Nate Ryan

The long road home

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Greg Ives was fixing a semi truck 12 years ago when the call that jump-started his career and changed his life started with a tiny fib.

Hendrick Motorsports team manager Brian Whitesell, under the impression he was calling Ives’ cell phone, was on the line with a question. Was Ives near Daytona International Speedway?

From a desk at Ives Truck Repair in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the future crew chief for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., didn’t miss a beat, answering with the confidence of a man who eventually would have the pressure-packed task of ensuring success for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

“Yeah, I’m in Florida,” Ives recalls responding. “It’s Speedweeks. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Terrific, Whitesell said. Be at the track Thursday, and we’ll show you around and talk job opportunities.

It was 1 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. Daytona was a 1,500-mile drive away.


“I left within an hour,” said Ives, who delayed the road trip only to change the oil in his car. “I was ready to go. My dad gave me a hug and said, ‘Have fun, good luck. Call when you get there. Drive safe.’”

After a 24-hour drive to Daytona in his black 1998 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Ives went to the track that Thursday to meet with several Hendrick team members. The interview lasted about 30 minutes. He wasn’t offered a job and didn’t return for Sunday’s race. A few days later, he made the long trip home.

“I was like, ‘OK, I just drove all this way for that,’” Ives said, pausing to smile. “That was awesome!”

It would take another interview at Hendrick headquarters near Charlotte (a 32-hour round trip from Michigan this time) before he was hired for an entry-level shop job.

Including the last drive he made from Michigan to North Carolina to start work on March 22, 2004, Ives estimates he invested roughly 100 hours crisscrossing a dozen states behind the wheel to get his first job.

Every minute was worth it.

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For those trying to reach the top rung of the pit box in NASCAR, going the extra mile – or a few thousand of them – is the credo.

“You look for individuals that have a passion for it, that if they didn’t race another day, it’d be the worst day ever,” Ives, 36, said. “That’s where a lot of us are.

“I may have days I don’t feel I have as much fun or enjoy it as much as possible, but I’d rather take that than not do it at all. I think my daughter described it best. She said, ‘Dad I want to race. Because it’s in my blood like yours.’ I’ve seen plenty of people who didn’t have it and not cut it. The rest of them are just passionate.”

Ives’ endless road to employment isn’t atypical for Sprint Cup crew chiefs, virtually all of whom made long journeys to reach the pinnacle of their profession.

Unlike other professional sports, where coaches and managers often tend to be former players who are identified and groomed years ahead of their arrivals in the spotlight, NASCAR’s garage generals tend to rise through the ranks from very humble and obscure beginnings. The next winning crew chief in Sprint Cup could be on a marathon roadie now en route to his first job interview just as Ives once did.

NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte, who started at Hendrick as a teenager pushing a broom around shop floors before becoming a winning crew chief with Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt, said it’s understood that great sacrifices are required.

“We don’t want people who say they’ll do anything, we want people who will do anything,” said Letarte, who still laughs about the time he delivered a chair for crew chief Ray Evernham because he was asked. “I think people don’t always understand the lengths we’ve all gone. When I look at the people who are crew chiefs, it’s because they did anything to get there and didn’t ask questions.

“Greg Ives was definitely one of those guys.”

So was Adam Stevens. The crew chief for defending series champion Kyle Busch, Stevens made a 10-hour round trip commute once a week from Ohio University to the Charlotte area during his senior year.

Chris Heroy, a crew chief for four seasons who switched from Kyle Larson to Brian Scott this year, gave up a life of surfing daily in the Bay Area and moved 3,000 miles for his first NASCAR job.

Chad Johnston, who worked with Tony Stewart the past two seasons and now holds the reins for Larson, became familiar with the back roads between Terre Haute, Ind., and North Carolina while trying to network.

“You’re just trying to meet the right people, or meet somebody that could lead you to the right person,” Johnston, 35, said.  “Once you’re in, it’s a pretty tight-knit group, and if you’re good at what you do, it seems to be easy to stay in, but it also makes it really hard to get in from the outside unless you know somebody.

“I didn’t know any big people, so it was just a matter of knocking on enough doors until you got the right one.”

* * *

Stevens’ quest began when his career racing late models in dirt ended 15 years ago. Two members of his team had ventured to North Carolina and landed jobs, prompting his belief in opportunity.

“A lot of people we became acquainted with worked in NASCAR for a living,” he said. “When you see people you know really do this, it’s not so far away. You see the avenue.”

Stevens went to and printed all the available addresses and phone numbers for NASCAR teams. In the last few months of wrapping up his mechanical engineering degree at Ohio, he spent weekends zigzagging across North Carolina from Mooresville to Huntersville to Statesville to Welcome to Level Cross to High Point “and everywhere in between.”

Sometimes, he had interviews lined up through friends, but many times there were cold calls and unannounced visits.

“A lot of times you sat in the waiting room for an hour, and no one came to talk to you,” Stevens, 37, said. “But eventually, after seven to eight trips, I’d met enough people and people knew I was serious enough about it and thought I had a little bit of something to offer and found the right opportunity.”

Before finally getting hired by Petty Enterprises in summer 2002, Stevens had turned down three well-paying engineering jobs as well as an opportunity with his father’s booming construction business. If he had taken one of the jobs, he would have given up on racing for good because “I don’t do something halfway.”

“The urgency ramped up for sure because there was nothing to fall back on,” he said. “It was either/or. I wanted to be real sure about what I wanted to do and then be able to commit to it. I never second-guessed it. The hardest part wasn’t telling the three companies no, it was telling my dad I didn’t want to take over the family business. That was tough, but it didn’t excite me like racing did.”

The same was true for Johnston, who took a real-world job after graduating with an engineering degree from Indiana State but stayed involved in racing by working at an Indianapolis wind tunnel with Chevy ties.

He made countless weekend trips to Charlotte, sometimes sleeping on the ground beside a pickup truck in between interviewing with teams. He even had his cell phone programmed with a 704 area code to help disguise that he hadn’t relocated to Charlotte yet.

“Everybody just said you had to be here,” said Johnston, who eventually landed a job with the Morgan Dollar Motorsports truck team. “But it was one of those things where you’re out of college and trying to build your career and some stability. It’s hard to pick up and move.”

Heroy, 38, found himself with little choice after the 2004 shuttering of his California-based team in the Toyota Atlantic series (a feeder circuit for IndyCar). He decided to make the leap for a job opening at Hendrick and moved to North Carolina sight unseen. He hadn’t worked on a stock car before he drove across the country with his brother for the job (overcoming a car breakdown in Reno, NV., along the way).

“I was like, ‘Well, I like fried chicken, I like the South,’” Heroy said. “NASCAR seemed cool.”

That willingness to travel long distances to start the job, much less be granted a short interview, actually is a good qualifier considering the nomadic lifestyle of being on a NASCAR road crew. If you aren’t open to spending every waking minute dedicated to racing, i.e. working in the pits at short tracks while putting yourself through school as Ives, Stevens and Johnston did, chances are you probably won’t survive the grind of being on the road 10 months a year.

“This is something you dedicate your life to doing,” Stevens said. “You don’t wake up and decide I want to work on race cars. Maybe you do, but it needed to be when you were younger. Because there is so much stuff you need to know about racing in general that you can learn with a go-kart, a quarter-midget, a dirt car or a late model. You need to know that stuff.

“There’s a commitment or mentality to develop long before the first day on the job. It’s tough to hire someone who hasn’t raced. You don’t have a clue of the actual commitment unless you’ve made it before.”


* * *

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Ives knew the demands well before he embarked on that 24-hour drive to Central Florida. He grew up in a racing family about 10 miles from Bark River, Mich., a one-stoplight town known for hosting off-road races.

As a teenager, Ives gravitated toward an emerging NASCAR superstar named Jeff Gordon. When Ives raced in a Super Late Model Series as a 16-year-old rookie, he told the local paper that he wanted to work for Hendrick Motorsports within 10 years.

He made it in eight, but he didn’t always believe it was possible.

“Initially, I was kind of like, ‘How am I ever really going to know if I can?’ I wasn’t a super race car driver,” Ives said. “I wasn’t a spectacular fabricator or building chassis. My skills won’t fit in NASCAR. They don’t want a guy like me. I didn’t know what was required. I’m a short track racer mechanic bum grease monkey.

“Some of that is the mentality of a small town. How do you think you’re going to get out of this small town? You’re nothing special. I was always told, ‘Why are you (racing)? You’re wasting time and money. You have no future.’”

The break came at a family reunion in August 2003 when a third cousin said his son-in-law had started working as a front-end mechanic on Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet. He offered to forward Ives’ resume to Hendrick via email. Somehow, it landed in the hands of Whitesell, who called a few months later.

They stayed in touch, and Ives turned down an engineering firm job on the hopes of an opening at Hendrick.

When the call came from Whitesell at Daytona, he was ready – even if he had only a vague idea of where he was going.

“I had a map that said, ‘Get on I-75 and take it to Daytona,’” Ives said.

Things got hairy in Kentucky during a snowstorm that necessitated some NASCAR-esque dodges between a few large semis. Ives kept forging ahead, though. He can’t remember if he listened to the radio, but he knows he didn’t listen to a CD because he didn’t own one.

“I just drove,” he said. “I tried to stop and sleep at one point, and then started thinking about the interview more. So I got back in the car.”

He finally took a nap after arriving in Florida at New Smyrna Speedway, where he scanned the parking lot for Wisconsin and Michigan license plates. Ives found a friendly fellow Midwestern team to work with on that night’s Late Model race, then checked into a rundown motel on A1A in Daytona Beach.

The next morning, he patched an antifreeze leak in his car’s heater, bought his first cell phone (with a 303 area code for Michigan) and called Whitesell, who told Ives to meet his wife at the track. Mary Whitesell shepherded Ives, who didn’t have a credential, into the garage.

A month later, Brian Whitesell called again, summoning Ives for an interview with crew chiefs Robbie Loomis and Chad Knaus. Ives made the 32-hour round trip to Charlotte with his future wife, Jessica, for another 30-minute interview. A few days after Ives returned to Michigan, Whitesell called again on a Thursday afternoon.

“Brian’s like, ‘We have a position available, but it doesn’t pay as much as an engineering position,’” Ives said. “I said, ‘I’ll take it. I’ll start tomorrow. My car’s packed up. See you Friday afternoon.’”

He made it on time. Because of paperwork processing, though, Ives actually didn’t start until Monday, using the weekend to find a new place.

Since starting at Hendrick, he hasn’t dawdled on the lengths he went to get there. Ives said he and Whitesell still haven’t discussed the full story behind that first interview.

“I might have told him once that he made me drive 99 hours to get one job,” Ives said. “But Brian is a smart guy, so he probably already knew that.

“I think that was part of the interview.”

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    Back to the start

    The tiny car with the black matte finish is already distinctive in a myriad of ways.

    Its surface is fuzzy to the touch, having been sprayed with a nylon-type material once ubiquitous on back porches in the 1960s. Its rounded nose and sharply contoured tail resemble the roadsters synonymous with Indianapolis Motor Speedway decades ago. Its refurbished rear axle bears unmistakable scars of a tyke learning the limits of a quarter-midget amid tears and trepidation.

    But the quarter-midget’s most special trait is its pedigree.

    It was the first vehicle ever raced by a NASCAR legend – which makes the mystery of how and where it disappeared 30 years ago all the more compelling.

    When Jeff Gordon makes his final Sprint Cup start Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his last No. 24 Chevrolet undoubtedly will be preserved as a testament to his storied career – and perhaps even a fifth championship – but the bookend that marks the longevity of Gordon’s greatness is still being hunted down by John Bickford.

    “My guess is that the fuzz car is probably laying along a shed or in a barn someplace,” said Bickford, Gordon’s stepfather and his first crew chief. “And nobody even knows what it is or really what the history is or anything behind it.”

    Bickford technically still owns the “fuzz car,” the quarter-midget that Gordon raced shortly after receiving his first license as a 5-year-old in April 1977.  A month later, Gordon earned his first trophy with a fourth-place finish on a day he initially exhibited the on-track grit that later would define a record 797 consecutive starts in NASCAR’s premier series (concluding with this Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400).

    MORE: Watch NASCAR’s Championship from Miami, Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC

    He would score his first victory – a national championship qualifier in Sunnyvale, Calif., that earned a 4-foot trophy taller than the winner — that July before the first race car (a $450 hand-me-down investment) was retired after only a few months.

    Roughly a year later, Bickford loaned the quarter-midget to a longtime friend who wanted to outfit it with a Briggs and Stratton motor and field it for a grandson who was interested in racing. When Bickford and his family moved to Indiana to further Gordon’s career in the mid-1980s, the fuzz car still hadn’t been returned.

    Bickford has spent the better part of the last quarter-century looking for it and is convinced that 1) it still exists in an identifiable form and probably somewhere in the Northern California foothills; and 2) whoever has it is blissfully unaware of its immense lineage.

    “Some of my friends say, ‘Oh, they know it’s Jeff Gordon’s car,’” he said. “I’m not sure anyone actually ever knew it was Jeff Gordon’s car. He was just Jeff Gordon then. He wasn’t Jeff Gordon, race car driver.”

    Within the next year, though, Gordon would win the first of three national quarter-midget championships (against competition often four years older), then move on to four titles in go-karts that springboarded him to Midwestern sprint car success and eventually caught the eye of stock-car teams in the South. Fifteen years later, he would join Hendrick Motorsports and begin the multimillion-dollar trek to being a darling of Madison Ave. – a sports-marketing dream whose sponsor appeal and pop-culture crossover led to high-end endorsement deals, a wine collection and a chance to host Saturday Night Live.

    Many roots on the rise to the most transcendent star in NASCAR history can be traced to that quarter-midget, which was meticulously outfitted and prepared by the mechanically inclined Bickford.

    “John Bickford has really been the driving force behind Jeff Gordon forever,” said NBC Sports analyst and former crew chief Ray Evernham, who guided Gordon to his first three championships in NASCAR. “A lot of Jeff Gordon and the person that he is goes back to his upbringing between John and Carol Bickford.

    “For them to find that car, that very first car that started all this for them, too, would be an incredible thing for that family. I think right now it even means more to Jeff because he has a son and a daughter, but that car will probably mean as much or more than the car that Jeff won his last race in or last championship or this Sunday’s car, because it really represents the bond between he and John Bickford.”

    Even a four-time champion with 93 Cup victories would love to own the wheels in which he captured his first checkered flag.

    “Obviously, that car being the very first I ever drove, it would be pretty meaningful to have,” Gordon said. “It has a tremendous amount of meaning.”

    * * *

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    Using a rake and a hoe, Carol and John Bickford marked off the best simulation of a quarter-midget track they could muster in the dirt of the fairgrounds near their home in Vallejo, Calif. Gordon ran thousands of laps on the flat, makeshift circuit before entering races at a track in Rio Linda.

    “John and I got permission from a guy there to run him,” Carol Bickford said. “We were there every opportunity.

    “When we were doing that in Vallejo we would have friends of ours that had kids about that age. We would say we’re doing this with Jeff. Bring your kids, too. Just about everybody brought their kids out, and not one of them would get in a quarter-midget. Jeff got in without much hesitation at a very young age.”

    Gordon is notorious for joking about his inability to recall many of his NASCAR races with much specificity, but the degree of bravery required for manhandling a quarter-midget left some indelible memories.

    “I do remember the first time at the Vallejo fairgrounds,” Gordon said. “I remember because I was so scared. You don’t know what it’s going to do. I do remember some of the early races at (Rio Linda). In one of the first races, I hit the wall and flipped and started screaming.”

    In the most memorable race with the “fuzz car,” Bickford said Gordon tipped the car over four times while trying to turn the fastest lap in practice. The first crash occurred when Gordon didn’t lift off the accelerator, causing him to drift high, climb the wooden wall with his right-rear tire and bend the rear axle while wiping out.

    “He was crying and bawling, ‘My car! My car!’” Bickford said. “I said, ‘Jeff, your car is fine. Are your feet hurt?’ ‘No.’”

    Bickford lifted the back of the quarter-midget while his stepson steered it into the pits. Bickford grabbed a hacksaw and replaced the axle while his wife ran interference on a group of parents concerned that Gordon was being pushed too hard.

    “I grew up on the other side of the tracks, so I don’t take a lot of direction from people, and I was younger,” Bickford said. “I wouldn’t say I was belligerent, but I had a pretty good use of the English language, and they’d know they shouldn’t be around me when these parents would come up and say, ‘Give him a break, don’t force him.’ My wife would stand there and say, ‘Leave him alone, he knows what he’s doing.’”

    Gordon never got out of the fuzz car in the hour it took Bickford to fix it. He returned to the track and crashed twice more in the same spot, necessitating another lengthy repair.

    On his fifth attempt, Gordon posted the quickest time of the eight kids in competition.

    “A lot of who Jeff Gordon is comes from (when) he couldn’t give up in times like those,” Bickford said. “He just kept concentrating and didn’t allow any distractions. He had 25 laps (to win) these races, and these kids would block him, and he’d learn how to set them up and pass them at the right time without crashing.”

    * * *

    Gordon's first car earned the nickname "Fuzz Car" thanks to its 1960s-style paint job
    Jeff Gordon’s first car earned the nickname “Fuzz Car” thanks to its 1960s-style paint job.

    There is another quarter-midget that Bickford is trying to find – the most successful car that Gordon drove before moving into the midget class. It was sold in late 1981 to a man in Portland, Ore., whom Bickford recently tried to contact through social media.

    “Jeff absolutely loved the car,” Bickford said. “But I was never attached to any of these. The next car is always the faster one, so we’d put it off to the side of the garage and sell it.”

    The news didn’t go over well when a 10-year-old Gordon wandered around the shop looking for his favorite car a few months later.

    “He screamed, ‘What do you mean you sold it?’” Bickford recalled with a chuckle. “He was mad ever since, so I’d love to get that car back.”

    Though Gordon doesn’t have any cars from his time in midgets and quarter-midgets, he does have a replica of the fuzz car courtesy of a parting gift from Kansas Speedway.

    An automotive technical school for high school students in north Kansas City, Mo., spent 61 days building the custom pedal car for Gordon. A student named Jacob Hite discovered the history of Gordon’s first quarter-midget through an online search that included a story last summer in the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press-Democrat.

    “We thought it would be a fantastic gift, something at the end of his career that goes back to the beginning,” said Hector St. John, a motorcycle road racer and instructor who helped commission the project when asked for help by Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren. “We got goosebumps.”

    Having worked before with teacher Jack Stow and his students on the pedal cars (some of which have been given to Kansas pole winners), St. John helped consult as the class designed and built the fiberglass body and roll cage from the ground up. Stow said a core group of six students worked almost daily on the pedal car, sometimes until 3 a.m.

    Several were in the track’s media center for the presentation to Gordon during last month’s race weekend.

    “The kids got to spend some time with Jeff, and it was awesome,” Stow said. “I’ve been a NASCAR fan all my life. It was real nice to have someone like him that always did it right that I can always point to as a role model for kids, because he started so young. I try to get across that you’re at the age now that he started setting the world on fire. Just do it like he did.”

    A smiling Gordon was touched by the students’ gesture, noting his 5-year-old Leo “will love it” while marveling at some of the special touches.

    “This is the closest I’ll come to it until someone reveals that car,” he said.

    * * *

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    Bickford fancies himself as “a forensic car guy” from his experience in the formative years of harnessing Gordon’s talent during the preteen and teenage years.

    “Everything we bought for the most part were used cars,” Bickford said. “You’d buy the car because it was an original and established and fairly fast car. I’d take it all apart and figure out what’s unique about the car. Does it race better because it’s crooked and lays into left turns?

    “We figured out what it took and applied what we learned. Virtually every car that we got our hands on, we could make it fly. Part of it was Jeff’s skill, part of it was that I knew my way around the motors and the suspension, and I had the time and tools. Once I got some of those things down, I could literally take anybody’s car and do a few things to significantly improve the speed.”

    His intimate knowledge gives him confidence that he will recognize the fuzz car if it can be located. There would be the remnants of the axle repairs, and probably the numbers he had to grind through the fuzz to stick to a “tougher than nails” surface.

    “No one would likely have ever taken the fuzz off the car because it’s too difficult,” he said.

    Bickford believes he has a solid line on where the car might be after a few tragic twists. The man who borrowed the fuzz car died after Gordon’s family moved to Indiana. Bickford said the grandson who raced it was paralyzed in a car crash and his parents split up. The car was then given to a man named Mike Thomson in Montague, Calif., but that’s where the trail goes cold.

    Bickford believes it was passed on again and likely remains in that area, but phone calls and Facebook messages haven’t borne any fruit.

    “Maybe my friends and I will make a trip to California, head up there with the guy’s name and start banging on doors and go to gas stations and stores and just do the American Pickers deal,” Bickford said. “Go out there and cruise around. It’s an old country town, and I’m sure we could go have coffee someplace and say, ‘Have you ever heard of this guy?’ Put some pictures and a reward up there and see if we can find the car.”

    There are no elaborate plans if any of the quarter-midgets are located. Bickford just wants to restore them for Gordon, whose two children, Ella and Leo, also have shown interest in racing.

    “I’m going to fix them up for the kids,” said Bickford, who also has Gordon’s first two helmets and is working on acquiring a third.

    Evernham, a vintage car nut whose Americana show traces the U.S. history of the automobile and often revolves around recovering lost artifacts, has offered to help with the search.

    “I can tell you that even though it’s a piece of machinery, when they rolled that car off the truck, I had to turn around because I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes,” Evernham said. “Even though they’re inanimate objects, they can still create a lot of emotion.”

    Evernham recently recovered a vehicle he has been after for 42 years.

    “If John knows where it’s at, he’ll get it, and hopefully, the person (who has it) will do him right,” he said.

    Pitt stop

    INDIANAPOLIS – Relaxing in the middle seat of a red Chevy Suburban frenetically weaving through traffic while sirens wailed, Jeff Gordon downshifted into a reflection on slower times.

    The SUV’s destination was Pittsboro, Ind., the adopted hometown of the four-time NASCAR champion that was punctuating its celebration of Jeff Gordon Day with a parade.

    It had Gordon thinking of the last time he partook in a Pittsboro processional — a senior prank 26 years ago at Tri-West High School.

    “We decided we were all going to meet in town, and we were going to drive 5 mph all the way to school, which is about 5 miles,” Gordon said. “And we were all going to be late for school. One student showed up in a combine tractor, and he led the way. And we’re all just sitting there riding along.

    “People were screaming, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Honking at us and everything. We just come cruising into school thinking we’re the coolest people on the planet. And man, were they pissed.”

    The story was interrupted as the Suburban entered Pittsboro and hung a left onto Main Street, where it seemed every denizen from the town of roughly 3,000 lined the primary drag in support of its most famous resident.

    Gordon was distracted by a boy waving from a pedal car painted with the No. 24 and paint scheme he’s made famous in the Sprint Cup Series.

    “That’s so cool,” he said. “This is a big deal, man, around here in Pittsboro.”

    A pause.

    “It might not be a big deal anywhere outside of Pittsboro,” he laughs.

    The dull roar of two news helicopters circling overhead prove he’s wrong, of course.

    Anywhere the Hendrick Motorsports driver goes in these waning days of an illustrious career is a happening because it marks such a generational break in modern-day NASCAR. Tracks are proffering up lavish gifts – a Bandolero car for his kids, a blackjack table for his spare time and 96 bottles of bourbon for, uh, his sanity – and even going so far as to rename themselves (as Phoenix International Raceway will in November) to commemorate the occasion.

    But of all the farewell tributes, none will pack the emotional wallop of this week – and not just because of ties to the Hoosier State.


    On Sunday, Gordon will make his final start in the race most commonly known as the Brickyard 400, which he has won a record five times. IMS officials are expecting a crowd bigger than last year – ending a seven-year streak of declining attendance since the 2008 race was marred by a tire debacle – and track president Doug Boles said ticket sales have been up year-over-year every week since Gordon made his debut.

    When he cuts off the engine to his No. 24 Chevrolet after the checkered flag, the Hendrick Motorsports star will sever a link to a watershed event from the sport’s halcyon era.

    Gordon, who won the inaugural Brickyard in 1994, will be the only driver to have started the first 22editions of Cup at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 2.5-mile oval where he once bought Valvoline oil for his sprint car and dreamed of racing in the Indy 500.

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    That was shortly after he’d moved to Pittsboro as a 14-year-old to pursue a career.

    “This is a great little town,” he said. “It made all my dreams come true. I’m winding down this amazing career that started right here. It didn’t materialize until here. To drive down Main Street and see that reaction … ”

    Thursday was full of such George Bailey-type moments for Gordon, who made a special lap around the Indianapolis region before his last ride around its fabled track.

    With NBC Sports tagging along, here’s how it unfolded:

    10:02 a.m. – With driver Archie Kennedy and PR rep Jon Edwards aboard, the Suburban leaves the motor home lot at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Indianapolis International Airport’s FBO (or “fixed base operation,” which is private aviation jargon for the area of the airport where those unencumbered with the woes of commercial air travel can stash their planes).

    10:23 – Chevrolet is playing host to a golf tournament at the speedway a day before cars hit the track, so the activity on the tarmac is ratcheting up early this weekend. As Kennedy pulls up to a chain-link gate, Kurt Busch is driving past in an SVU, and a contingent of Richard Childress Racing executives and crew chiefs are lugging their clubs to waiting vehicles.

    The Speedway, Ind., police department consults with Kennedy to map out the routes for escorts to Pittsboro and a visit to the Riley Hospital for Children. Edwards asks about the parade crowd and is told people began gathering hours ago.

    Passing the time until Gordon lands, Kennedy rattles off play by play of the planes from the arriving NASCAR jet set, many of which are identifiable via initials and car numbers. “Harvick. … Menard. … McMurray?”

    MORE: A social media look at ‘Jeff Gordon Day’ in Indiana

    10:53 – Gordon and his nephew, Mattiece Hansen (whose family hails from Belgium just like Gordon’s wife, Ingrid), hop into the Suburban, which roars into formation behind a Dodge Charger and two motorcycles (Kennedy leaves a trailing distance of maybe 10 feet).

    “Pittsboro bound,” Gordon exults.

    10:58 – Rounding a crest near the Crawfordsville Road exit near the speedway, one of the motorcycle cops ahead throws a hand out at two dozen cars in the right three lanes.

    Police escorts in Indianapolis apparently are a special breed.

    “I’m telling you, these guys are serious,” Gordon says. “They have this coordination that will blow your mind. It’s like synchronized riding.”

    The bikes part the seas to help the Charger and Gordon’s car dodge orange barrels through a construction zone on the left. “I hope you didn’t wash this thing before you came over,” Gordon playfully says to Kennedy. “It looked really good at the airport.”

    11:14 – A trip that usually takes roughly 30 minutes is over in about 20 as the caravan reaches the Pittsboro Fire Department. Gordon has time for a round of photo ops before the parade begins at noon. The first poses are with the three officers who provided the escort.

    He then moves to the family of the late Larry Sparks, Gordon’s former driver education teacher who was killed with his wife when their RV crashed last October in Tennessee on the way home to Indiana from race weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Some are wearing neon green shirts with Jeff Gordon Day logos; those adoring toddlers say, “We might be small, but we’re Jeff’s biggest 24 fans.”

    In a fitted grey dress shirt, designer jeans and brown shoes, Gordon stands out only because of his attire, incessantly chatting with everyone before it’s time to climb into the white convertible Camaro sporting his yellow No. 24 on the hood.

    12:02 p.m. – Gordon is surrounded by familiar faces as his car begins the one-mile route behind the Tri-West High School marching band, state soccer champions and a boy scout troop. Behind the wheel is Jason Love, Pittsboro’s town manager who once scraped mud off Gordon’s sprint car as a member of the team.

    Sitting alongside Gordon is Bruce Pfeifer, a high school buddy wearing camouflage shorts and a Steelers hat. Gordon introduced Pfeifer to his wife, Jodi, and the couple still lives in Pittsboro.

    Bringing up the rear of the parade is Gordon’s Sprint Cup hauler, which draws as many cheers as any of the participants. Heath Edler pulls a few blasts of the horn, and a flurry of handmade signs lettered in crayon wave in response.

    Dean Mozingo, who co-drives the hauler with Edler, smiles as a guy chases after Gordon’s Camaro with a quarter panel tucked under each arm. Another pushes race tires up the street on a dolly.

    “We’re going to win this race for them,” says Mozingo, better known as “Squirrel” in the NASCAR garage. “We don’t care what it takes. Ain’t nobody better here than Jeff Gordon. He gets that look, you know he’s not playing around.”

    [parallax src=”” height=600 (Getty Images)”]

    12:30: After a right on Scamahorn Drive and another on Osborne Ave., the parade dwindles to just Gordon’s Camaro as it arrives at the community park in the center of Pittsboro.

    Over the next 30 minutes, Gordon is honored at a lively ceremony that includes Gov. Mike Pence (who presents the Sagamore of the Wabash, the highest honor for an Indiana civilian), IMS historian Donald Davidson (who recalls the first Brickyard ending with the winner ordering a pineapple and pepperoni pizza and advising that traffic was clear for delivery) and a replica of his high school diploma.

    He saves his most enthusiastic response for a badge presented by Pittsboro police chief Christi Patterson, making him an honorary officer. Gordon thrusts the piece of silver skyward.

    “They better rethink this badge,” he says. “And the friends of mine that are here better rethink some things. How far back can I go on some citizen arrests? Of course, I’d be pulling myself into that as well.”

    “We’re glad you’re excited, we need you to cover a shift on Monday,” Patterson cracks.

    Gordon seems ready, breaking into an eloquent and grateful speech saluting his mother and stepdad, Carol and John Bickford, for moving to Pittsboro. “I never would have accomplished what I did in racing without the town of Pittsboro. This to me today has been one of the best days of my life. I say that sincerely in every way because I get to see what Pittsboro not only meant to me, but to you guys.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    1:20: During a lunch of catered chicken inside a town hall meeting room, Gordon decompresses while debriefing about everything Pittsboro inside a room filled with No. 24-themed memorabilia (including a photo of the starting lineup from the inaugural Brickyard). On a shelf sits a 1/24th scale model of Gordon’s yellow No. 16 sprint car (1 of 5,000).

    Gordon, who hasn’t visited in at least a decade, notes that Frank and Mary’s, a fried catfish restaurant frequently mentioned in his interviews, is now a Dollar General (since closing four years ago after a 66-year run). He asks about his family’s former house (Davidson, the IMS historian, says it’s owned by a sprint car driver who raced against Gordon) and old friends and neighbors.

    His mother has a question, too: “Was that your real race car in that hauler?”

    MORE: Is Gordon in victory lane at the Jeff Kyle 400 a distinct possibility?

    1:50: With Edwards and PR counterpart Suzi Elliott of Indianapolis Motor Speedway slightly fretting over the schedule, Gordon blasts through interviews by 11 media outlets, graciously answering every question with aplomb for 35 minutes.

    One is about the alleged existence of a speeding ticket that hangs in a frame somewhere in the police station.

    “That is not true; I’ve never had a speeding ticket in this town,” he laughs. “But if it is, I’ve got this badge right here, so I’m pretty sure that’ll get me out of any trouble that may exist.”

    2:30: On the dot, per the track-prepared schedule, Gordon makes his way through a throng of autograph-seekers and climbs back into the Suburban. In formation with its police escort again, the vehicle whips around a cornfield and past a group of honking cars and screaming fans while merging onto I-74 in a cacophony of sirens.

    “Just another day, right Mattiece?” Gordon says to his bemused-looking nephew, who has been helping his No. 24 crew on race weekends. “This is every day for Mattiece. When he’s not with me, this is how he lives.”

    It seems a good time to wonder: Have the demands of the season-long farewell sometimes been a distraction for Gordon, who hasn’t won since last September and still hasn’t cemented a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup?

    Gordon, who tried to backload some of the sendoffs for next year, says he has been able to focus by keeping his game-day schedule clear (his pre-race routine usually includes a mind-clearing workout).

    “With the requests that have come in, we could have done a lot more,” he says. “There’s no doubt there were some things that were happening that we still had to be involved with some of the decision making and planning. That did become a distraction. And it didn’t help that we weren’t having a great start to the season. That made it a little more challenging. I would say that compared to what I think it could have been, I think we’ve done a good job.”

    If it were up to him, he probably would skip the track tributes but, “I appreciate them recognizing me. I’m proud of what I’ve done in the sport. This is the challenge with trying to go out while you’re still competitive. Being competitive is so important, it’s hard to let go of that. If I wanted to go 180 degrees and just enjoy all those moments and do more for the tracks, the fans, I’d have to let go of what’s happening on the racetrack.”

    “I’m not ready or willing to do that, nor is my team. That probably drives a lot of it. The team is capable of being competitive.”

    Gordon says his biggest commitment of the farewell campaign has been a hospitality trailer he’s taking to eight events that necessitated a meticulous list of personal invites to friends he hadn’t entertained at races previously.

    “In order to get that organized the way we want to have the experience we want for them to have, it took a little bit more of my time and involvement,” he said. “Those are things you can’t necessarily predict. Then when we were struggling on track, then it’s very easy to say, ‘OK, there’s too many distractions.’ If we’d won three of first six races, no one would even blink an eye at it, and we’d still be doing a lot more. I recognize that. When things are good, you can get away with a lot of things. When things aren’t going good, you have to refocus your energy and attention and give more. That’s what I’ve had to do.”

    MORE: Gordon says Indy is an ‘event that matches the hype’

    2:43: Zooming by the speedway again on 16th Street, Gordon unclips his badge and slams it in the center console between the front seats. “Archie did you see that? Unfortunately, it doesn’t say Indiana. It says Pittsboro. So it’s contained in a small area. But if you ever go through Pittsboro and need help, call me.”

    Edwards hands over his cell phone – it’s time for a SiriusXM interview. Despite the wah-wah of the sirens in the background, Gordon hardly misses a beat.

    2:58: Ushered into the lobby of the Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health by a contingent of executives and PR representatives, Gordon stops in his tracks upon seeing a small child wearing a mask and cradled by a nurse. “Not feeling well? Guess what, they’re going to make you feel all better.”

    He spends the better part of the next hour boosting spirits in a cancer ward upstairs. There are 22 children in the activity center, many of them hooked to machines to receive treatment. Gordon gradually makes the rounds (“Hi, I’m Jeff. How are you?”) as they become comfortable enough with his presence for a group photo.

    3:37: Gordon, who has worked with the hospital since 2001, meets a group of recovering kids who will appear at a news conference with him, and one already is aware of his day.

    “So I guess you’re a police officer now?”

    “If you come through Pittsboro, Ind., you need to see me.”

    He focuses on three younger girls in a corner of the room, leading a room of administrative staff and nurses in a rendition of “Happy birthday” when he learns one is turning 13.

    “I have a daughter that’s 8, and I’m trying to prepare myself for what happens when she’s 13,” he says.

    4:00: The hospital announces Gordon’s 24th donation (this grant of $300,000 will benefit training oncology-focused pediatric physician scientists), bringing his total contributions to $3.8 million over the past 14 years. The hospital plays a 3-minute video honoring his accomplishments and presents a red wagon (which is used to offer kids a fun diversion while navigating the facility in treatment) with a Jeff Gordon license plate.

    “I’m honored to be here,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything for me. But I still know you will.”

    5:12: After a live remote on the sidewalk outside the hospital for SportsCenter, the suburban heads for its final stop of the day – a hotel parking lot on the east side of the city where Gordon will film a segment for a TV reality show.

    It’s a top-secret shoot, but one detail that can be revealed is that every crew member is wearing black, which prompts laughter that the hotel guests might call the authorities about a suspicious group of characters crawling around the property.

    “I’ve got my badge,” Gordon says. “I’ll tell them to clear all these people out!”

    6:50: It’s rush-hour traffic back to IMS, and the police escort is gone. “Thank God for these roundabouts,” Gordon jokes as the SUV negotiates a tricky intersection on the way.

    As the Suburban pulls into the infield, Gordon checks if there are any final questions from the embedded media. “I think we gave you a lot,” he said.

    Indeed. The reporter mentions to Gordon that he is a few minutes short of having worked a full eight-hour day.

    “Yes,” Gordon says. “It was a good one, though.”

    Band of brothers

    KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — They arrived shoulder to shoulder at the recently rechristened Stewart-Haas Racing under the cover of darkness on an autumn evening seven years ago, looking for a new home.

    Such clandestine job interviews aren’t uncommon in NASCAR, where it’s virtually impossible to keep major personnel moves under wraps in a land of loose-lipped garages.

    What was unusual about this after-hours shop tour was the list of attendees. SHR wasn’t wooing only crew chief Tony Gibson.

    Perusing SHR’s 140,000-square-foot property in tow was Gibson’s support staff.

    “(Gibson) was bold enough at the onset to demand his entire team made the transition with him,” SHR executive vice president Brett Frood told me.  “You have to appreciate an individual who believes in his team so much, he’s willing to pass up a potential individual opportunity to make sure his guys are taken care of.

    “He’s a guy that exudes loyalty. It’s undoubtedly reciprocal amongst his team members as well. To have a guy of his pedigree who had been in the sport for so long come with a fully intact team, it made a lot of sense, and it worked out for us because they’re still together.”

    MORE: NASCAR returns to NBC on July 5 at Daytona

    The same merry band of brothers has remained intact through multiple drivers, sponsors and teams in a memorable eight-year run that might be reaching its peak this season with Kurt Busch, who enters Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway as the Sprint Cup Series’ most recent winner. Along with Jimmie Johnson and SHR teammate Kevin Harvick, Busch is the only driver with multiple victories and would be on the short list of midseason championship favorites along with Martin Truex Jr.

    The results are in part a testament to the perseverance at the core of the No. 41 Chevrolet team: Gibson, shock specialist Brian Holshouser, interior mechanic Jay Guarneri, engineer Johnny Klausmeier, car chief Kevin Pennell and underneath mechanic Shawn Warren. They’ve worked together at SHR since 2009, and all except Warren have been side by side since the waning days of Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007-08.

    “We’re just like a pack of wolves, man,” Gibson told me. “It’s like being in the army and you’re with a platoon. Those guys are your family and you protect them and take care of them. Don’t leave anybody behind. That’s our deal.”

    “It’s just crazy how long we’ve been able to stick together”

    Even more impressive is the cohesion survived as most of the team’s primary actors served as a through line to several major developments in NASCAR over the past decade.

    It’s seen Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s move to Hendrick Motorsports and the resulting demise of DEI, the formation and ascent of Stewart-Haas Racing and the arrival of Danica Patrick in Sprint Cup. Earlier this season, it weathered Busch’s high-profile suspension for domestic violence allegations.

    “Not only are these guys consistently together, they’ve been in it in an inconsistent state,” Frood said. “That is even more telling about the dynamic leader that Gibson is and really the epitome of a team environment that the guys have built.”

    In a sport synonymous with turnover and teams poaching from others’ staffs, Gibson’s group is an anomaly. Consider that only three team members have been constant through Johnson’s reign of six championships since 2006 – the driver, crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec.

    MORE: Busch wins rain-shortened race in Michigan

    Gibson has maintained the core of his team through the uncertainty of sponsorship upheaval (taking Ryan Newman to victory lane in 2012 when the U.S. Army pulled its backing) and oft-mediocre results the past two seasons.

    Under Gibson’s tutelage during her first two full seasons in Sprint Cup, Patrick notched four top 10s in 72 starts. Though a stark contrast to making the Chase for the Sprint Cup twice in the previous four seasons with Ryan Newman, Gibson’s guys didn’t fray – in part because SHR management knew they wouldn’t.

    “None of these guys had anything negative to say even one time,” Gibson said. “When they asked us to do that, we said, ‘Dude, whatever you do, we’re on board.’ It didn’t matter who was driving. We just had different goals. All we said is, ‘Dude, if we can run in the top 10 or 15 with her right away, that’s like a win.’ We changed our focus.”

    “I think a lot of people look it and say, ‘Why? How’s it work?’” Guarneri said. “We’ve got each others’ backs. Gibson has our back. Anything he calls during a race, we’re not going to say, ‘Gibson, you shouldn’t have done that. If he says to pit with one lap to go, we’ll back him.

    “We all have (had offers to leave for other teams). I’ve had one or two, but people watch you in the garage and see how hard we work. They always come, but they know this whole group is tight.”

    Said Warren: “We have problems and spats like any siblings, but we are family. Our comrades on other teams, they can see it They pull for us as much as we pull for each other. We’ve been through a lot together as a team. I bet you could take a poll of 40 teams and none have been through as much together like we have.”

    Ray Evernham, who counted Gibson among the key cogs on his team while winning three championships as a crew chief for Jeff Gordon, said the constancy indicates “a lot about Tony and his management style,” particularly while surviving the 10-month, 36-race grind.

    “Keeping a team together on the road never was easy, but it’s harder now than it ever was, because they’re doing more traveling, more work in shorter periods of time, and there’s a lot more pressure through inspection,” Evernham said. “Think about the pressure these guys have to handle week in, week out. That’s a unique situation and a tribute to Tony and the kind of leader he is.”

    The tributes to Gibson and his team from the NASCAR industry flooded social media after Busch’s April 26 victory at Richmond International Raceway, including a heartfelt congratulatory tweet from Earnhardt Jr.

    “I think that says a lot of about Tony that a lot of these guys have been with him since the DEI days,” said Earnhardt, who had Gibson as a crew chief and many of the same team members for his final five races at DEI in 2007. “It says a lot of about those guys, too, their commitment to him and their character. When they have success, I’m super happy for them, especially Tony because he’s been working so hard at this for so long to see success as a crew chief.”

    Gibson, though, elected to downplay the celebration.

    “Everyone is like, ‘You weren’t jumping up and down, you didn’t run down to victory lane,’” he said. “I said, ‘I enjoy watching these guys win it.’ To sit back and watch all those guys enjoy what was a long time coming. It was like Christmas, me watching everyone get their gifts. I get more out of that than anything else.”

    * * *

    After Busch’s victory two weeks ago at Michigan International Speedway, Gibson and much of the No. 41 crew made a beeline for the mountain trails of West Virginia for several days of frivolity.

    It’s one of three annual camping trips the team enjoys together, win or lose, to ride 4-wheelers and motorcycles in between fishing and hunting. On the off-week after the Martinsville Speedway race, the team (along with car owner and teammate Tony Stewart) spent a week in Georgia at the Durhamtown Off-Road Resort on 6,000 acres of tracks and trails.

    On fall race weekends at Dover International Speedway, the team congregates for trap shooting and a crab cake feast on the Eastern Shore of Maryland at a farm owned by a family friend of engineer Johnny Klausmeier.

    “Everyone gets along and has common interests,” he said.

    On the first week of the offseason, much of the team will return to West Virginia and hang out for Thanksgiving, which features deep-fried turkey courtesy of Gibson’s wife of 24 years, Beth.

    “I haven’t been to a family Thanksgiving in seven years,” Warren confesses with a smile. “My mom don’t like it too well, but she understands my time off is crucial to me.”

    Others have struggled to understand how a group sequestered in cramped garage stalls and three-foot wide hallways for every waking hour would want to vacation together.

    “Danica goes, ‘OK, let me get this straight: You guys go 38 races a year together, then you go on vacation?’ ” Guarneri chuckles. “But there’s nothing thought about racing then. It’s all about fun.”

    But at the track it’s all business – albeit in an unconventional manner.

    Warren realized there was something special about Gibson’s crew when he noticed during the opening day of inspection for the 2009 Daytona 500 that the team wasn’t using a checklist to ensure everything on the car was in correct order for accountability.

    “If something is wrong, other teams find who initialed it and say, ‘It’s his hind end,’” Warren said. “This group is really different. If you need the checklist, you don’t need to be on this team.”

    That doesn’t mean everything is done to the letter every time – at Talladega Superspeedway last month, a second trip was needed through the inspection bay for prequalifying because of human error – but Gibson’s crew has worked together long each other to establish trust that forgives.

    “Everyone knows what they’ve got to do,” Guarneri said. “We just do it. If something gets done wrong, it’s not a big deal like, ‘You screwed up.’ It’s, ‘Hey, we’ve got to fix that.’ We don’t throw anybody under the bus.”

    Pennell, who was hired by Dale Earnhardt between his sophomore and junior years of high school and worked at DEI for 15 years before joining SHR, is a father of two kids who doesn’t partake in the team’s outdoors excursions in the offseason. But he said he feels just as close to his coworkers because of their respect level.

    “We have to like each other,” he said. “We don’t have to sleep in the same bed together. We enjoy working together. That’s kept us together so long. None of us dislike each other at all.”

    That starts with the affable Gibson, a 50-year-old fireplug who worked the midnight shift as a machinist at a Daytona Beach, Fla., camshaft factory before plunging into a NASCAR career nearly 30 years ago. He started with the late Alan Kulwicki, winning the 1992 championship as Kulwicki’s car chief, and has been a crew chief in NASCAR’s premier series for most of the past 13 seasons.

    But as his stature and salary skyrocketed, Gibson continued to maintain a modest lifestyle, partly because he didn’t want to be beholden to the whims of a racing industry dotted with job insecurity. His home sits on 3 acres in rural Mt. Pleasant, N.C., with a monthly mortgage payment of $1,200.

    Every other month, he opens up a safety deposit box where he keeps a couple dozen rings signifying championships and victories to remind himself why he is in racing.

    “I just want to make a difference,” he said. “I don’t have to crew chief. I don’t need that title. I love to do it, it’s challenging and a lot of fun, but I don’t have to do this.

    “If I have to go work at Wal-Mart or do something like that, I could pay my house off and make it work. The sport owes me absolutely nothing, and if I don’t do it another day in my life, I’m OK with that. That’s the way I work.”

    His approach is hands-on without being overbearing. When his car is being pushed through inspection, he usually is present where many other crew chiefs aren’t.

    “It’s easy to overcomplicate it,” he said. “Never, ever get detached from your race cars. Always work with your guys on the floor, hand in hand. Never ask them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.”

    But it’s not so simple in a world increasingly driven by computer simulations. Gibson is one of the last pit bosses in NASCAR without an engineering degree, and he is candid about needing to rely heavily on college graduates for direction on his cars.

    “I’m not a fancy crew chief,” he said. “My pants are untucked most of the time. You want an Einstein guy, it’s not me. You want a good redneck racer who will give you 150 percent every day and a group of guys that will do the same, I’m your guy, and this is your team.”

    MORE: Start your engineers — The new breed of NASCAR crew chiefs

    Frood said Gibson “has figured out how to navigate through that paradox of old-school racing vs. new-age advanced technology. It’s fun to watch. He’s this character who has grease covering his arms, he’s under the car, he cusses like a sailor. But he is equally adept at standing up in an aerodynamics meeting and working with engineers and Ph.Ds about how to gain a competitive advantage.

    “He’s really successfully navigated this paradox and while doing all this, has really stayed to his roots being a team-guy first with the work hard, play hard mentality. They’re all business on the job. They’re strategic. They’re efficient. They’re detail-oriented. But when they’re out of the track, they’re hunting, fishing, barbecueing, racing ATVs. It really cultivates a family environment. He’s truly a unique individual, and we’re very lucky to have him here.”

    NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte said Gibson’s appeal also is about more than political savvy, though.

    “He truly cares about the people around him,” said Letarte, who worked alongside Gibson on Gordon’s team at Hendrick Motorsports. “He rarely if ever has a selfish moment, and people see that. He’s the type of guy who expects the best out of you but defends you when you’re giving it. He’ll defend you to Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Danica Patrick, to whomever he has to defend you.

    “We all get the same Tony. That’s rare in the garage. That’s a quality you don’t see in enough people anymore. I think he’s very transparent. He doesn’t blow smoke. He doesn’t promise what he can’t deliver. It’s not just likable. There are a lot of likable people. He’s the type of person who is a trustworthy guy. He’s the type of guy I would drop my kids off with. You don’t ever catch him in a bad mood. He appreciates the sport and what life has given him, and I think he appreciates the effort and sacrifices his guys make.”

    * * *

    Since its onset, Gibson’s team collectively has made major decisions, whether it was the moves to SHR and Patrick’s team. Each time, the understanding was that they would go as a package deal. With his contract up last year, Gibson gathered the crew again to decide whether to stay with Busch at SHR or move to another organization.

    “When it came to the end of the deal, and Danica didn’t want us anymore, and we had the opportunity to (work with Busch), I said, ‘I don’t know what’ll happen to me, but I’m going to go look,’” Gibson said. “If I can find something to take all of us, are you willing to go with me? Every one of them said, ‘We’ll go where you go.’”

    He stayed, and his leadership was tested immediately when the team lost Busch to an indefinite suspension the day before the Daytona 500. The team spent Saturday afternoon ripping out Busch’s seat and refitting the cockpit for substitute driver Regan Smith.

    “You could see it in everybody’s face,” Guarneri said. “We were stressed. It’s like you didn’t want to be there. Everyone wanted to race Daytona and go home. Then it was waiting around for ‘When do we get our driver back?’ while carrying extra seats and inserts to the West Coast races. It was a lot of stress.”

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    Said Warren: “You understand and embrace the situation and play the cards you’re dealt. None of our guys even checked up. Regan did a heck of a job for us. You don’t ask questions or worry about what’s going on. You do your job and hope for the best.”

    Busch returned after missing three races and won poles in two of his first four races. In the fifth race, he led 98 laps and had a shot to win – with Gibson laid up on a couch in his motorhome with kidney stones and Klausmeier calling strategy atop the pit box (Busch crashed after a late four-tire stop took him out of the lead, but Gibson stood 100 percent behind his engineer’s move).

    It could be a glimpse at the future. Gibson envisions stepping into a management role after his current deal (which runs through 2017), and he is grooming Klausmeier as his successor because “these guys will work just as hard for him as me.”

    But there’s a chance that some of those guys – many of whom are in their late 30s or early to mid-40s – won’t be around. Pennell plans to be off the road after this season, and Warren also can see a shop job ahead.

    That could make this season a final hurrah of sorts – and seeing as how Busch already has doubled the win total of any Gibson-led team, it could be a fitting one.

    “You’re never going to be on top all the time,” Gibson said. “You have to have a group of guys willing to go through that change with you.

    “That’s the difference with this group. They’re willing to wait out the lows, because they know eventually their time will come. Just like this year.”

    Indy air

    INDIANAPOLIS – Reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power has never felt more comfortable in the calamitous confines of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    After several seasons of struggling with left-hand turns, the road-course specialist seemed to solve the ovals during his 2014 title season. His No. 1 Chevrolet has been the fastest around the flat and famous 2.5-mile layout for most of this month (including in Friday’s final practice).

    Yet he knows it’s an illusory sense of security.

    Surrounded by pervasive reminders of Indy’s inherent danger, Power said he and the other 32 drivers will climb into their cockpits for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 and attempt to gloss over a lingering question that has hung over this year’s race like a black fog of exhaust scented with ethanol and dread.

    Why are their redesigned cars taking flight at an alarming rate after spinning backward at 200 mph-plus?

    “I just think you got to shut it out and lie to yourself,” Power said. “You just bullshit yourself. That’s what you do. Make excuses for why it’s justifiable.”

    The specter of being seriously hurt – James Hinchcliffe was critically injured in a crash Monday after a steel rod pierced his leg – adds a portentous throwback element to an event that is enjoying a remarkable period of relatively safe racing.

    It’s been 19 years since Scott Brayton marked the last driver death during May at Indy – a far cry from a half-century ago when a fiery wreck on the second lap killed drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald in 1964.

    But there’s another connection to that era this season.

    The 99th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will mark the debut of newfangled aesthetics and aerodynamics that hearken back to when Indy was a test bed for auto manufacturers and exotic cars with innovative components, and engines were annually rolled across the yard of bricks.

    Through hundreds of new parts attached to the chassis, the new aero kits of Chevrolet and Honda have added flair to a circuit that has bordered on homogenous after enduring a run of nearly a decade as a virtual “spec” series in which every car had the same chassis and engine combination.

    “I think the fans can look at a Chevy or Honda and instantly tell the difference,” said team owner Chip Ganassi, whose driver Scott Dixon will start on the pole position Sunday as a co-favorite with Power (who qualified second). “That’s a good thing. I think the fact that you have … there are still things being developed on these cars that make their way to road cars. The fact the cars can sit in the pits and run on a couple of cylinders and how they’re managing the fuel mixtures, those are all things that are tested here over and over again for different conditions that make their way into (street) cars.”

    The aero kits have been a refreshing change for venerable team owner Roger Penske, whose teams have won a record 15 Indy 500s while fielding cars here for five decades.

    “Turbines, 4-wheel drive cars, 4-cylinder, 6-cylinder, V8 … we once had all these things running at the same time,” Penske said. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do with the aero kits. I think there’s a lot of ingenuity available. I’ve never seen our engineering guys work harder at understanding how we can go faster.”

    The ultimate goal is a return to the jaw-dropping speeds that have defined Indy – next year, series officials want to promote an assault on the 236.986 mph qualifying record of Arie Luyendyk that has stood since ’96.

    But the buzz surrounding the aero kits has been dampened considerably in the past 10 days by four crashes – all of which involved cars lifting off to varying degrees — that had IndyCar scurrying for safety enhancements while its teams and manufacturers scrambled for solutions.

    It caused a delay of several hours to Sunday’s qualifying after Ed Carpenter’s crash that morning, prompting IndyCar to alter technical specifications to slow the cars down and also raising questions about whether the oval debut of aero kits – which had been raced only on road and street courses this season – had resulted in the spate of airborne incidents.

    There isn’t an answer entering Sunday’s race.

    “We have to understand what it is that’s making it fly,” Power said. “Is it the fact there’s just been more crashes, and (the cars) would have flown anyway? That’s up to IndyCar and engineering to understand why. Is it just a coincidence they’ve crashed more?”

    Said Ganassi: “Obviously, we have concern about it. The thing to remember is historically, there have been four or five crashes a year here, maybe more. I think the important thing to remember, were those guys airborne? Yes. Is it dangerous? Yes. The safety in the cars is there.”

    There is a general paddock consensus that the knee-jerk reactions to the wrecks is unusual at Indy and perhaps the confluence of a hypersensitivity to the new aero kits and a 21st century environment of greater scrutiny.

    “There were years in the past when Indy had a horrific amount of accidents,” said 1998 Indy 500 winner and ABC analyst Eddie Cheever Jr. “Unexplained things that went wrong. The sport never has been as safe as it is now. I think there’s just a tendency right now that everybody has a Twitter or Facebook account or some way of communicating what their anger is, and whenever something negative happens, that becomes a thing.”

    * * * * * *

    The aero kits were birthed in the hope of creating a “thing” that would hook those who had become disenchanted with the lack of identifiable cars and ingenious directions in IndyCar.

    Former series CEO Randy Bernard formed a panel to select a new chassis that would attract and enthuse fans, manufacturers and sponsors.

    The choice was a Dallara with plenty of options for mounting bodywork on the front and rear wings, engine cover and sidepods. The idea was intended to spur open competition among manufacturers without requiring them to build new cars.

    “I don’t feel we’re announcing a car but a new way to tackle motor sports,” 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran, a member of the committee, said when the design was unveiled via hologram in a splashy gala at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

    Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, another member of the panel, said the goal was adding uniqueness while maintaining the cost control that had resulted in a mostly generic generation of Indy cars.

    “We thought about how could you incorporate some of the characteristics, which are muted, compared to the old days,” Gossage said. “Even if you couldn’t put it into the shape of the car, you might put it into the graphics of the car, so that each had their own distinctive look, and you’d look and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a Chevy. That’s a Honda.’ That was the genesis of the whole concept of being distinctly different.”

    The centerpiece of that philosophy always has been Indianapolis Motor Speedway, whose 16th Street entrance greets visitors with a museum that painstakingly details the evolution of its race cars from front-engine roadsters to rear-engine, turbocharged rocketships.

    “We all have to accept the day is gone that you can build a car in your garage, literally push it down the street to the speedway and maybe steal the Indy 500 from everybody else,” Gossage said. “That was certainly once the narrative.

    “I think that’s what is missing from American motor sports today all around is the thought that you could outsmart the other teams by coming up with something more clever, and that’s tough. Whether it’s a side car or a turbine engine, those are the exciting things on the cars sitting in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum.”

    Aero kits symbolically represent a small link to those bygone days.

    “It’s a great way to the future for IndyCar,” said 2000 Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who will start 15th. “It’s something they needed so people can differentiate between the cars”

    Oriol Servia, whose No. 32 Honda will sport a yellow paint scheme Sunday that mirrors that driven by inaugural Indy 500 winner Ray Harroun in 1911, said it’s sparked storylines that have been absent from the series.

    “I think there’s been a lot of good things about it and technical talk of how the two different aero packages work, look and drive,” Servia said. “All that educates, and it attracts the fan. I always think the more information you give to the fan, the better chance there’s going to be something in that information that is going to capture them. It’s created a good buzz going in for the series.”

    But there are others, namely Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti, who have expressed reservations about whether the aero kits deliver exposure commensurate with the costs – particularly when the Indy 500 has delivered enthralling finishes since the debut of the DW12 chassis that provides the aero kits framework.

    In three races with the chassis, the Indy 500 has produced the record for lead changes (68 in Tony Kannan’s 2013 win) and the second-highest total (34 last year and in ’12).

    “I’m all for innovation and development and technology,” defending Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay said. “But this series showcases its best product, when it’s wheel to wheel all the way through the pack. That’s what we’ve had since 2012-14.

    “You want to see the latest and greatest, and you want to see a new package, a new development that equals speed and performance. How you bottle that up and put it on a track, we’re trying to do that, but it’s a bit of an experiment for sure.

    “We’re going into a gray area on the track where you don’t know what you’re going to have. In years past, it’s been an automatic: Tilt the rear wing, and you know what you’re going to get. Now it’s not so straightforward. It’s been interesting. Whether it’s the answer and the right direction has yet to be seen.”

    * * * * * *

    The lack of experience and information about the aero kits also might have contributed to the rash of airborne crashes. After Helio Castroneves’ Chevy completed a full somersault last month, Team Penske learned he was running on old tires with a setup that produced less downforce than he had for qualifying last year – putting the three-time Indy 500 winner in a precarious situation.

    The oval aero kits hardly had been tested on track before this month’s Indy debut.

    “We just needed more testing,” Kanaan said. “I think that was the only downside of it.

    “We knew it was a risk. That was always a top topic. It’s the biggest race of the year, so it’s easy to say now that it’s done, but I think everyone is working together to make it better.”

    But several veterans dismissed that as being a factor, noting the lack of effectiveness in testing a car turning backwards and the extenuating circumstances in each of the four incidents this month. Hinchcliffe’s crash was a result of a part failure, and Josef Newgarden wrecked because of a flat tire.

    “It’s getting blown out of proportion,” Carpenter said. “As drivers, we understand the consequences. We’re still here.”

    Said Montoya: “It’s a reality is what it is. If you’re concerned about it, you shouldn’t be driving the freaking car. No?”

    There also is the notion, too, that the death-defying aspects of racing also form a large part of its appeal.

    “To see people so skilled that they can do things that us mere mortals can’t,” Gossage said. “Speed is and will always be a dangerous business.”

    Servia compared his job with tightrope walker Nik Wallenda.

    “If the guy would be doing it three feet from the ground, he’d have zero audience,” Servia said. “We’re a little bit the daredevils of the sport. We’re going really fast in an open cockpit. We all accept that. It’s part of it, really. Like it or not, it’s part of what makes us like it. It’s when you know there’s a little bit on the line because it really takes something special to do it.

    “At the same time, you’d like to have it as safe as possible. It’d be stupid not to for the cars, the drivers and the fans.”

    Said Kanaan: “I really don’t know the answer for the fix, but I know we’re working extremely closely with the two manufacturers to try to understand it. I feel confident for this weekend.

    “Racing is not safe. We all know the risks we take every day. I’m willing to take them.”

    The Shell Game

    In an administration building just outside turn 2 at Michigan International Speedway, a nervous 22-year-old tried to convince a multinational oil giant he was worthy of its millions.

    It seemed an appropriate location for the circumstances. The track once was rescued from receivership and resuscitated to motor sports glory by Roger Penske – the same American automobile industry icon whose NASCAR team was now pitching Joey Logano to Shell-Pennzoil as the answer after a volatile 18 months of nonstop PR crises and harried promotional makeovers.

    This loomed an even larger reclamation project than rejuvenating a 2-mile speedway, and it wouldn’t be an easy sell.

    Shell’s first Sprint Cup driver with Team Penske was Kurt Busch, whose incessant invective on the team radio and multiple meltdowns with the news media caused an unceremonious departure in December 2011. Replacement A.J. Allmendinger didn’t reach the midpoint of the next season before being booted for a positive drug test for amphetamines.

    “It was a conversation we had with Joey that, ‘Look you’re driver No. 3, and I’ve learned how to rebrand marketing overnight,’ ” Heidi Massey-Bong, a senior business advisor at Shell, told NBC Sports. “So don’t be that guy. I don’t want to have to do it again, but I’m not going to be afraid to pull the trigger, either, and I’m done with the craziness.”

    Logano wasn’t exactly a safe play, either. Penske was asking Shell to take a chance on a former can’t-miss prospect who won only twice during his first four disappointing seasons in Cup.

    Over the course of the hourlong meeting in August 2012, a contrite Logano detailed his missteps – by now a familiar refrain for a company twice burned by its drivers’ poor decision-making.

    “It was a gamble for them to go with me after everything that was going on,” Logano recently said. “But they’ve been so supportive of everything we’ve done since. It’s been a great sponsor, and it’s been kind of interesting.”

    The intrigue has run deep for Shell, which has weathered a fairly dizzying turn of events since shortly before announcing its move to Penske’s organization five years ago last week.

    The runner-up in its sweepstakes for choosing a new team was the No. 24 Chevrolet of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, meaning Shell could have been celebrating the farewell tour of a future Hall of Famer this season if not for a chance meeting between old friends in a hallway at Homestead-Miami Speedway that led to Penske.

    But there hardly is remorse given how things have worked out with Logano, who turns 25 next month.

    READ MORE: Gordon on changing world of NASCAR sponsorships

    Last season marked his long-anticipated breakthrough in NASCAR’s premier series, notching six victories and taking the No. 22 Ford to the first championship round of the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup. He opened the 2015 season with a Daytona 500 victory, bringing smiles to victory lane at Daytona International Speedway among team and sponsor executives who sat stone-faced across from each other in many boardrooms three years ago. Entering Saturday’s SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway (where Logano won the most recent race last October), he is ranked fourth in the points standings with eight top-10s in 10 races.

    “You’re looking at this young kid, and he’s got his whole career ahead of him,” said Massey-Bong, who has overseen the NASCAR sponsorship since Shell entered Cup in 2007 with Richard Childress Racing. “We can be with him for another 20 years. We’ve got hopefully multiple more Daytona 500-type wins with him and hopefully a championship. We feel like we really hit the home run with him in somebody we can build our brand around long term.”

    But Logano arrived only after the team faced “the unspoken third strike,” as Team Penske President Tim Cindric put it, of selecting a new driver.

    During the tumultuous 18 months that began the Penske sponsorship, it would have been natural for Shell to question the value of an annual commitment well into eight figures (Sprint Cup teams generally ask at least $18 million per season for a top-line sponsorship, and companies spend as much marketing it).

    Zak Brown, founder and CEO of the Just Marketing International agency that handles sponsorships in NASCAR, IndyCar and F1, said morality clauses would have allowed Shell to vacate its Penske contract during the Busch and Allmendinger ordeals, which both generated weeks of negative headlines.

    “Sponsors always weigh their options, and I’d imagine there were plenty of conversations about, ‘What do we do here?’ ” Brown told NBC Sports. “Very few teams would have been able to retain Shell.”

    So what made it work despite all the headaches?

    Good business (the sponsorship essentially pays for itself).

    And a good businessman behind it.

    “There’s one simple answer as to why Shell stuck through the tough times, and that’s Roger Penske,” Brown said. “There is no better chief relationship officer in motor sports than Roger. He lives on his plane and will treat the Shell petrol station worker in the same manner as he would the CEO. It’s how he gets a tremendous amount of loyalty built up in these massive corporations.

    “Through the turbulent times, Roger and his whole organization always provide the confidence they’re going to get it right. It’s why Roger has the ability to retain (sponsors) longer than most. He’s got a great track record.”

    With his racing teams having kept some sponsors for more than 30 years while winning 15 Indianapolis 500s and two Daytona 500s, Penske, 78, said the goal is making it last at least that long with Shell.

    “That is really at the core of many of our partnerships at Team Penske,” Penske said. “We want to bring all of these companies together, and we want to allow them to build their businesses with each other. Not only is Shell a great partner, but they help us build our business outside of the motorsports world.”

    * * *

    It was Penske’s reputation for sponsor stability that initially left the team off Shell’s list for a new partner. When the requests for proposals were sent to major Sprint Cup teams, Penske wasn’t included because of a 17-year relationship with ExxonMobil.

    Few knew ExxonMobil had informed Penske it couldn’t renew for the full 36 races when its contract ended after the 2010 season. The new proposal would reduce the deal to maybe a dozen races and leave the team with a significant funding hole.

    “We couldn’t survive in the same way we were accustomed with that type of program,” Cindric said. “It was going to be a huge change.”

    By chance before the 2009 season finale at Homestead, Cindric ran into Ron Schneider, the founder and CEO of the Sport Dimensions agency that handled Shell’s NASCAR sponsorship and the courtship of a new team.

    Schneider was involved in Shell’s IndyCar sponsorship in the ’90s with Bobby Rahal’s team, which was then managed by Cindric. There was enough comfort to discuss sensitive information in passing.

    “I simply told him, ‘It’s not for everybody to know, but we’re in a position now that we’ve never been in before where we don’t have a solid long-term racing program with an oil and gas company,’ ” Cindric said. “’What’s happening on that front with Shell?’ ”

    Schneider was stunned. “On the business side of oil and gas, Roger is the most coveted guy in racing,” he said.

    There was a major hurdle, though. Shell wanted a big-name driver, and it already had zeroed in on one of the sport’s best.

    A week earlier before the Nov. 15 race at Phoenix International Raceway, major Shell executives were shepherded to a meeting with Gordon on the starting grid.

    The four-time series champion already had been involved with Hendrick Motorsports’ official pitch, attending a two-hour meeting with his team’s marketing staff.

    “I thought we made a very good presentation, and I thought it was pretty solid, and I felt like we were in the running,” Gordon said. “I left there feeling good.”

    Gordon, whose longtime sponsorship with DuPont was one of many well-known NASCAR deals facing a significant downsizing in the wake of the Great Recession, badly wanted the deal partly because he’d rooted as a child for the Pennzoil-sponsored cars of Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears (driving for Penske) when both went on to win the Indianapolis 500 in the 1980s.

    “I felt we put a very solid presentation together,” Gordon, 43, said. “Selfishly, I grew up a huge Johnny Rutherford fan. Watching that Pennzoil car go around Indianapolis, it was one of my favorite cars. So I wanted to be there personally because I wanted to do everything we could. I think it came down to a business decision for them. I think between Hendrick and Penske, they weren’t going to go wrong.”

    Penske addressed the need for a driver with results by offering to swap Brad Keselowski, who was struggling through a dismal rookie Cup season in ‘10, into the Miller Lite-sponsored car of Busch, the 2004 series champion who would drive the newly created No. 22 Shell-sponsored entry in ‘11.

    Once Shell signed off on that, the decision became a no-brainer based on the breadth of Penske’s business empire, which has more than $20 billion in annual revenue and 44,000 employees worldwide.

    [parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”(Getty Images)”]

    Beyond just slapping logos on Penske’s IndyCar and NASCAR teams, the sponsorship also put Shell’s engine lubricants in the fleets of Penske Truck Leasing, which has more than 200,000 trucks, and the showrooms of Penske Automotive Group, which earned record profits last year and sells a few hundred thousand cars annually.

    NASCAR teams often struggle to supply companies with tangible results of their sponsorships, relying on nebulous statistics aimed to measure the value through TV exposure and media impressions.

    But the return on Shell’s investment was as easy to quantify as calculating the money generated from sales to Penske’s myriad divisions.

    “They’re real numbers,” Cindric said. “You’re talking about millions of gallons. This is real-world stuff.”

    With 95 car dealerships across the country in Hendrick Automotive Group, team owner Rick Hendrick could offer a similar arrangement, and he had a sponsorship with Quaker State, a Shell brand.

    But Penske Corp.’s reach was greater and global – more than 100 of its 300 dealerships are located outside the United States, and it’s greatly expanded into Australia over the past few years.

    Team Penske also could offer an ancillary sponsorship with its IndyCar teams, which allowed Shell more freedom to market its V-power fuels (because of Sunoco’s official NASCAR fuel sponsorship and exclusivity rights, Shell is restricted to promoting its Pennzoil brand at Cup races). IndyCar requires off-the-shelf oil products, putting a focus on consumer marketing, unlike the technology development of NASCAR, which provides harsh conditions for Shell to test the effectiveness of potential components for street cars.

    “Not a lot of other platforms have the reach that Roger Penske brings to the table,” said Massey-Bong, who wouldn’t disclose how much Shell makes in selling its products to Penske Corp. “As a global organization, it provides great opportunities for our relationship to continue to grow and expand.”

    Quickly to start: From when Cindric and Schneider bumped into each other at Homestead, the deal took roughly five months to complete.

    But it faced the threat of implosion nearly as quickly when Penske and Shell hit the track together the following year.

    * * *

    Though he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup with two victories, the 2011 season wasn’t pleasant for Busch. A vulgarity-filled tirade during a May race at Richmond International Raceway was the first of many high-profile blemishes, including multiple clashes with reporters. When a video of Busch berating ESPN reporter Jerry Punch during the season finale went viral, Penske had had enough and split with the driver.

    Allmendinger’s departure was even more sudden. The team learned of his indefinite suspension hours before the green flag on July 7, 2012, at Daytona, forcing a scramble to replace him with Sam Hornish Jr.

    “You get the call in the middle of the day that your driver didn’t pass the drug test, it’s hard to prepare yourself for that particular situation, but it makes you stronger as an organization,” Cindric said. “How you manage through that process, every one of us learned something new.

    “I think the testament to the strength of the business-to-business relationship was the rocky road we took the first couple of years with Shell. We went through two situations that were very difficult with any sponsor, let alone twice in a short period. We certainly tried their patience, but I think those relationships were much deeper than a simple sponsorship package as you might look at it from an exposure perspective.”

    Shell responded to the controversies by pulling back on its national advertising while maintaining its at-track hospitality campaigns.

    “It hasn’t been all hunky-dory,” Massey-Bong said. “At same time, Roger is my customer as much as I’m his. That got us through a lot of trying things. We’re partners who were going to see this to the end and do what was right for the Shell brand and Penske brand, so there was never a lot of strife on decisions that needed to be made.

    “There was never a question of, ‘Were we going to leave? Is it the right thing for us to be here?’ Racing is very cyclical. You have to ride the wave. We always tried to build our program where it was win-resistant.”

    This summer, though, will bring an increase in Shell’s marketing of Logano, who said the company was “really gun-shy when I first signed up, and I don’t blame them. You have to earn their trust a little bit.”

    That didn’t take long for Logano, whom Massey-Bong affectionately describes as “an old soul,” to put any fears of misbehavior at ease. The Middletown, Conn., native is a fan of hunting for antiques and the antithesis of a party animal. A wild night for Logano is riding his four-wheeler or crashing on the couch with his wife, Brittany, to watch reruns of Boy Meets World and highlights of old races.

    “I’m not the guy who’s going to go crazy,” said Logano, who spent much of his adolescence in the spotlight while becoming the youngest Daytona 500 starter in NASCAR history at 18. “The only thing I am is competitive.”

    His fiery side manifested itself quickly at Penske. In his fourth and fifth races, he got into postrace altercations with veterans Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart – prompting concerns about how Shell might react.

    “You started wondering, ‘Oh boy,’ but they were 100 percent on our side,” Logano said. “That’s pretty neat because they went through a lot with having three drivers that quickly.”

    Cindric said Logano, who had supplanted Tony Stewart in the Home Depot-sponsored car and muddled through four seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, “had a genuine appreciation for another opportunity with a top team, and it was a fresh of breath air compared to what we’d been through with (Shell).”

    As a gift for making last year’s championship round, the sponsor found an antique Shell sign from the 1930s and installed it in the team’s Mooresville, N.C., shop in January while Logano was on his honeymoon.

    At a dinner on the eve of this year’s Daytona 500 with several high-ranking Shell executives visiting from Europe, Logano charmed a group that was accustomed to the detachment of stars in Formula One (where Shell has a longtime sponsorship with Ferrari).

    “Off the track, he’s bubbly and very charismatic,” Massey-Bong said of Logano. “You can put him in a room with leadership, and he can hold a conversation about the business. You can put him with a customer, and he can educate them on racing. The whole time, the smile never leaves the face. He’s just so warm.”

    Said Penske: “I had a strong belief that Joey could be productive. I am not sure any of us knew how well Joey also could fit in with Shell off the track. But we had the foundation there for a successful combination, and we just needed to put the right driver in that situation.”

    It marked another successful Penske turnaround — just like the track where the deal essentially was brokered.

    “It was like, ‘Wow, really? Joey Logano?’ ” Massey-Bong recalled with a laugh about the initial meeting in Michigan. “But there is a reason why everything Roger touches turns to gold. He just makes smart decisions.”

    Start your engineers

    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Forced to choose between getting an education in the classroom or at the racetrack, Rodney Childers did what any self-respecting racer would have done 20 years ago.

    He went to the Mitchell Community College bookstore in Statesville, N.C., sold all the textbooks from his prerequisite courses for mechanical engineering and then went home and waited for his father. After working 16-hours days trying to balance school with a fledgling career in Late Models (NASCAR’s grassroots level), he was choosing racing over reading.

    “I told him I’d turned all my books in, and he about beat the shit out of me,” Childers, who had been working 16-hour days trying to balance school with a Late Model career, recalled to NBC Sports with a chuckle. “He was not happy. At all.”

    Stock-car schooling turned out just fine for the bright mind of Childers, who became a Sprint Cup crew chief and tuned Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet to a championship in NASCAR’s premier series last season.

    But there are abundant signs that Childers somehow is among the last of a breed that still enjoys striking boundless success – even as the education he left behind becomes a pervasive requirement in the Cup garage.

    A NASCAR equivalent to “Moneyball” is overhauling the gritty makeup of the mechanics most instrumental to making stock cars hum at 200 mph. Of the last 13 crew chief changes in Sprint Cup during the past five months, a dozen resulted in men with engineering degrees calling the shots.

    The lone exception is Tony Gibson, a barrel-chested native of Daytona Beach, Fla., who worked the midnight shift at his hometown camshaft factory while breaking into racing three decades ago.

    “I’m on my way out,” Gibson, 50, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “I didn’t know in 1982 that I’d need to go to school to be an engineer in Cup. I went to school to be a machinist, build parts and run a lathe. That’s what you needed to do at the time to be part of racing.”

    Times have changed.

    Heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500, 21 drivers – nearly half of the 43-car field – will be guided by crew chiefs trained in the principles of physics, and that lineup will include several stars – notably defending race winner and 12-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will make his debut with Greg Ives (the engineer who led Chase Elliott to the 2014 Xfinity Series championship).

    The curious marriage of speed freaks and computer geeks is a startling development for a sport long associated with the shade-tree street smarts of grizzled, overall-clad crew chiefs with grease under their fingernails and cigarettes dangling from their lips.

    The new CV for being a NASCAR crew chief is a framed diploma hanging on a wall, and it’s added an academic sheen to a traditionally blue-collar garage that increasingly resembles a 700-horsepower study hall of intellectual pedigrees. Nick Sandler, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s new crew chief whose bespectacled and boyish visage could pass for Phi Beta Kappa president, assuredly will be the first Duke graduate tasked with critical decisions to take two or four tires on pivotal pit stops.

    Many believe there’ll be a day when every crew chief in Cup will have a degree.

    “Absolutely, it’s coming,” said Gibson, crew chief for Kurt Busch’s No. 41 Chevrolet. “It’s almost there. There’ll be a day it’ll be like a video game. I love racing and am very fortunate to still be in the mix. There’ll come a day it’s going to outrun me. I’m getting older, these guys are getting smarter, and the cars are getting more complex. A mechanic from 20 years ago couldn’t work on street cars now. You have to be a rocket scientist.”

    [parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Tony Gibson (Associated Press)”]

    Just like its showroom counterpart, NASCAR increasingly has become so driven by technology – with electronic fuel injection, computer-controlled machines and intricate software simulations – that it’s become imperative to employ college graduates as team leaders.

    “The trend certainly isn’t accidental,” Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, a 1984 engineering graduate of Virginia Tech who oversees the manufacturer’s NASCAR program, told NBC Sports. “The sport started evolving 10 to 15 years ago into something quite a bit more complex, and the tools each team has and needs became very engineering-centric.

    “When NASCAR instituted a testing ban (this season), it didn’t mean there’d be less work to do, it just shifted the power band and put more emphasis on computer simulation. But what’s interesting is the challenge as a crew chief isn’t just whether you are a good engineer, but whether you can communicate and lead people. I don’t know that you can teach that.”

    Indeed, there are signs being a crew chief isn’t about education.

    Last season, 22 of 36 races were won by crew chiefs who don’t have engineering degrees. That includes Childers, Steve Letarte, who led Earnhardt to four wins in their final season together before joining NBC Sports as a TV analyst, and Chad Knaus, who has six titles with Jimmie Johnson and generally is considered the greatest crew chief of all time.

    So why is there a dichotomy between those who are reaching victory lane and those being hired to get there?

    “It’s not just NASCAR,” Letarte told NBC Sports. “The Michael Vick experiment was unsuccessful, yet teams continued to try to find running QBs while Tom Brady can’t run more than 5 yards at a time.

    “Moneyball gets you to the playoffs. It doesn’t win you a single World Series game. It happens in all of sports and business. I think there are guys who will buck the trends.”

    Another is Paul Wolfe, the crew chief who led Brad Keselowski to the 2012 championship and a series-high six wins in 2014.

    “Some people get confused and think I am an engineer,” Wolfe said. “Guys like myself or Rodney or Chad, I feel like we all have a lot of common sense and just racer savvy for what it takes. If you can mix that with a great engineering staff, you can be really successful.”

    After winning the title with an “old-school” approach that was “all gut decisions and going off history,” last year Wolfe added an engineer who helped push the No. 2 Ford toward a heavy reliance on computer simulation – proving the blend can work.

    “We have gotten somewhat pigeonholed over the last decade into crew chiefs needing to have a degree, but I don’t think that’s the only path for success,” Keselowski said. “You look at the most successful people in the world — Bill Gates – (who) didn’t get a degree. Paul is proof in the pudding.

    “A degree is a certification of knowledge, but to not have a degree is not to have an absence of knowledge. It’s more about what’s underneath that degree that matters the most.”

    Said Gibson: “I’m not as smart as a lot of these engineers are about building rockets and all that stuff. But I can shoot your rocket down. You have some guys who can design a door but don’t know how to open it.���

    * * *

     There is no debate, though, that without having a member of the team with a fundamental understanding of the mechanics of physics and thermodynamics, it’s impossible to set up a winning car in NASCAR.

    Gibson said he first noticed the change as a member of the 1992 championship crew of the late Alan Kulwicki, a bull-headed driver-owner who moved south with a maverick streak and a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

    Kulwicki died in a plane crash five months after winning the title, but he planted the seed for a more scientific approach that spread through the garage – most notably through Ray Evernham, who won three championships with Jeff Gordon before starting his own team, and Brian Whitesell, an engineer who became a team manager at Hendrick Motorsports.

    FOX analyst Larry McReynolds, the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 Daytona 500 win, remembers the first engineer at Richard Childress Racing in ’99 using a simulation trick at Watkins Glen International that turned a 15th-place finish into a fourth. By the end of the following season, RCR had five full-time engineers.

    [parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Rodney Childers (Getty Images)”]

    Now the organization has at least 10 times as many – as does Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and every championship contender in NASCAR. Many teams typically deploy at least two engineers on the road with each car every week, and there are several dozen working at shops in North Carolina.

    “It still makes my jaw drop to see all the laptops” in the garage, McReynolds told NBC Sports.

    When JGR expanded by 60 employees over the offseason with a new Toyota for Carl Edwards, the team hired so many engineers “they were putting them in conference rooms until they had a place to put them,” Kyle Busch said.

    “I couldn’t even tell you how many engineers (are at JGR),” said Adam Stevens, an Ohio University graduate promoted from the Xfinity Series to become Busch’s crew chief this season. “I walk in every day and say, ‘Who are you? My name’s Adam.’

    “When I started at Gibbs in ’05, (the engineers) were in a little tiny room that houses the electrical department now. It’s tripled in size and expanded and expanded because there are so many people.”

    The engineering curve began hitting critical mass in 2003 when Ryan Newman (a degreed driver just like Kulwicki) and crew chief Matt Borland won a series-high eight races with engineering driven setups. Several current crew chiefs with engineering degrees – Keith Rodden, Luke Lambert, Justin Alexander, Matt McCall, Stevens – entered NASCAR during the mid-2000s, but it took a while for the machinery to catch up with the methods.

    “You couldn’t make an impact because you didn’t have all the information,” Lambert, who guided Newman to a second-place finish in the 2014 standings, told NBC Sports. “You didn’t really have the correct tools. Now we’ve got enough engineers that we have the depth that it requires to build these tools, collect this information and actually create a properly engineered approach.

    “The computer technology has come a long way. In 2005, you could buy a pretty amazing computer, but you were looking at like $50,000 for a computer that now you can go pick up at Best Buy. What’s available at an affordable rate has taken magnitudes of sophistication to higher levels. What we were trying to do with a simulation 10 years ago was so simple and such a snapshot. Now it’s much more precise and in-depth and the fidelity is so much higher.”

    Alexander, who was promoted from lead engineer to crew chief for Paul Menard with five races remaining last season, entered NASCAR from N.C. State in 2003 when computers couldn’t handle processing the reams of data – tire pressures, track temperatures, thermodynamics, — produced in a single lap by a car. “It’s leaps and bounds ahead,” he said.

    That has eliminated the trial-and-error methods of NASAR’s first half-century when crew chiefs would lug three-ring binders jam-packed with notes about the car setups they’d used at tracks.

    “We didn’t use simulations when I started crew-chiefing” in 2005, Letarte said. “When I ended, we couldn’t make the car go around in a circle without it. It’s like the age of the computer. I remember not having a phone when I traveled in 1995. Now it’s a smartphone. Racing is the same. You race a completely different way.”

     * * *

     For Childers, the light bulb switched on when he became a crew chief a decade ago at Evernham Motorsports. While being outrun by teammate Kasey Kahne, he realized crew chief Kenny Francis’ setups were better because of their precision.

    “They were using their simulation correctly, where I was over here on the side saying, ‘Oh man, I think a 500-pound right-front spring would be good,’” Childers said. “I was kind of rednecking it in a way.”

    Though he possesses no formal background, Childers is self-taught in running several simulations weekly. Many crew chiefs are delegators; Knaus has hired engineers to shore up weaknesses, and he compares it with a head football coach relying on offensive and defensive coordinators to call plays. A crew chief 20 years ago may have spent 80 percent of his time focusing on the car. Now that time is spent on the people around the car.

    “We need the smart guys to come in and help us because it is getting more difficult,” Knaus told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot more lab testing than in the past because we can’t do a lot of track testing. But you also need to be a racer. Just because you have a piece of paper that says you’re an engineer doesn’t mean you can crew-chief.”

    Much like Childers and Wolfe, who both drove, the latest wave of engineers mostly is comprised of crewmen and former drivers who decided they needed to attend college instead of taking a left turn into racing after graduation.

    Lambert, a 32-year-old native of Mt. Airy, N.C., has been attending races since childhood, and McCall is a former Xfinity driver. Ives also raced Super Late Models in Michigan for eight years before joining Hendrick eight years ago.

    “That’s where I think a guy like Greg Ives has a huge advantage because he’s a legit racer, and he’s a degreed engineer,” Knaus said. “Being a real racer, that’s where you get it.”

    [parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Chase Elliott and Greg Ives (Getty Images)”]

    But sometimes there is no substitute for on-the-job experience that teaches crew chiefs how to factor in their gut for calls in the pits that can’t be managed by software programs. Viewing the world through numbers can be a drawback when trying to devise strategies on the fly.

    “Engineers are taught to have a very analytical mind,” Evernham said. “There’s no emotion, but sports is still emotion. Since a crew chief has to deal with the sports side of the business, and engineers have to deal with the technical side of the business, sometimes that line is tough to cross.

    “The engineering part is very black and white. There’s one answer. You come down to mathematics equations. It’s right or it’s wrong. With people it’s not that way.”

    As race teams have grown exponentially (McReynolds recalls having 10 people working on his car in 1986; 30 years later, four-car organizations have 500-plus employees), the role of a crew chief has become as much about managing people as massaging cars.

    “I think it’s a serious problem,” said Stevens, who was promoted to Cup after scoring 31 victories as an Xfinity Series crew chief (19 with Busch). “You spend all your time locked in the classroom or locked in with other engineers, and you don’t learn how to manage or deal with people in general. It’s tough to develop the managerial and social side in addition to developing your technical skills. Both of them take a lot of work. It’s easy for someone to get focused on one at the exclusion of another.”

    Teams offer leadership training for crew chiefs, and Hendrick uses a Management By Strengths program (also used by team owner Rick Hendrick’s automotive empire) to match team members with certain personality traits.

    But some interaction can’t be learned.

    “When I get in my engineering brain, (it’s) don’t talk to me,” Evernham said. “It’s like I don’t care if your hair is on fire, right now I have to finish this job.”

    “I think the engineers that struggle are ones that spend all their time on theory and don’t get their hands dirty,” Wilson said. “It’s harder for them to relate.”

    But being a people person doesn’t exclude someone from having an engineer’s traits. Wilson believes Childers, a personable sort who is extremely active engaging fans on social media sites such as Twitter, “is every bit an engineer as anyone, he just doesn’t have the paper and the framed degree.”

    Gibson is heavily involved with plotting the direction of simulations with engineers Johnny Klausmeier and Mike Cook, but he chuckles when asked if he ever runs the programs himself.

    “Hell, no,” he said. “The engineers are so freaking smart and so into what they’re working on, and it’s intense. It’s nonstop. You don’t just push a button and get an answer. You have to push 50,000 buttons to get an answer.”

    * * *

     If there’s an engineering crew chief who has shown the most promise for blending old school with new age, it might be Lambert.

    He was named the 2014 crew chief of the year by Motorsports Analytics (a website that fastidiously studies NASCAR through statistics) because of his consistently strong tactical calls. Though Newman didn’t win last season, he consistently gained positions through pit stops, and Lambert’s strategy put the No. 31 Chevrolet alongside champion Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 with three laps left and a shot at the title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November.

    Lambert, who joined Richard Childress Racing after his 2005 graduation from N.C. State, studies how head coaches in other professional sports manage games and how star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers handle stress.

    “The biggest thing is managing people and studying the culture and what it takes to make a team excel,” Lambert said. “I’ve paid a lot of attention, since I wanted to become a crew chief, to other sports I never really cared all that much about. I’ve always just tried to pay a lot of attention to the way teams operate. That’s how I look at my job: As managing, executing and trying to help a group of people be as successful as they possibly can be.

    “I try to look at the global aspect of what’s going on in the races and then look at the information available from an engineering standpoint but then trust my gut.”

    Even if an engineer can’t get the handle of being a crew chief as Lambert has, it might not matter in the future.

    Letarte believes fear drives the trend of hiring engineering-based crew chiefs despite the majority of wins belonging to non-degreed crew chiefs. In order to keep their sharpest minds, teams reward them with their best-paying position (the top crew chiefs earn in the seven figures).

    “Someone – Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs – will see this trend and say, ‘All right, what we’re going to do is restructure our teams, whether it’s the pay or the responsibilities, and I’m going to keep my crew chief and go get a great engineer,’ ” Letarte said. “The people doing the hiring know how valuable engineering is, and they are so afraid to lose their engineers, so they have to promote them up through the system.”

    Meanwhile, the prospects likely will continue to dwindle for those without degrees – such as Jason Burdett, one of Letarte’s best friends who was hired to be an Xfinity Series crew chief for JR Motorsports this year after working as a top mechanic the past six years on Hendrick’s Cup teams.

    “I told him when that opportunity came, he’s one of the last,” Letarte said. “There are no more coming.”