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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.