DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Tony Stewart approached Tony Gibson with the prospect of overseeing Danica Patrick's new Sprint Cup team for the 2013 season, the veteran crew chief had one request -- that he be able to bring the rest of his crew with him.
Understandable, given that Gibson and his guys had been together for much longer than just the four years they had worked with Ryan Newman. Patrick may be the star on Stewart-Haas Racing's No. 10 team, but the crew which readied the pole-winning car for the Daytona 500 is a tight-knit group that goes back to the heyday of Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- including Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory in the 2004 edition of the Great American Race.
Gibson can count them on his fingers. There's Kevin Pennell, his car chief. There's Jay Guarneri, his interior mechanic. There's Brandon Blake, his shop foreman. There's Brian Holshouser, his shock specialist. There's Al Tully, his setup guy. There's John Klausmeier, his engineer. There's Todd Cable, his transporter driver, and a half dozen other guys back in the fabrication shop. The heart and soul of Patrick's team are a group of men who together experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows at DEI, and built indestructible bonds in the process.
"I have them all scattered," Gibson said Wednesday. "It's like a mini-DEI over there. A lot of us, we just stuck together. We figured, the only way we're going to survive in this business now, with how it's going, is to stick together. When the deal kind of went bad over at DEI, we all stuck together. I just wanted to make sure everybody had jobs and we could stick together. And luckily, we were able to."
When Stewart assumed co-ownership of the rebranded Stewart-Haas operation prior to the 2009 season, he needed not just a crew chief, but a whole crew to fill out an organization that would field two competitive full-time cars. Gibson knew just what to do, gathering together many of the colleagues he had worked with at DEI before that team merged its racing operations with Chip Ganassi's team. That crew formed the backbone of Newman's team until late last year, when Stewart switched Gibson over to the program Patrick would front in 2013.
Not surprisingly, the crew chief once again brought his guys with him -- a fact that Gibson said thrilled Stewart, who wanted his rookie driver to be surrounded with an experienced crew. "It just worked out great," Gibson said. "Here we are again."
That would be back out front at Daytona, a position many members of the No. 10 team are very familiar with. These are crewmen who worked at DEI when no organization was better at restrictor-plate racing, during a stretch when Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip were always the favorites at NASCAR's largest tracks. Gibson, Pennell, Guarneri and many others on Patrick's crew wore Budweiser red here in 2004, and celebrated memorably in the infield grass after Earnhardt Jr. won the sport's biggest race. Others were part of Waltrip's victories. They all know what it takes to go fast on Daytona's high banks.
So it should come as no surprise that the fastest car on qualifying day was built and prepared by men who once seemed unbeatable on the 2.5-mile track. "Everybody puts in the same effort, whether you're a mechanic or me or whoever," said Gibson, who was a mechanic on the No. 8 team in 2004. "It takes everybody to make it happen. So it's very special to me and my guys, who were at DEI and went through all that, to come here and accomplish this."
Particularly given where they've come from. Despite the success DEI experienced at its height, the wake of Dale Earnhardt's death was a turbulent time for the organization, with infighting over its direction and the eventual absorption of his racing operation by Ganassi. Gibson and his boys rode it all out, from Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip to Mark Martin and Aric Almirola, to the bitter end following the 2008 campaign. That experience fostered a trust and a closeness that's still very evident among Patrick's crewmen today.
"It's like a marriage, I guess," said Guarneri, who was a road mechanic on the No. 8 team in 2004. "I don't know, because I've never been married. But when you're with somebody ? you just know what everybody is going to do. Everybody's got their own little thing they've got to do, and you don't have to worry about double-checking. Everybody's got their own little deal, and they know how to do it. And I think Sunday, that proved it and showed we've got a pretty good group of guys."
"We have a good bond together," added Pennell, who joined DEI in 1995, the team's first year. "? There's a good friendship between all of us. Everything clicks. Everybody knows what the other wants. We cover each other's backs, pretty much."
Gibson has been a part of four Daytona 500 winners -- one each with Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, one with Jeff Gordon in 1999, and one in 1990 with Derrike Cope, for whom he hung car bodies even though he wasn't officially a member of Bob Whitcomb's race team. But as much as anything else, he's been shaped by the trials at DEI, where he learned lessons that may help him shepherd his rookie driver through her first full-time season.
"We've been to the high and we've been on the low end of it," he said. "I think at the end of the day, we just try to be humble and know that any day, it could go bad and we could go back to a rookie driver and starting over. I think that's why Stewart wanted us to be with (Patrick), because we've been through all those ups and downs, and we understand it, and it doesn't phase us. We'll give you 110 percent no matter who's driving that race car. I think going through all that deal at DEI just made us stronger. How we all survived that deal over there and still stayed together is pretty amazing. I think going through all that just made us all better people, and stronger, and made us appreciate the job we had."
No wonder, then, so many of them embraced the idea of being a part of Patrick's program for 2013. Guarneri will admit, there were times late last year when he heard comments from others in the garage area about being stuck with Danica. They dried up once it became evident how well Patrick and her new crew fit together, a fact that was apparent in the improved performance she enjoyed prior to the end of last season.
"When they took us off Ryan's deal last year and put us with her with six races to go, that was a godsend," Guarneri said. "? Everything kind of meshed. It just kind of worked out."
Besides, dealing with a few derisive comments is nothing for crewmen who know what it's like to be chewed out by Tony Eury Sr., the crew chief on those great No. 8 teams, where the love-hate relationships overflowed like the Bud in Victory Lane. From victory to heartbreaking disappointment, at Daytona and beyond, the members of Patrick's crew have experienced it all -- making them a perfect complement to a driver who is going through a full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season for the first time.
"I think that's a huge security blanket for her, because she knows she has an experienced team," Gibson said. "She knows when things go bad and when things go wrong in pressure situations, she's got a solid team that will pick her up and is going to work hard and it going to make sure she has the best cars she can have. We're not going to get disappointed when things happen, because we've been there. We understand the sport. So I think that relaxed her. I could see it in her. When she found out this whole team was going to be hers, she was just a relaxed person. I think it just gives her a huge comfort zone."
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