhome and she was lying on the bed in the back. She sat up and said, 'I don't think this is such a good idea.' "

Then Coach Gibbs called up the man that he said "was stupid enough to do this with me," Interstate Batteries CEO Norm Miller. One by one, the others who helped build Joe Gibbs Racing took the stage. An appearance by crew chief-turned-VP Jimmy Makar certainly was not a shocker. But the two men that followed him certainly were.

Joe Gibbs Cautious optimism isn't too much fun. But genuine, full-bore optimism is really fun.

-- Joe Gibbs

When Bobby Labonte, who won the 2000 Cup Series title for JGR, popped out of a side door, it drew a round of slightly surprised applause. When his former teammate, two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart showed up, it was to downright gasps.

That's when the real stories started.

J.D. Gibbs remembered Labonte's first days.

"When we hired Bobby I asked him what his best Cup finish had been before we signed him," he said. "He told me, and I said, 'Seventh? Why did we hire this guy?' "

Joe recalled how trying to sign Tony Stewart was so much like his days on the road recruiting football players.

"I had the hardest time tracking him down," he said. "But I remember that he had three girlfriends at once. So I got all their numbers and I would call them and ask for him. Sometimes they would yell at me, 'Don't ever call this number again!' Then I knew he'd broken up with that one."

When asked who kept him up more nights, football players or race car drivers, Gibbs laughed, "It's not even close. Two of the guys sitting up here. I'll let you guess which two." To his right sat Stewart and Kyle Busch. "There were a lot of times when we were dealing with Tony, apologizing to sponsors and all of that, and I thought, 'Lord, what are you trying to tell me here?' "

Later, when Stewart was asked what he'd learned from Gibbs over the years, the butt of most of the day's jokes replied, "Don't come to any 20th anniversary reunions."

The coach, sensing the room was his, also got in digs at Miller ("We'd wrecked two cars during our first trip to Daytona and all these cameras and reporters were around and Norm says, 'If we don't win races, we need to wreck. We're getting a lot of attention here!'"), Joey Logano ("He's still a kid. I told him, you win five races and then you get to start complaining about the cars."), and Denny Hamlin ("Denny's no piece of cake, either").

He recalled how son J.D. was a tire-changer during the team's earliest days and how his kid had made the mistake that nearly lost the team's signature win in the '92 Daytona 500. The team's original driver, Dale Jarrett, came in for a stop and roared out of the pits. When J.D. was asked if he'd gotten all the lugnuts tightened on one of the tires, he replied "I think I got three."

A tire has five. They chose not to tell Makar and instead pray that the tire didn't come flying off at 200 mph. It worked out.

Jarrett, who made an appearance via video, remembered when Gibbs announced he was retiring from coaching just three races into the '92 season, saying, "I told Joe, we've only won one race, you might not want to quit your day job yet."

He also revealed that he'd "received some angry letters from people who thought I was the reason he was retiring … angry Washington Redskins fans."

That season Jarrett wore racing helmets that were painted up like the NFL teams. The team for that Daytona 500 just happened to be the Dallas Cowboys. "I grabbed Dale before the race and told him that if by some miracle we won that race I didn't want [anyone] to see that Cowboys helmet in Victory Lane. So after we won he threw it way back in the back of the car."

The laughs continued for more than a half-hour and carried on into the one-on-one interview sessions. It was a fitting end to a week of media conferences that had taken on a strikingly more positive tone than the same series visits one year ago. The tour's overriding theme was established early and pounded home often, backed by sunshine and smiles.

"Things are looking up for everyone in the sport. They really are." As J.D. Gibbs said it, he slapped shoulders and shook hands. "And this isn't just your typical preseason media tour hype. This year I think everyone in the garage really believes it."

Therein lays the difference between this year's talk of bliss and prosperity and the same kind of chatter that we heard from NASCAR drivers and owners one year ago. In 2010, we were subjected to a week of what came off as precisely what it was – talking points distributed to the teams by an admittedly struggling sanctioning body. Tell the people the sun is shining and maybe they'll believe it.

One year later, the positivity is back. But this time it feels genuine.

"It is," Jack Roush said flatly during the Roush Fenway Racing session that preceded the JGR visit. "At the end of the day, the bottom line makes us all feel better, whether it's drivers or team owners or NASCAR. This year the bottom line is something we can actually stand on. Last year, in all honesty, I may have sat here on the media tour and put a positive spin on some things sponsorship-wise that weren't truly all that positive. This year I don't have to do that."

Roush's four Cup cars are fully sponsored entering the season. Same for Hendrick. On Thursday Joe Gibbs was quick to remind that two of his biggest sponsors had re-upped. Richard Childress Racing has expanded back to four teams and just finalized a deal that covers Kevin Harvick's car for most of the season.

Six months ago, none of those deals were certain, even for NASCAR's four biggest superpowers.

It's a long way from January 2010. Not to mention last fall.

"There hasn't been a lot to smile about around here lately," said Richard Petty, who spent Wednesday morning rolling out two fully sponsored and an aggressive new co-owner. "But now we're smiling a lot. There's a long way to go yet, but the right direction is heckuva lot better than the wrong direction."

It's not as though there aren't still concerns. Racetrack executives still report slow ticket advanced ticket sales. As one put it, "The days of selling most of your tickets a full year in advance or for Christmas might be over." And there is certainly still the problem of sagging television ratings. NASCAR's intention with the new slate of rules unveiled on Wednesday night is to fix all of that. Whether they work remains to be seen.

But momentum does finally appear to be back on NASCAR's side.

The sad sack 2010 theme that was set by The Pothole That Ruined The Daytona 500 eventually gave way to the second closest battle in Chase history. The struggles of the sport's biggest star, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (not to mention teammates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin) may have been wiped away the day after the season ended, when Hendrick Motorsports blew up their entire team structure. And those who attended the January test at newly repaved Daytona, from the full media contingent to the surprisingly large number of fans, came away raving about the potential for this year's Great American Race and the season it might kickoff.

And no one is more excited about it all than NASCAR's newest standup comedian.

"Cautious optimism isn't too much fun," Joe Gibbs said Thursday afternoon as the world's happiest media conference wrapped up. "But genuine, full-bore optimism is really fun. And over the last 20 years I've had plenty of times when it would have been easy to throw in the towel. I would have saved a lot more money if I had. But you know what's really fun? Racing. And I don't know about you, but I'm ready to go racing."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.