Back in 1991, then-Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs ended up in the Dallas office of Interstate Batteries Chairman Norm Miller.
Gibbs was there to make his pitch to have Miller’s company sponsor the three-time Super Bowl-winning head coach’s first foray into the NASCAR Cup Series. The only problem was that Gibbs had no race shop, no employees, not even a driver to drive his cars. What he was selling to Miller that day was nothing more than a piece of paper and a dream.
During his entire business career, Miller was never shy about taking chances. And while Interstate Batteries had sponsored a little-known team for a few races with Stanley Smith as its driver, Miller and Interstate Batteries agreed to sponsor Gibbs’ team. That was more than 30 years ago, and Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) was formed. Fast forward to 2021, and the organization that started from humble beginnings before the commitment of Interstate Batteries has been regarded for years as one of the premiere teams in all of NASCAR.
Not only did Gibbs gain a lifetime sponsor in Miller and Interstate Batteries, but a lifetime friendship, as well. Needless to say, it’s a relationship that cannot be overemphasized when discussing JGR’s evolution and longevity.
One driver who has been at the forefront of JGR’s success in the last 14 years has been Kyle Busch. The two-time Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry for JGR, heads to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway this weekend hoping to continue the winning legacy of both the team and Interstate Batteries, as he looks to bring home his first win of the season in Sunday’s GEICO 500.
Busch has brought home nine victories sporting the colors of Interstate Batteries. Add Bobby Labonte’s 21 wins and Dale Jarrett’s two, and Interstate has made a combined 32 visits to victory lane in the Cup Series over the years. Labonte scored his last win for Interstate Batteries at the 2003 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and five years later it was Busch who brought Interstate back to victory lane during his first season at JGR when he bested Carl Edwards to win the July 2008 race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
While Busch and his No. 18 Interstate Batteries team are capable of winning at any track, the Las Vegas native has experienced plenty of ups and downs at the mammoth Talladega oval. He has one career win there, which came in April 2008, and he has accumulated 13 other top-15 finishes, but also exited six races early due to accidents.
So as Busch heads to Talladega this weekend, he would like nothing more than to kick off JGR and Interstate Batteries’ 30th anniversary in style. But, in order to do so, he’ll have to somehow stay out of the inevitable multicar Talladega accidents and be running at the end to put himself in position to end up with quite the anniversary celebration in victory lane on Sunday afternoon.
Now in its 30th year, how special is the partnership between JGR and Interstate Batteries?
“It’s crazy if you think about it. If it weren’t for Norm (Miller, Interstate Batteries Chairman), JGR wouldn’t even exist today. Personally, Norm and everyone at Interstate Batteries treats me and my family like we are a part of their family. We won the race at Daytona back in 2008 and that was the first time Interstate Batteries had been to victory lane in a long time, and we’ve been able to add more for them over the years. I’ll never forget how excited Norm was back a few years ago when we finally got him that win he wanted so badly at Texas (Motor Speedway). He had been trying for so many years and he really soaked it up the entire night. He and Joe (Gibbs) came up to the Speedway Club and told some stories about how long they had been trying to win there. So I was very proud to be able to do that for Norm. Would love to get him another one this weekend at Talladega. We will be doing some cool stuff this year to celebrate Interstate Batteries being with JGR for 30 years. If you think about it, not many things are so special where it lasts as long as Interstate and JGR have, but the partnership is just so special. We would like to give Norm, along with all the dealers and distributors, a reason to celebrate this weekend.”
Is it an advantage being a former winner at Talladega?
“It doesn’t matter at all. It’s such a crapshoot there in the last 20, 30 or 40 laps that you never really know who is going to win, what’s going to happen, and where the wreck is going to come from.”
Without Cup Series practice at a place like Talladega, now that you have a few races under your belt with this current Superspeedway package?
“I think it would be more of an issue with the engine tuners and knowing whether or not we guessed correct on the gear. Then, obviously whether they can guess right on the fuel mapping of the engine, stuff like that with it just being different RPM and essentially less horsepower. I think getting adjusted to not having any practice at a big track like Talladega was something more challenging for them than for us drivers. I don’t think any of us would have any problem with it. Looking forward to getting back in the Interstate Batteries car this weekend and hoping to get us back to victory lane there at Talladega.”
What can a driver still control at Talladega?
“You kind of look at what Denny (Hamlin) does and what Brad (Keselowski) does, the guys who are good racers at Daytona and Talladega and the guys who are fast at those places. Denny makes the most out of what he’s got for equipment, and I’ve got the same stuff and I’m not quite as forceful in situations as he is, and he makes that work for him. Our cars have been better at the speedway tracks and I’m hoping we can have a good run at Talladega. I won’t try to put myself in a bad spot to cause something, but it’s always a challenge and it’s always different. I feel like, every time you go to Talladega it’s the same, but it’s different and you just don’t know what to expect. A lot of new drivers who are out there don’t have wins, yet, in our series who are going to be hungry and looking for wins, so they’re going to be trying to punch their tickets to the playoffs and be very aggressive. You’ve got to be mindful of that, too.”
What is the key to pulling off a victory at Talladega?
“The key there is to somehow stay out of trouble. You stay where the pack is, generally, and we get up single file on the wall at times until it’s time to go, and you can pretty much run wide open every single lap. Everyone can run up on top of each other. When you get single file at the bottom, sometimes it’s hard to get a lane on the outside with enough good cars to get something going. It can be frustrating at times because of that. It also seems to still put on a good race each time we go there. If you can be a contender and stay in line on the bottom, you can make it a pretty easy and safe race. Normally, guys are not content doing that, so that’s when it starts to get crazy.”