HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – At Joe Gibbs Racing, nobody calls J.D. Gibbs “Coach.”

But the president of the family business is now the man running a team on the brink of its third NASCAR championship while his famous father takes care of other business.

Shortly after Joe Gibbs leads his Washington Redskins against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday in Landover, Md., Tony Stewart will race his No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet at Homestead-Miami Speedway in an effort to wrap up another title for the team that carries the coach’s name.

Stewart, who added a title in 2002 to the one Bobby Labonte earned for the Gibbs team in 2000, heads into the season-ending Ford 400 needing only to finish ninth or better to take his second championship, no matter what his pursuers do.

J.D. Gibbs doesn’t want to take the credit, but if Stewart can wrap up the title, this one would belong mostly to him.

The first two titles came while he was learning his role as team president and his father was still attending races and coming to the office almost daily to oversee things.

Then the elder Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl winner and Hall of Fame inductee who ostensibly retired from coaching at the end of the 1992 season – the race team’s first year – decided to return to the sidelines with the Redskins in 2004.

He took younger son Coy along with him as an assistant coach, leaving J.D. as the man in charge of the family business. “Sure, I was concerned when he decided to put it on my shoulders,” J.D. Gibbs said Friday.

“What my dad has a gift for, he’s a great team builder, good leader.

“I had to think about it: “OK, so he’s not going to be there full time. July through September – gone.’ But what he does is deal with sponsors. He has a great relationship with them.

“Him not being there to interact with the sponsors was a concern for them. But he has been able to keep that relationship and it’s working well.”

Last year was a real learning experience for J.D., who at 36 feels a lot more comfortable in his role as team leader.

And he’s had plenty of help from team manager Jimmy Makar, Stewart’s veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli, vice president of operations Todd Meredith and others.

“Doing it for a year, plus having the guys around me, has been a big help,” Gibbs said. “I think I’ve kind of matured, plus filling in some gaps my dad left with the rest of the guys.”

Stewart has no doubts about the team president.

“I think he underestimates his ability as the team leader,” Stewart said. “J.D. is a really smart guy – a lot smarter than he lets people know.”

Not everything has gone well for Gibbs and the team, though.

Labonte has struggled through four straight mediocre seasons. He recently asked for and was granted a release from the last three years of his contract with Gibbs to join Petty Enterprises in 2006.

The Gibbs team added a third full-time entry in 2004, with Jason Leffler starting the season in the car and being fired after failing to finish in the top 10 in 19 races.

Since then, semiretired Terry Labonte, J.J. Yeley and Denny Hamlin have driven the No. 11 car. Promising rookie Hamlin, who won the pole last week at Phoenix, will be in it next year.

The unproven Yeley, like Stewart a former open-wheel champion, will take Bobby Labonte’s seat in the No. 18.

“We know both of them have tremendous potential,” Gibbs said of Yeley and Hamlin.

Meanwhile, Gibbs will continue his on-the-job training and glean as much advice from his father as he can.

“We usually talk twice a week,” J.D. said. “We talk racing and we talk football. I’ll bounce any major decision off of him. He doesn’t ask me about any football decisions.”

Gibbs pointed out he had just completed his schooling at William & Mary when his father, who wanted a project the family could share, started his Cup team in 1992.

“He was still coaching and we kind of started it together,” J.D. said. “He’ll be back here in a few years. He’s got three years left up there and I’m sure he’ll be back.

“It’s a family business. I’d love to have my kids doing it years from now. It’s not mine or his. It’s just kind of a family deal.”

AP-ES-11-18-05 1537EST

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