Interstate Batteries: The Foundation for JGR’s Growth
Editor’s Note: In honor of Interstate Batteries’ and Joe Gibbs Racing’s 20th anniversary together in NASCAR, a series of press releases highlighting 20 big moments will be distributed throughout 2011. This is the 15th of the 20 releases.
Controlled growth is a term that gets used quite a bit when describing the future of a business. And perhaps a model of controlled growth would be Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR).
Given that JGR has a beautiful 240,000-square-foot state-of-the-art shop in Huntersville, N.C., and more than 400 employees, it’s difficult to believe that, when the team first hit the track with the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car in 1992, the organization worked out of small shop in Charlotte, N.C., with less than 20 employees – total.
But getting to a large operation that fields three full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams didn’t happen overnight and, for JGR officials, the timing always had to be right.
From 1992 to 1998, JGR fielded only the No. 18 Interstate Batteries car, first for Dale Jarrett (1992-1994) and then for Bobby Labonte, who took over in 1995. Other teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing were fielding three- and four-car teams, but JGR patiently waited to expand, not wanting to rush into something it wasn’t prepared for.
“There’s a right time to do it,” said J.D. Gibbs, president of JGR. “You can’t force it. You have to have the right partner, the right driver and the right team all lined up. And, if it’s not there, we’ve learned you’re better off just waiting.”
But the timing was right in late 1998 when The Home Depot signed on with Gibbs to sponsor one of the hottest up-and-coming drivers in all of motorsports – Tony Stewart.
Stewart became the first driver to win the United States Auto Club (USAC) “Triple Crown” in 1995 as he captured championships in Midget, Sprint Car and Silver Crown competition – the top three divisions of the sanctioning body. He started on the pole for the 1996 Indianapolis 500 and was named the event’s Rookie of the Year and, one year later, he captured the IZOD IndyCar Series championship on the strength of one win and four top-five finishes in 10 races.
“When Tony became available, along with The Home Depot, it was a perfect match,” Gibbs said.
The decision to put Stewart in the No. 20 machine for The Home Depot paid huge dividends for JGR as Stewart won three races to become the first rookie in Sprint Cup Series history to score three wins in a season. He also finished an impressive fourth in points while being named the Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
The year thrilled Gibbs officials on a number of fronts as their expansion not only paid off, it also didn’t hamper the efforts of Labonte and the No. 18 Interstate Batteries team. Stewart and Labonte not only became great teammates, but good friends, as well, and Labonte enjoyed his best season yet in 1999 as he finished second in points (ironically, behind Jarrett) and scored a career-high five wins.
One year later, Labonte would capture JGR’s first Sprint Cup Series title in the Interstate Batteries car on the strength of four victories while Stewart would win a series-best six races and finish sixth in points. In 2002, Stewart would get his first title and JGR’s second.
With all the success, it was just a matter of time before NASCAR observers began wondering when Gibbs would expand again.
But, as always, JGR officials were patient and calculated with their growth plans and it wasn’t until 2005 when a third car, sponsored by FedEx, was added to the mix.
However, as smooth as Stewart’s entry had been six years earlier, the newest JGR team struggled in its first season and driver Jason Leffler was replaced midway through the season.
It wasn’t long until the No. 11 FedEx team was winning races, however. Denny Hamlin, who JGR officials had signed to a driver development contract in 2004, started seven races in 2005 in the No. 11 car and scored one pole and three top-10 finishes. His success led him to be named full-time pilot of the car for the 2006 season and he went on to score two wins, finished a remarkable third in points, and was named Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
“As smooth as it was with Tony, we didn’t have that same success right out of the gate with the 11 car,” Gibbs said. “But then Denny came in and was a perfect fit and it wasn’t long before the FedEx guys starting winning races.”
As successful as JGR has been throughout its 20-year history, the foundation of that success and the team’s growth came from Interstate Batteries coming on board as the first sponsor in 1991.
“Norm (Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries) and Interstate had faith in us and it’s been pretty neat to watch that relationship grow,” Gibbs said. “When we were looking at expanding, we went in and explained to them what we were going to do and why we were going to do it, and they were all for it. They understood right away it would make us a better race team. It was the same thing when we grew to a third team – we didn’t do anything until we went back and talked to all of our partners and our team members. And when everyone was on board, it made sense to go ahead and do it.”
In 2008, M&M’s signed on as a co-primary sponsor of the No. 18 car while Interstate Batteries was named “Founding Sponsor” of JGR. Interstate Batteries would be primary sponsor for six Sprint Cup races each year, as well as select NASCAR Nationwide Series races. More and more teams in the Sprint Cup Series were going to dual primary sponsors and Interstate and M&M’s became perfect partners.
“It’s a great fit,” Gibbs said. “There’s a benefit for both sides and they see it. They help share some of the costs and it’s almost like they get double the exposure the way they use it. It’s been a good partnership in a number of ways.”
With Interstate Batteries having sponsored JGR since 1992, and with The Home Depot coming on board in 1999, FedEx in 2005 and M&M’s in 2008, JGR’s four major primary sponsors have been with the company a combined 44 seasons – an incredible display of loyalty and faith in the organization.
“We want to be good partners and that’s more than just business – it’s relationships,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got a great group and we love the relationships we have with them. But you also have to perform. And you have to perform on the track and off the track. Now, more than ever, you have to show your partners, ‘Here’s how this makes business sense.’ And I think our team does a good job of making those points.”