Joe Gibbs is NASCAR royalty now

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Joe Gibbs vividly remembers his first conversation with Richard Petty, how he had to look up to NASCAR's all-time winningest driver because "The King" was sitting in a much higher chair in the Randleman, N.C., shop known as Petty Enterprises.

"I go, 'Richard, I'm thinking about getting into this sport,'" recalled Gibbs, then the head coach of the Redskins talking with a huge Redskins fan. "He looked at me and goes, 'Why?'"

Almost 20 years later, things have changed.

My, how they have changed.

Petty has gone from the most successful driver/owner in NASCAR to a minority owner of a Sprint Cup organization on the verge of financial ruin. Gibbs has gone from an NFL coach with little knowledge of racing to arguably the most successful owner in the business behind Rick Hendrick.

If Denny Hamlin can hold off four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson (minus-33 points) and Kevin Harvick (minus-59) over the final two weeks at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami, Gibbs will have his fourth championship and join Hendrick as the only owner to win titles with three different drivers.

Bobby Labonte won Joe Gibbs Racing's first title in 2000; Tony Stewart won in 2002 and 2005.

Gibbs also has become one of the most respected owners in the garage. He's one of the first NASCAR calls on when looking for advice, particularly during trying times when the economy has forced the governing body to look outside the box for new and innovative ideas.

He doesn't have a title of royalty like Petty, but he could.

He also could have a title in psychiatry with all he's dealt with throughout the years among Stewart, Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who as recently as Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway was parked for two laps after flipping off an official. Maybe that's why Gibbs has such a great relationship with NASCAR, because he's spent so much time in the hauler with officials.

Bottom line, few are more respected in the garage and few hold more power than the NFL Hall of Famer who someday will be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"You listen to what he's got to say because most of the time it's pretty viable to you, and if you know how to use it or if you listen to it correctly, you can think about it and use it down the road," Busch said.

If you listen to what Gibbs says and listen to it correctly, you'll learn why he won three Super Bowls with the Redskins with three different quarterbacks and why he has succeeded in NASCAR like no other new owner since he entered the sport in 1992.

He knows talent. He knows organization. And he knows people.

"He used a lot of the structure behind how he built championship [NFL] teams to come down here and build championship teams, which a lot of the other ones didn't have that," said Richard Childress, who won six championships with Dale Earnhardt and hopes to add a seventh with Harvick. "That's all it is."

It's not that simple. Other NASCAR owners have been successful in other businesses and even other forms of racing but haven't achieved the level of success Gibbs has.

The list of those who have tried and failed is long, from Bobby Ginn to Bobby Allison.

Even the Roger Penskes and Chip Ganassis of the world haven't come close to reaching the level Gibbs has in NASCAR. Penske has won 63 races and no Cup titles since entering the sport in 1975. Gibbs has won 88 races and three Cup titles in 17 fewer seasons.

"It's so expensive to do it, to get the right people," Childress said. "Joe came in and put the right people in it. That's the big key to it. … It's just hard to come in and race with the costs. Hell, I couldn't do it today."

Listening to Gibbs as he spoke to a small group of reporters in the media center at Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend, it's easy to see why he's reached this level. He's the ultimate salesman, which comes in handy when you're recruiting talent and sponsors.

"You've got to be careful, really work hard at it, make sure you're credible," Gibbs said.

Gibbs is more than credible -- he's incredible, particularly when it comes to sponsors. He spends much of his effort these days working with them because he likes what they do for the sport beyond paying the bills to keep cars running.

Having gone through more than his share of problems with NFL players, Gibbs believes that if they had sponsors to answer to, the league would have a lot fewer problems like NASCAR.

He could be right. Think Ben Roethlisberger would have used more tact in where he partied had Pittsburgh Paints been plastered on the back of his uniform?

"If you represent a sponsor, you don't get two chances," Gibbs said.

Gibbs also understands economics. He often jokes that the best way to keep drivers hungry is to keep them in debt. He's made that comment more than once about Hamlin, who lives in the $1 million-plus home next to his on Lake Norman.

Gibbs also jokingly correlates the maturity of Hamlin during his championship run to the lack of noise coming from his neighbor's house lately.

"Yeah, we've been pretty placid over there," Gibbs said. "I haven't heard anything going on over there lately. It's probably the reason he's trying to move."

About that time Gibbs' son, team president J.D. Gibbs, stuck his head into the interview.

It's so expensive to do it, to get the right people. Joe came in and put the right people in it. That's the big key to it.

-- Richard Childress

"Always remember this: Never trust your kids," Joe said.

Gibbs says all this with a smile. He can bring optimism into the most dire situation, whether it's talking about Busch's latest antic or the decline in television ratings and track attendance.

"I just had a big meeting this week with a big sponsor," Gibbs said. "What we started off with was this is what we have [in terms of ratings], not with what we've lost. When you look at that block, most sponsors want to be a player in it.

"When they see that they're going like this [Gibbs nods head in affirmation], 'We know it's a huge factor and America loves this sport.' My point, you go meet with somebody and take the numbers exactly where they are today and what they were last year … they go, 'Those are big numbers.' "

Speaking of big numbers, Gibbs ranks 12th in NFL history with 162 victories in only 255 games, more than 100 fewer than those in the top seven. In NASCAR he has 88 Cup wins and 57 Nationwide wins. That's more than Penske and Ganassi combined.

Petty has been to Victory Lane only three times since questioning whether Gibbs should enter the sport.

When asked whether there is any irony to that, Gibbs talked about all the struggles he had getting the No. 18 car back on track before Busch drove it, about how winning the Daytona 500 to start JGR's second season makes people forget it won only two races in its first three seasons.

This is as close to "woe is me" as you'll get with Gibbs, though. There's not much you can do to darken the level of success he has achieved.

Few are surprised, either. Just ask Robbie Loomis, the vice president for competition at Richard Petty Motorsports, who was with Petty Enterprises when Gibbs was considering NASCAR.

"Richard said they were going to be a winner no matter what sport," Loomis recalled. "We looked at it as a guy who was coming in that would be good for the sport and be here for a long time and move the sport forward, too."

Gibbs has done all of that and more.

If Hamlin can hold on to his lead, Gibbs will inch another step closer toward Hendrick as NASCAR's top owner.

That's why he got into the sport, to be the best and build a family business just as the Pettys did when the sport began.

And for the record, Gibbs doesn't have to look up to anybody here now, including "The King."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.