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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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