An interview with: ROGER PENSKE, RICK HENDRICK, JOE GIBBS
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the first availability of Championship Weekend, a big one. We’re joined by three NASCAR Hall of Famers, all of whom own cars that will be competing for the NASCAR Cup Series championship on Sunday.
Welcome to you, Roger Penske, owner of the No. 2 Discount Tire Ford, and the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford. Rick Hendrick, owner of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and Joe Gibbs, owner of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota.
Roger, with two cars in the championship, it must have been a unique week at the Penske shop. How does having two cars change the operation at the shop, if at all?
ROGER PENSKE: Basically having two people to sit down and look at the data, how they’re going to set up their cars, we’re dealing with the same situation as we’ve had in the past, no practice, no qualifying. We want it to be collaborative. I think it has been. Obviously if you’re playing golf and you’re holding a 7‑iron, everybody holds it a little bit differently.
Overall it’s been a good week. During the COVID obviously we’ve been working the teams separately, coming in different hours during the last three or four months. We’ve been really focusing here obviously for the championship. Joey had the benefit, his team, to be able to work on the car maybe a couple more weeks because of his win.
THE MODERATOR: Rick, all the momentum seems to be in the 9 camp after the clutch win at Martinsville. How much of a role do you think momentum will play in Sunday’s race?
RICK HENDRICK: I hope it plays a lot of momentum. They’re riding high, feel good. We’ve got some unbelievable competition here with Roger’s two cars and Joe’s car. We know we’ve got to be at our best. At least we got a shot. It’s good to be back in the ballgame again.
THE MODERATOR: Joe, Denny is no stranger to this championship race. In your mind what is it going to take for Denny to win his first championship?
JOE GIBBS: I would say we’ve been struggling with that for about 16 years here (laughter). For FedEx, which has been just a fantastic sponsor for us, sure appreciate them, we would love to have a championship. We know everything that goes into this, how big it is.
But in particular, in our sport, which I’m sure Rick and Roger would testify to, the sponsors just play a huge role. They’re really more than a sponsor, they’re partners. I focus a lot on FedEx. We’d love to have it for them.
Denny obviously has had several opportunities, not being able to get it done. It’s a huge deal for us. A lot riding on it. But I think it is for all three of us here as owners, certainly the four cars, I think this is going to be ‑‑ I don’t know who to pick, to tell you the truth. I think it’s going to be a real war.
Like Rick said, we’re just thrilled to be in it. It will be a huge deal for us if we could finally get Denny a championship.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll now open it up to questions.
Roger, Joe was just talking about the importance of sponsors. Obviously in this unusual year a lot of places, the sponsors haven’t been allowed to go to the tracks. Some will be allowed this weekend. I think you’ve been able to do some things to get people in at the INDYCAR races. What does it mean to have the availability to have those folks at the track? Looking toward next year, how important does that become? Is it a case that maybe the sport should look at testing as opposed to waiting on a vaccine to allow more access for these individuals?
ROGER PENSKE: We’re in unprecedented times. It’s hard for me to forecast what’s going to happen next year.
Basically, as Joe said, our sponsors are key to us. The revenue, the support, what they give us from the notoriety from a team, from a driver perspective, is unbelievable. When you think about Discount Tires, hometown is Phoenix, it’s a big thing for them this weekend. Certainly Shell Pennzoil, Joey has driven to a championship before. Everybody is really high right now.
I think having fans is important, we know that. I think the industry, quite honestly, NASCAR has done a good job in keeping the epidemic, let’s say, down in the garage area within the industry. I think what we’ll do is people have access through suites and things allow that this weekend. Hopefully our sponsors will have that opportunity.
I’m not sure what the total access will be and the number of fans that will be in the stands. I just don’t know that sitting here in Detroit.
RICK HENDRICK: I don’t know testing. I think NASCAR has done an excellent job again to finish the season. I was concerned, our sponsors were concerned, that we wouldn’t get the year in. Hospitality is a big deal for our sponsors. NAPA has a lot of hospitality. When they couldn’t have hospitality, we tried to do other things.
But it’s important to get our sponsors back at the track. We do understand that at least we’re able to race and finish the season. Hopefully they’ll get a vaccine and we can do some things that can try to get some of those folks back.
We love to see the fans also, but the sponsors, like Joe and Roger said, without them, we can’t do this. They’ve been really great to stick with us and try to be the best that they can. We’re real excited for NAPA and for Chase.
Love to see hospitality back in some fashion to get the key people back.
JOE GIBBS: The only thing I would add to fill in here with the other guys is we’re doing everything we can, we’re doing Zoom hospitalities. I just finished one with FedEx. Our sport, I’ve been so thankful that our sport was able to get in the whole season.
But echoing what Rick and Roger said, the experience that a fan can have at a race is totally different than other sports in that they can come in, they have a chance to get an autograph from somebody, they see things up close, they can get on the starting grid, they can be in hospitality and have questions and answers, get pictures taken with the driver and us as owners. It’s a huge deal for us.
I echo what the guys said. We need to get back to where we can get our fans back to the racetrack and our sponsors.
You guys talked about how it’s obviously been a challenging, difficult year. I’m sure some of you might not have thought you would have gotten to this point. What have been the most difficult things for you in getting through the 2020 season? It could be anecdotal if there’s a good story. What has been the most difficult thing for your teams getting through 2020?
RICK HENDRICK: I would say in our case trying to schedule to get people in to work on the cars, but keep them separate and not have epidemic breakouts. Knowing my other businesses, I’ve had some cases 80% of the sales force come down with the COVID‑19. Then you’re out of business. We’ve been petrified what would happen if one of our drivers would become infected, have to miss a race. Jimmie had to and it made a big difference in his last year.
I think just trying to maneuver around no practice, showing up with a car, keeping everybody healthy. It’s been an amazing and tough year to make all that work.
ROGER PENSKE: I’d say the same thing. It’s the social distancing, trying to meet those requirements both internally and externally have been really, really important. I think the way we set our shops up, I’m sure Joe and Rick have done the same thing, different shifts.
But the people have really gotten in line. The only benefit I’ve seen out of the social distancing is some of our people have a chance to be at home with their families. We want to see that happen during this time because it’s important.
That’s another part of our sport, is the family. I think we’ve gotten a benefit there. Many of the people have not been on the road this year, that’s been the opportunity to be at home during this unprecedented time where they could be with their families.
JOE GIBBS: For me, I echo what Roger and Rick said. The no practice thing I think really affected at least one of our teams in a big way. That was a big adjustment for us.
I think also keeping everybody safe, our front office as I know I’ve talked to Rick, I’m not sure about Roger, I would say we probably all are having our people work at home, our front office. You can get a lot done there, but what our guys really missed is that face‑to‑face, all the interaction that you get in the front office. That’s been a huge adjustment for us.
As a matter of fact we started having our groups come in twice a week because I think that’s something that you really miss. But I think it’s keeping everybody safe. That’s been our biggest deal.
We have a whole protocol on the floor. Our guys have to come in on the floor. We try to do it in the safest way you can. That’s been the biggest worry I think.
Coach Joe, Denny was talking yesterday about how different it is this year versus previous years. You have one car in the Championship 4 as opposed to last year having three. Denny talked about how he sees the dynamics being different in the shop with focus. Could you contrast this year to last year? I know you’re going to have a new driver on the 20, there’s been speculation about the 18. Have you made any decisions in terms of crew chiefing lineup for the 18 and the 20?
JOE GIBBS: I’ll take that one. We’ve not made any decisions right now. We’re going to review things after the season’s over.
I think as far as having one car in the Chase, the good thing there, you can focus on that one car. I don’t know what problems Roger’s having right now, but I’d rather have Roger’s problems than mine (laughter).
When you have multiple cars in, it gets to be complicated. What do you share? There’s some big questions that come up as soon as now you have more than one car in the Chase. The fact that we’ve had Denny in, it’s been a little easier. I think everybody is focused to try to help him.
Roger, this is the first time since NASCAR went to this Playoff format in 2014 that you’ve had two drivers in. How much do you think the crew chief shift kind of upstarted this trend towards better performance among the teams?
ROGER PENSKE: I think from the standpoint of the decision we made at the beginning of the year to make the crew shift changes, kind of like in your business, people sometimes it’s time to move into a different environment. I think it was really from the team perspective, the drivers and the crew chiefs, they all applauded that. I think you’ve seen the outcome.
To me, people probably wondered why we made that decision. I think they’ve all found homes together. We’ve had good performance. We’re very, very fortunate to be in the position we’re in today. I take my hat off to the crew chiefs and drivers, how they’ve worked together so far this season.
Since you know this sport so well from both the team and the track side, the series side, what has been the biggest challenge for you in 2020?
ROGER PENSKE: The biggest challenge is always on the racetrack competing against these two guys that are here with me today. That’s certainly point number one.
Health and safety of our people certainly would be number two.
Then the ability to change the schedules, the work schedules, within the team. Certainly we’ve learned, as Joe said, people working from home at certain times, getting together. I think the Zoom calls, the virtual relationships we set up with our sponsors has been brand‑new. In fact, I think it’s been welcomed by a lot of our sponsors. I’m sure Joe and Rick have had the same good luck with it.
From a promotor perspective, obviously it’s tough because your revenue comes in through tickets and suites. With that being not available, it really puts pressure on the promotor.
I think NASCAR has done a good job in getting us the full season schedule, which is not easy, tying in with our media partner, being able to complete that.
Yet we come here to Phoenix with four good cars vying for the championship. I think Joe said or someone did earlier, I’m not sure who is the best, who is going to win, to be honest with you. Obviously we want our camp to be there. I think it’s going to be exciting.
Roger, on coach Joe’s last comment about he’d rather be in your position with multiple cars going for the championship. You’ve been fortunate enough, the team has been, to be in this kind of situation many times over the years. It seems like your message for the teams has always been, We have to execute. If one of us wins, the team wins. Is that the same message that you’ll have for both crews and both drivers for this weekend?
ROGER PENSKE: I think we run as a team, we win as a team. We know when we go to the racetrack, if we have three cars, only one is going to win. You have to have that DNA throughout your whole organization. It’s tough. These guys are competitive.
I think the collaboration, quite honestly, our crew chiefs, we have to the ability to share the information. We want them to. That’s a by‑product of what we do in Indianapolis in the INDYCAR Series with our teams sitting together after each practice.
We can’t do that this year because of the moratorium on getting together. It’s a team effort. To be in a position with two cars obviously is envious as far as I’m concerned. We still got to go out there this weekend and perform, but it’s certainly a team effort.
There’s always a lot of focus on the telecasts about pit road penalties, be they speeding or loose lug nuts. Is that perhaps your biggest worry, a self‑inflicted wound, going into Sunday’s race?
JOE GIBBS: I think for me, you make a good point. What I love about racing, I love to see it take place on the racetrack. If you lose a race, you want it to be because you got out‑raced by somebody.
What worries me the most is something that happens on pit road or a loose lug nut. Our situation last year, if you remember, our three cars, two of them had issues in the pits really. It cost us those two cars were out. That’s what worries you, for me anyway.
I love the fact we can get to the last pit stop, get it over with, don’t have anything interfering with the race itself, and either win it or lose it on the racetrack. That’s what I would like to have happen this week.
RICK HENDRICK: A good example of that, if the jackman hadn’t gone back and touched the wall, we wouldn’t be in this deal. Those kind of things. You have to be mistake‑free through all the stops and pit at the right time. All those things enter into it. So many times the best car doesn’t win.
Just try to make as few mistakes, no mistakes if you can.
Self‑inflicted wounds, Roger, the worst?
ROGER PENSKE: I guess you can take a look at last weekend. Brad I think was up significantly with points, then he had the speeding penalty coming out of the pits. He was very fortunate to be able to drive through to get one point to get over Harvick.
That’s absolutely something we can’t have. It’s got to be zero defects. (Indiscernible) is not good enough for this weekend.
Roger, you have two really confident drivers, both of them by nature are certain in their abilities, both believe they’re going to win on Sunday. How does that play out between them?
ROGER PENSKE: Look, I’m glad they’re confident or we wouldn’t have them driving. I think all four drivers are confident going into the weekend.
Quite honestly, we got two guys, the best guy is going to win. I hope it’s one of the two. We don’t have any team orders from that perspective. They’re going to race their hearts out. We’re going to execute in pit lane. The best driver is going to win out of the two.
Rick, Jeff Andrews said you were texting him at all hours of the night after Chase won on Sunday, that you were really amped up for this. How important was it to get back into the championship picture?
RICK HENDRICK: ’16 was the last time for us. We have had some off years. We’ve got some good momentum this year. I think our organization is stronger than it has been in the last two or three.
It was such a nail‑biter because we had basically to win to get in. Yeah, I was pretty amped up, excited for the organization, excited for Chase as a young guy that has had some opportunities to win this year that slipped away. But I knew how emotional he was after it was over.
Yeah, I’m just honored to be in there with these guys, see what we can do.
Joe, in a few weeks Denny is also going to be a competitor of yours. How will this relationship work? Will it be any different than other partners or alliances you’ve had? Do you have to set any boundaries with Denny?
JOE GIBBS: Better not be a competitor of mine (laughter). I’m paying the guy a lot of money to drive this race car.
I think what happened there really hopefully is great for our sport from a diversity standpoint. To get Michael coming into the sport, they’re buddies, really. They play golf together.
I think it’s something that Denny will finish his career here, at least he says that, that’s what we want. Then at that point he’s kind of made up his mind he wants to go over. It will be something he wants to do in the future, become a car owner.
I told him, Listen, I don’t know why you’re doing this, first of all. A driver, drive racecars, you get to have all the fun. Secondly, you make all the money. We got to pay hundreds of people to work on their race car. They pay three or four people. Third, they all got great‑looking girls. You got fun, you got money and you got girls. Why in the world do you want to be a car owner (laughter)?
My biggest thrill is trying to make the payments at the end of each month. Rick and Roger will testify, if I had a choice, I’m telling the truth, I’d rather be a driver. I’d love to have had the talent to be a driver. I didn’t.
Anyway, we kid about that all the time. I think it’s just going to be good for Denny. I think it would be good for our sport. Hopefully it’s good for everybody all the way around.
Our sport should be for everybody. I think everybody feels that way. So the diversity part of it I think is awesome.
RICK HENDRICK: I have a bet with Joe. I told Joe, I said, Now, when this car doesn’t run, Denny’s car is not fast enough, he’s going to come to you and say, I want to give them this car that I raced and won with last week.
I said, What are you going to do then, Joe?
JOE GIBBS: Rick has a way of getting to me. He did call me and tell me exactly that (laughter). He said, Hey, your problems are just starting.
Are you going to have to set boundaries with him to keep JGR and his team separate?
JOE GIBBS: No, I don’t think so at all. I think he understands and we will be helping in some ways with the new car over there. So I don’t think that will be any issue, for sure.
Despite several significant weather delays this year, including the Daytona 500, television ratings are pretty good, down 1%. Have you heard from sponsors about the television ratings and the encouraging signs you are seeing with that?
ROGER PENSKE: Obviously the product on the racetrack has been phenomenal. The competitiveness of the cars and teams, coming down here, anybody can win this series. I think the TV, FOX and NBC, have done a great job. It’s given us obviously, the sponsors that support the advertising, to have something that’s not been way off like many of the stick‑and‑ball sports have been. I take my hat off not only to NASCAR but our media partners.
JOE GIBBS: The only thing I would add, I think we’re really fortunate that our sport probably fits being able to get through this COVID better than other sports. I was in football, you’re in locker rooms, you’re in meeting rooms. It’s a contact sport. Everything kind of goes against football and some of the other sports.
We’ve been fortunate that we have one driver, he can go to the racetrack, no practice. We’re outdoors. For all those reasons…
I got to tell you, I was thrilled with NASCAR and Jim and everybody there, what they did to get our sport through the whole year here. It was everybody. Everybody chipped in. The teams, everybody. I thought it was great because this could have been a huge issue for all of us that are in the sport.
RICK HENDRICK: I think our sponsors watch. They look at the ratings because all of the marketing departments that work for them stay abreast of that. We talk about it all the time.
I think the fact that we’ve been able to hang on while most of the other guys are falling like rocks, it’s been good for us. We figured out ways with Zoom to also keep their people engaged. Constantly changing what we’re doing.
But the racing has been great. So the fans are seeing some good racing. I think, again, just like these guys have said, just to go back and think we weren’t going to get any races in, to now here we’ve run them all, we’re running for a championship this weekend, it’s pretty phenomenal for our sponsors.
Yesterday Brad Keselowski estimated that the elimination of practice and qualifying has saved race teams about 20% to 30% of their annual budget. Is that true? Would you like to see the one‑day shows continue or would you rather have practice and qualifying return in some way, shape or form moving forward?
ROGER PENSKE: I heard that comment earlier. I said he must be negotiating with me before the race weekend (smiling).
RICK HENDRICK: I personally like the one‑day shows. In some cases we like to have practice and qualifying. I think it’s hurt guys like William, that he qualifies real well. He needs the practice, too.
It’s some kind of split there. If we can do it all, it’s hard to do. Our guys are on the road a lot. Their families are enjoying them being at home. Some kind of mix.
If we go to a new track, and we will, we’ll have to practice. Qualifying, it’s fun to do and watch. At the same time we’re trying to save expenses, extra time on the motors, tires and all that.
I think the method they use for starting the race has worked out pretty good.
JOE GIBBS: I hope what we can do in the future is help the rookie portion of it, just like Rick just mentioned. We’ve got Christopher. For a first‑year guy to not have a chance to at least be in the car some, make some laps.
I hope going forward, this is something that got thrown on us in such a hurry, hopefully going forward we can work out something where we can have a little bit of testing for the rookies coming onboard. I think that would really help us.
It does sound like we’re going to have a mix of this going forward.
Beyond the competition challenges of that no practice and qualifying, and to have the teams home with their families, has it been a significant cost savings for the teams? That’s something I know you have to balance a lot.
ROGER PENSKE: There is, no question. With people not on the road, we’re not taking a spare car with us, things like that. Obviously it’s key. Our engine time, cost of engines, tires, et cetera. You add that up, it’s very meaningful from the standpoint of overall costs.
We still have a product that I have to say is as good as I’ve seen it in many years under the certain circumstances that NASCAR has today. I think Rick mentioned it, Joe did. As we go into next year, some of these road races, places where we haven’t run before, NASCAR is going to give us practice times and things like that which will make a difference.
Again, that’s the tough thing. When we get a young rookie in, they try to work him up. It’s a tough ladder to climb without having a chance to get on the track. I think it’s going to evolve. I think NASCAR will continue to look at it. We have the new car coming in ’22.
We have to look at cost today. I know Rick does like I do. I think everyone has to chime in and make it happen. NASCAR has been ahead of it helping us doing this during these unprecedented times.
Even our sponsors are looking to the cost, too. Can they bring people to the races? We want them to be able to do that in the future. This is the whole industry getting together, the sponsors, drivers, teams, everyone else involved.
To me I think we’ve got a good plan and we’ve got to execute it next year.
Was this something, this no practice, no qualifying thing, like a happy accident coming out of this pandemic or was it something that maybe NASCAR discussed with you prior to all this stuff that’s happened over the season? I’m thinking it’s a happy kind of accident that came out of the pandemic, and you see that it can work, it’s saving you guys money.
ROGER PENSKE: I don’t think it’s a happy accident. I think at the end of the day we all got to get better. As the cars are more competitive, certainly we always like to practice. But when you weigh the pluses and minuses, I think the industry itself and the chance for the owners to get together and talk about cost savings, we’ve been doing that now for a number of years, I think it’s something that’s attributable to people looking at it and thinking, Maybe this was the catalyst that kicked it off.
There were lots of discussions about two‑day, three‑day shows. Then you have Xfinity and Truck. Maybe for the promoters these other guys can be focused on those type of races, keep Cup as the senior years for Sundays.
RICK HENDRICK: I think when you have to prep four cars, eight cars instead of four cars, going in on Sunday one‑day shows, the chance of tearing a car up in practice, it’s a balance. I think everybody, we were all fearful of one‑day shows, not having a backup car.
But it’s worked out. Some teams have fared better than others. I think our sport has adapted well. It is saving us money.
JOE GIBBS: I think in pro sports what happens is there’s a lot of change, this year because of COVID, it was a total, interrupted almost everything we were doing. I think in some case is it showed us maybe a better way of doing some things. We’re all looking at it from a sport standpoint.
I appreciate our management, friends, family, everybody running the show getting all of our races in. But I think in some cases it was a negative. I think we’ve also, because of being creative and using social and digital, in particular for us, there have been some real pluses in it, too.
I think our sport, we got bright people, we got great owners, I think everybody is looking at trying to say, What is best for our sport going forward? I think we’ll learn a lot certainly from this year because really COVID tore up everything.
THE MODERATOR: Roger, Joe, I appreciate your time. Best of luck on Sunday.
JOE GIBBS: Jimmie and Rick, the way you handled your program was first class. I think Rick and I are tired of sitting out in the audience all the time. I want to say big thanks to you, what you guys did. The hardest thing for me in pro sports is to stay up there. You guys stayed up there forever it seemed like. So congrats on all that.
ROGER PENSKE: I agree.
RICK HENDRICK: Jimmie is a one‑of‑a kind guy.
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