DAYTONA BEACH — Joe Gibbs won his first Daytona 500 as a car owner in 1993, his second year in NASCAR. The young team was so new, and naive, to the experience, they had trouble finding Victory Lane.
Twenty-one years later, the team still is looking for Victory Lane.
What seemed so simple back then has been maddening since. The three-time Super Bowl championship coach has brought a lot of good cars to the Daytona International Speedway since that first victory, only to return home with the same frustrating result.
“It shows you what a tough race this is, the 500,” Gibbs said.
This year Gibbs hopes Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth or Kyle Busch can break the long drought. They will be the 46th, 47th and 48th Daytona 500 entries for the coach since Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 1993 race — a victory that made Gibbs a winner in what’s considered the Super Bowl of stock car racing.
Just about everyone in the garage area believes Gibbs may never have a better opportunity with three equally fast Toyotas.
“If you’re going to pick a favorite, I would consider [Joe Gibbs Racing] the favorites,” Jeff Gordon said. “They won both races [150-mile qualifying races on Thursday]. They won the Unlimited. I don’t know if that means anything, but I would say that they’re very quick and very capable of winning this race.”
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Hamlin won the Unlimited all-star race for pole winners on Feb. 15. He also won one of the two 150-mile qualifiers Thursday that set the starting lineup for Sunday’s race.
Kenseth won the other qualifying race.
Throw in Kyle Busch, who won Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona, and Gibbs seems to have everything in place.
Gibbs said a career as a football coach taught him not to be too confident. Racing only solidified his carefully optimistic approach.
“For me, I’m always concerned in pro sports that anything can happen,” Gibbs said. “I don’t think I ever go into something where I feel like, ‘Hey, we got this thing.’ That’s just not the way I personally ever look at it. So many things got to go your way.
“I think drivers and crew chiefs, they’re more optimistic than I am because, I don’t know, I’m always nervous about it.”
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His drivers have every reason to be optimistic. Hamlin has won every race he’s been in since he got to Daytona two weeks ago. Kenseth has run fast, too.
“For my part, I think the biggest challenge we’ll have for myself is keeping the reins back only for 400 miles, 450 miles,” Hamlin said. “It’s going to be a much longer race. Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it’s hard not to just want to go out there, charge out there, show that you’re the best right on Lap 1.
“It’s going to be battling those inner demons of wanting to go out there, lead laps, putting yourself in a safe position, but also being conservative and making sure you’re there at the end of the day.”
Rookie Austin Dillon will start on the pole when the green flag waves at 1:15 p.m. The grandson of car owner Richard Childress will be racing the No. 3 Chevrolet for the first time in a Sprint Cup Series race since Dale Earnhardt died in it on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Martin Truex Jr. was supposed to start second, but he was forced into a back-up car after crashing last Thursday. That will elevate Hamlin to the No. 2 spot on the front row.
Kenseth will be third.
“Daytona is so unique,” Kenseth said. “It’s our biggest race of the year, but it’s so long.”
Kenseth, who won the 500 twice while he was at Roush Fenway Racing, led a race-best 86 laps in last year’s Daytona 500 for Gibbs. Engine failure with 51 laps to go dropped him to a 37th-place finish.
And yet another disappointing 500 for Gibbs.
“We had a really good car in the 500 and Jimmie [Johnson] had a good car as well,” Kenseth said. “I thought whichever one of us was leading [on the final lap] was probably going to win.
“A lot of things go into trying to win these plate races. You have to have things go your way and you have to be in the right place at the right time and you have to have people want to be with your car because it’s fast enough and you’re making the right moves.”
Without any challenge from Kenseth in the final 100 miles, Johnson drove to the win.
Despite the frustration, the Gibbs camp has come back stronger than ever.
“Stuff outside your control has to fall together,” said team president J.D. Gibbs. “I hope we have a shot, but it’s hard to do.
“We won our second year in motorsports. We figured, ‘This is easy.’ It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
Although Gibbs has two cars up front, Kyle Busch had problems in the qualifying race Thursday and will start back in 37th place.
Kasey Kahne will start fifth, followed by Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard.
Dillon is one of seven rookies in the race. Others are: Kyle Larson, Cole Whitt, Parker Kligerman, Alex Bowman, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.
If one of the Gibbs cars manages to win and break the losing streak, Joe Gibbs already knows how he’s going to celebrate — the same way he did in 1993.
“I know this: you win one of these, these 500s, it’s one of the greatest experiences,” he said. “That night we got lost [getting to Victory Lane], we didn’t know what to do, where Victory Lane was.
“We wound up at the Steak ’n Shake. There were about 15 people in there hammered, we showed up with the trophy, out in the parking lot taking pictures with our family.”
At least this time they’ll know how to find Victory Lane.