DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A late-night trip to a local eatery just down the road from Daytona International Speedway brings back fond memories for Joe Gibbs. That 1993 excursion came in the aftermath of the NASCAR team bearing his name winning the Daytona 500 in just its second year of existence.
"That night we got lost, we didn't know what to do ... we wound up at the Steak ‘n' Shake," Gibbs said. "There were about 15 people in there hammered, and we showed up with the trophy out in the parking lot taking pictures with our family. We had a ball then."
Everyone associated with Joe Gibbs Racing figured it would become a tradition any time the team won the Great American Race. One problem, however: in the 21 years since that night, JGR hasn't again won the Daytona 500.
It seems implausible that JGR, a team which has won 112 races and owns a trio of Cup championships, has just one Harley J. Earl Trophy to its name. It's even more mystifying when you consider the team has fielded cars for some of the sport's biggest names: Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth.
And yet only Jarrett has brought Gibbs to Daytona's Victory Lane.
"Probably one of the greatest sporting experiences I've ever had. I was thrilled," said Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins. "... This race is extremely, extremely hard to win, the 500. That probably says it the best."
It appears that, as this year's Daytona 500 dawns, another trip to Steak ‘n' Shake could be in the offing.
The tone was set a week ago when Hamlin pulled away in the closing laps, soundly winning the Sprint Unlimited. Then, in Thursday's twin qualifying races, the notion that JGR was the clear favorite was reinforced as Kenseth led 31 of 60 laps to win the first Budweiser Duel, while Hamlin took the honors in the second feature.
Although the draft acts as a great equalizer, JGR seems to have a decided edge.
"Those Gibbs guys, they're strong," Kurt Busch said. "I've been coming down here 15 years. You see cars qualifying really well and some of them don't race well. Then you see guys that don't qualify well and they race really well.... If you're 18th on your own, like Matt Kenseth was on his own, Denny Hamlin was 23rd, that's pretty strong when you're going with basically your package you're going to race with.
"So now it's shown up three times. Denny Hamlin has two wins, Kenseth has a win, and those Gibbs guys are on their game."
That JGR rolled into Speedweeks with a fleet of fast Toyotas shouldn't be a surprise. Last year, the organization dominated the Daytona 500, with Kenseth and Hamlin combining to lead 119 of 200 laps. At one point, the three JGR cars were running 1-2-3. However, Kenseth and Busch never saw the finish as engine failures sidelined them within moments of one another, while Hamlin faded from the lead in the latter stages.
A lack of engine reliability has been JGR's glaring weakness in recent seasons, and will continue to cast a giant shadow over the team until proven otherwise.
Then there is the question of how much stock can be put into winning the exhibition Sprint Unlimited (featuring a condensed field) and its Duel sweep (since the conditions will be vastly different than those JGR will encounter Sunday). Those races were contested at night in cooler temperatures on a track far less slick. And as has been proven countless times, the Daytona 500 is wildly unpredictable.
"If you're going to pick a favorite, I would consider them the favorites," Jeff Gordon said. "They're very fast. They won both (Duels). They won the Unlimited. I don't know if that means anything, but I would definitely say they're very quick and very capable of winning this race -- along with 42 other guys."
But if everything comes together and the pieces to the puzzle that has confounded JGR for the last 21 years fall into place, Gibbs may finally get his wish.
"I want to (celebrate) Sunday night," Gibbs said. "We'll go down to Steak ‘n' Shake and have a party."