Gibbs has always played down his role in his NASCAR team's success, portraying himself as ignorant about the workings of racecars and a liability, if anything, to the operation. But his role is invaluable -- particularly in cultivating and keeping corporate sponsors that bankroll the teams.

The budget for a front-running NASCAR team is roughly $20 million per year. Gibbs has three top teams, sponsored by such Fortune 500 companies as FedEx and Home Depot.

Said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing: "Technically, we have our key leadership here, and stuff goes on whether he's here or I'm here or not. But from a corporate standpoint and being a leader, he's the backbone of this team."

— Gibbs raising money for racing team  

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