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A story of heart: How Tony Gibson and Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500

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When Kurt Busch crossed the finish line to win the Daytona 500 Sunday, Tony Stewart was sitting on the pit box next to Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson.

While Stewart was jumping up and down in celebration of the win, for a split-second, he wondered if Gibson was alright or if maybe he should call paramedics.

“He was comatose,” Stewart said of Gibson. “He doesn’t move. He put his head back. Did he pass out? I had to shake him a bit.

“He just sat there the whole last lap and when I saw the door open, I started jumping because I knew what was coming. He just never flinched until it was over. He just laid his head back like he was getting a suntan.”

Of the 100,000-plus people at Daytona International Speedway and millions more watching on TV as the exciting finish played out, Gibson was arguably the coolest. It was almost as if he was channeling Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman and his trademark line, “What, me worry?”

Nah, not Gibson. He and Busch had this. It would be their fourth Cup win together, but the biggest by far.

When the checkered flag waved – and while Gibson said Stewart “was like a frog jumping up and down” – Gibson just sat there for a few moments, soaking in all the sights and sounds, still not totally convinced that he and his driver had just won The Great American Race.

“You won the 500,” Stewart told Gibson, who responded with a smile, admitting, “I wasn’t sure I did or not.”

Over his long NASCAR career, Gibson had been part of previous Daytona 500 wins with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a team member.

But Sunday was something he never had experienced before: it was the first time he – Tony Gibson, NASCAR’s self-professed “Old Man” – would leave his hometown of Daytona Beach as a Daytona 500-winning crew chief.

Kurt Busch and Tony Gibson have now visited victory lane together four times in the NASCAR Cup Series, including this win at Richmond in 2015. (Getty Images)

It also would bring back tons of memories of his life and all the time he’s logged in and around the “World Center Of Racing.”

“This is where I grew up,” Gibson said. “I was born in Halifax Hospital across the street. My mom retired from here. My dad raced here all his life. To come here and do this is amazing.

“I had two other brothers that raced. Dad had to work night and day and everything he had to make sure we could race and have fun. So my mom and dad are the ones I thought about the very first thing (after Sunday’s win).”

The 52-year-old Gibson has seen and done a lot in his NASCAR life. But never what happened Sunday.

“I’ve been on the road for 33 years in this business in NASCAR, and I’ve put my life and soul into it,” Gibson said. “I’ve won the Daytona 500 before and it’s awesome, but to win it as a crew chief, I can’t describe how it feels, to take your team, put everything together and to make it happen. … It’s just phenomenal as a crew chief. It just means so much to me.

“Growing up, where I’m at today, my wife Beth, she’s been my biggest supporter for the last 26 years, sticking with me when things are bad.  I’m laid up in the hospital (recently with kidney stones), whatever.

“All those emotions just clamp on you at one time. It takes a few minutes for it to sink in. It’s pretty incredible.”

Indeed, not only was Busch’s and Gibson’s achievement incredible, it was one of the best feel-good stories that Daytona has seen in many a 500.

While winning Sunday was one of the greatest accomplishments of Gibson’s life, two other stories came to light after the victory celebration that further illustrates the kind of guy Gibson is and why he’s so beloved in the sport.

First, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the soon-to-implode Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008, Gibson promised Junior that he would do everything he could to keep “his guys” together, that he’d find them jobs somewhere else.”

Indeed, Gibson did, convincing Gene Haas and Tony Stewart, who recently had joined as partners in the then-fledgling Stewart-Haas Racing, to hire most of the former DEI expats – a group that has now been together for more than 13 years.

“I was determined to keep these guys together,” Gibson told NBC’s Marty Snider after Sunday’s race. “That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I’ve done.

“I’m more proud of that, to keep these guys’ jobs when things were really, really bad in the industry. To be able to stay together and come back to win the Daytona 500, I can’t say enough about them.”

Added Stewart, “They all came from DEI and that shows the kind of leadership Tony Gibson has. They’d go to the end of the earth for him.”

Gibson has worked with a number of NASCAR greats, dating back to one of his first jobs as car chief for Alan Kulwicki when he won the 1992 Winston Cup championship.

Along the way, there were many others, some of the biggest names of the sport, including Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR Hall of Famers Bill Elliott and Mark Martin, Stewart, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick.

But it was Busch that gave Gibson the one thing he never had earned in his life: a win in NASCAR’s biggest race in Gibson’s hometown.

Which leads to the second story about the kind of guy Gibson is.

Some other crew chiefs may have been hesitant to work with Busch, given some of the controversy that has occurred in his career – most of it off-track and in his personal life.

But not Gibson. He didn’t judge Busch by what happened in the past. All he was concerned about was Busch’s immense talent and what he would do in the future – and with Gibson atop his pit box.

Even when things got tough, Tony Gibson never gave up in his faith in Kurt Busch. (Getty Images)

“I love him to death,” Gibson said of Busch. “When I took that job on a couple years ago, we sat down and had a come-to-Jesus talk right off the bat. And since Day One we’ve been money.

“We respect one another, I respect what he’s accomplished and he respects what I’ve accomplished. And we mesh good together. I wouldn’t have nobody else driving my race cars than Kurt Busch. There’s nobody better. … He’s going to drive the wheels off it no matter what. You never have to second-guess is he giving you 110 percent?”

After 17 years, Busch finally earned NASCAR’s most prestigious honor to go along with the championship he earned in 2004. He came back to Daytona Beach year after year, with several different crew chiefs, including finishing runner-up three times.

But no one could get Busch the one trophy he and Gibson both craved the most – until Sunday.

Damage from an earlier accident in Sunday’s race and fears that he was about a half-lap short on fuel caused Busch great concern. But with “Old Man” atop the pit box, Busch’s concerns were allayed.

“When you have a crew chief that grows up in the shadows of the grandstands here in Daytona, you know you have the best guy because his heart is in it,” Busch said. “That’s what Daytona is about. You have to give it your heart.”

Sunday, Busch and Gibson both put their hearts into the win. And even though Stewart briefly wondered if something may have happened to Gibson’s heart on the pit box, he wasn’t exactly far off in a way.

After giving more than three decades years to the sport he loves, Gibson’s heart was in the best place it ever could be.

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Jeff Gordon to drive pace car for Daytona 500

Chevrolet announces Friday, February 24, 2017 that three-time Daytona 500 winner and four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champ Jeff Gordon will lead the field to the start of Sunday’s Daytona 500 behind the wheel of the new 2017 Camaro ZL1 pace car at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing)
Photo by HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Chevrolet announced Friday that Jeff Gordon will drive the Camaro ZL1 that will lead the field to the green flag for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

“Chevrolet and I have a great history at the Daytona 500 and it’s an honor to drive the 650-horsepower Camaro ZL1 pace car for the largest, most historic race of the season,” said Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, in a statement.

This completes a rare double for Gordon. He drove the pace car at the start of the 2015 Indianapolis 500.

Chevrolet also will provide the pace vehicles for Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race and Saturday’s Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway. Chevy’s 2017 Silverado will pace the Truck race, and its 2017 Camaro SS will pace the Xfinity race.

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Chase Elliott wins first Can-Am Duel race at Daytona

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In what could be a preview of Sunday’s main event, Daytona 500 pole-sitter Chase Elliott won the first of Thursday night’s two Can-Am Duel races at Daytona International Speedway.

Elliott took the lead on Lap 37 of the 60-lap race and held off challenges from several drivers including runner-up Jamie McMurray, third-place finisher Kevin Harvick and fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski.

It was Elliott’s first win in his NASCAR Cup career.

“We had some steam tonight, and it was apparent,” Elliott told Fox Sports 1. “I’m excited about how this thing ran tonight, keeping it in one piece. I know this is only a Duel win and doesn’t count towards a win in the playoffs, but it still means a lot to me and the team. It’s a great way to start the season.”

MORE: Results from Can-Am Duel 1 at Daytona

MORE: What drivers said after first Can-Am Duel race at Daytona

For the first time in the modern NASCAR era, the top-10 finishing drivers earned points for their finish in both duel races. Also earning points in the first Duel were Matt Kenseth (finished fifth), Trevor Bayne (sixth), Martin Truex Jr. (seventh), Aric Almirola (eighth), Joey Logano (ninth) and Cole Whitt (10th).

There were six lead changes among three different drivers: Elliott, Keselowski and Kyle Busch.

There were two cautions (including a scheduled competition caution on Lap 26) and just one significant wreck in the event.

On Lap 50, Reed Sorenson’s hopes of racing his way into Sunday’s Daytona 500 ended after he was tapped from behind by Corey LaJoie, spun and slammed head-on into a SAFER barrier. Also collected in the wreck was Paul Menard.

LaJoie, who finished 18th, will race in Sunday’s event, while Sorenson and Timmy Hill failed to make the 40-car field.

“Guess he felt like he did what he needed to do. Hope he’s proud of it,” Sorenson said of LaJoie to Fox Sports 1.

Who else had a good race: Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski finished second through fourth and all had strong performances, but couldn’t catch Elliott in the closing laps. … Aric Almirola, the only car running in the Cup series for Richard Petty Motorsports this season, looked strong and finished eighth.

Who had a bad race: Brendan Gaughan could never get going and finished 19th in the 21-driver field.

Notable: 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano had to make an unscheduled pit stop due to a vibration on Lap 13. He fell one lap back as a result and finished ninth. … Daniel Suarez, who will be competing in his first NASCAR Cup regular season event Sunday, finished 12th … Chase Elliott is the youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a Daytona 500 qualifying race. Previous mark was held by Jeff Gordon when he won this event in 1993

Quote of the day: “Man, when I’m trying to get into the Daytona 500, if my mom was in that spot I’d probably wreck her too. I’m racing on Sunday.” — Corey LaJoie on qualifying to race in Sunday’s race.

What’s next: Sunday’s 59th Daytona 500, with a 2 p.m. ET green flag.

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NASCAR drivers to be a part of upcoming ‘Cars 3’ movie

NASCAR members who will be in the upcoming Cars 3 movie include NASCAR drivers Ryan Blaney, Darrell Wallace Jr., Daniel Suarez and Chase Elliott. (Photo By Dustin Long)
Photo By Dustin Long
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Ryan Blaney, Darrell Wallace Jr., Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez will join the cast of “Cars 3” this summer.

The movie, set to open June 16, tells the story of Lightning McQueen – voiced by Owen Wilson, who will be the grand marshal for Sunday’s Daytona 500. The move from Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures also features Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty, Ray Evernham, Humpy Wheeler, Mike Joy and Shannon Spake.

In the movie, Blaney, Wallace, Elliott and Suarez play up-and-coming drivers.

Blaney’s character is Ryan Inside Laney.

Wallace’s character is Bubba Wheelhouse

Elliott’s character is Chase Racelott

Suarez’s character is Danny Swervez.

Said Suarez: “I just can’t tell you how excited I was when I got the opportunity to work with Pixar for the Cars 3 movie. I’m a huge fan of McQueeen. My bedroom in Mexico in my mom’s home, I have a ton of little cars of McQueen, I have a pillow of McQueen. I’m a huge fan.”

Said Elliott: “I remember going to the theatre to watch (the original “Cars” movie). I was a big fan of it. I think it’s really cool to be a part of it now.”

Zane Stoddard, NASCAR vice president entertainment marketing and content development, said the movie is important to NASCAR and it means a lot to have so many NASCAR voices in it.

“One of the most important objectives of NASCAR is to reach the next generation of fans of our sport,” Stoddard said. “What better opportunity to do that than to align with one of the greatest animated kids franchise in history.”

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Kurt Busch wants to break Daytona’s ‘ownership’ of him

Daytona 500 Media Day
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Kurt Busch wants to break the chains that bind him.

No, he doesn’t want to leave Stewart-Haas Racing or part ways with his sponsors.

Rather, Busch wants Daytona International Speedway to set him free and cut him a break or two.

“This track owns me,” Busch said Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day at DIS. “It doesn’t owe me anything, it’s just owned me over the years.”

Busch has made 31 career NASCAR Cup starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval and has come away with 12 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes.

But he’s never reached victory lane there (nor at NASCAR’s other restrictor plate track, Talladega Superspeedway).

Yet, he keeps coming back to Daytona, twice a year, trying to tame the track that just won’t give him a break.

“You have to keep that optimism and show up each time with the enthusiasm to go after it as a fresh start and as a championship weekend all wrapped into one,” Busch said. “This is one of those tough races to win. It’s the most prestigious stock car race there is.

“It’s not easy and I’ve got to do a better job at being better in the clutch moments at the end of the race to capitalize on my track position to hold off the guys from behind and to win it this time, instead of figuring out what I need to do better finishing second.”

Indeed, the Las Vegas native has finished second three times in the “Great American Race” (2003, 2005 and 2008).

“I feel like 2005 I had a chance to make a move on Jeff Gordon going down the back straightaway,” Busch said of the final lap. “I looked in the mirror and I saw Dale Jr. behind me and a load of Chevrolets.

“This was when I was driving with Ford and I guess I just should have jumped out of line and made the move to see what would have happened through turns three and four, to see if I could have won it that year.”

Another Daytona finish that still eats at Busch is 2011, when he ended up fifth.

“In 2011, I had everything going my way,” he said. “I won the Clash. I won the qualifying Duel. I was in the same position on the last lap of the 500 and I didn’t pull it off.”

Could Busch’s 0-for-63 record in restrictor plate races finally come to an end this Sunday? Sooner or later, the law of averages will turn in his direction, Busch hopes.

“I’ve been close many a times,” he said. “I definitely want to try to get this big trophy.”

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