Tony Gibson is the only crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing who is sitting on top of the same pit box that he rode in 2013. His mission? Continue to develop Danica Patrick as a NASCAR driver as she enters her sophomore season in the Cup Series. It’s a job Gibson has been well-equipped to handle. He has been around the sport for most of his adult life, part of several championship race teams. Well aware of the spotlight that comes from heading up the No. 10 race team, Gibson does not shy away from the attention.
But can quiet confidence meet building expectations? We shall see. Gibson was excited during the Sprint NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway when the announcement came out that winning a race would virtually guarantee a race team a berth in the Chase. Gibson was quite confident that, should the No. 10 team earn that victory he could put together a race car that would give his driver the opportunity to be in contention for the title once the Chase begins. And while the year started off slow, with Patrick involved in a 500 wreck there’s plenty of possibilities left to cash in.
As the Cup series gets ready to head to Phoenix for the second race weekend of the season, Gibson took a few minutes to talk with Frontstretch about what happened at Daytona and what to expect in the desert Southwest.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: Up until the wreck happened, how were things going for you at Daytona?
Tony Gibson: Everything was going really well. It sucked to start in the back, but we knew that was going to happen when our qualifying motor blew up that we were going to be at a deficit. I thought our car had good speed in it and we were able to get up front and lead a few laps. Things were looking pretty good. We had a bit of a problem in the pits on the first pit stop deal, when Ambrose ran into the side of us and knocked the fender in a little bit. We got that fixed early and things were shaping up to be a good day for us. We were really happy with the car, it felt like it drove really good, had good speed and felt like we could pass and maneuver pretty good. Up until the deal with the wreck, which she couldn’t do anything about what happened, it was just one of those things that happens in restrictor plate racing. We just try to focus on what happened up until that point and we felt like things were going good.
Neff: When Danica hit the wall, she hit it pretty hard. It seemed like she might have had her bell rung pretty well listening to her on the radio. Is she doing OK?
Gibson: Yeah, she’s doing fine. She was, first of all, trying to figure out what happened. She didn’t realize who caused the wreck, how it happened and all of that kind of stuff. It rattles you when you hit that hard. There is no SAFER barrier where she made contact with the wall. It was a 45-degree hit and a pretty good shot. She was probably doing 180 miles per hour when she made contact. It was pretty stout, but she’s doing fine; she was in the shop on Monday. She came in for the afternoon when we have our driver/crew chief meeting. She was a little bit sore but her neck wasn’t bothering her, so she’s ready to roll.
Neff: One question not about your car, but about Tony’s. They took the whole fuel cell out of his car to fix his issue. Is that because the fuel pumps are in the cell or are they mounted on top?
Gibson: Yes, whether you’re trying to change a lift pump or a swirl pot or something internal, it is just faster to put a whole different cell in there. Back in the day, it was easy to pop the top off pretty quick, check a pickup, and be back on your way. But with the way these things are laid out these days, it is just way faster to change out the whole unit than it is to try and diagnose the problem right there. That is what they did. The last two days, they have been at Hendrick at the chassis dyno, trying to figure out what happened and trying to duplicate it. Once they swapped it out, they were fine, so they put the cell back in and they’re trying to figure out what happened, when and diagnosing the EFI data, to see if they can isolate it.
Neff: Heading off to Phoenix for the second race of the season. This is one of the tracks where Danica had experience before she came over to NASCAR. Do you think that gives your team and her an advantage since she already had experience thanks to the open-wheel cars?
Gibson: Any time you can go around the racetrack, in a rental car or whatever, it helps. The IRL car was so drastically different from what we race today but she does have three Cup starts under her belt there. When we were there last Fall, it seemed like we were really good there. We were fast off the truck but had a minor brake issue during qualifying that put us near the back. We lost all of our track position with the brake problem and it kind of snowballed from there. But anytime a driver can get laps around a racetrack, it is definitely a bonus.
Gibson: Daytona was the same rules as last year, they didn’t change anything but the spoiler, so we weren’t running any of that stuff there. We’ve done quite a bit of testing over the winter. We’ve been to New Smyrna a couple of times, we went to Nashville three or four times. We’re just trying to get our feet wet and figure out what we’re going to do. I think it is a pretty neat deal and a good thing for NASCAR. Guys were spending so much time and effort in making the cars go down and stay down on the track but come back up for tech.
There are so many other little variables that can knock you out of tech, whether you have a bad shock or a jack bolt backs off or whatever. This was a way for NASCAR to say “Hey, instead of going through all of this headache on both ends we can make this pretty simple.” So we’ll have these devices that we can put between the shock shafts that will hold the car at six and eight, to go through NASCAR’s tech for the platform and all of that so that they can measure all of the things properly that they need to measure without being manipulated by heights.
It is good and Danica likes the way it drives; it is kind of like an IndyCar. The cars are already low. They don’t have the big transition from the car being two and a half inches higher to down on the track. Those were the transitions that you used to have with the movement and the roll in the car. So far, for us, it has been a good thing. She likes the way it drives and the way it feels. Hopefully, I don’t know if everyone will go that way, some of them may stick with what they had. We are going to roll with the new package and see if we can have some better results with it.
Neff: Phoenix got repaved two or three years ago. We all know it is a dry heat out there. The asphalt is already starting to age. Is the wear and character that is beginning to reappear, will it make the racing any better and will it present any challenges to you as a race team?
Gibson: The tire is really good that Goodyear brings to the track and the asphalt is still pretty new. The track cleans itself off and gets faster as the rubber is laid down. The biggest thing you fight out there is the sand. There is a lot of sand flying around out there and that ends up settling on the race track. That creates a little bit of an issue at the start of the race and the practices. The sand will be blowing around and it settles on the track; until that gets blown off and out of the way, it is a hindrance. The racetrack is still in very good shape where it isn’t really giving up yet; it is probably going to take two or three more years before you start to see that transition.
Neff: Does the sand in the air have any impact on the air cleaner or does the positioning of the cowl prevent most of that from getting in there?
Gibson: It certainly does. Those little particles are floating around so they’re always going to get down in there. It is a better deal with the fuel injection than it was with the carburetor, but the filters that we run do a good job of keeping the particles from getting all of the way down inside the throttle bodies so it isn’t really an issue.
Neff: On the backstretch at Phoenix, we’ve been seeing more and more drivers taking the short cut across the — you can’t really call it an apron — we’ll say it’s more of a tarmac. Is that something you have to incorporate into the setup or is it something that, if Danica chooses to try and do it, she has to deal with what the car does?
Gibson: We don’t really practice that or build it into the setup. That is just something the drivers use during the race to manipulate the racing groove. You still have to try it out in practice because it is an abrupt transition, and we want to make sure the car won’t bottom out too severely or do anything stupid. Periodically, throughout practice, the drivers will head down there just to make sure the car doesn’t do anything crazy. It does get dirty and slick down there during practice, so you have to be careful. During the race, it stays pretty well blown off with all of the guys running down there. We won’t spend a lot of time focusing on that until the race.
Neff: It seems like, with the timing of the races out there, you always end up fighting with the sun at some point in time during the event, midway or a little bit earlier. Is that something the team works on or is it something Danica deals with, because it is driver comfort, mostly focused on the shield?
Gibson: We kind of work on it. Jay, the interior guy, works on different types of tear-offs on her shield and we do different taping on the front windshield, on the inside, so that later on in the day, with the sun down there bearing on Turn One, that won’t be too difficult. We tape the windshield differently and use different shields on the helmet that we’ve learned over time. After so many years, you kind of know what you need when you go there for practice, qualifying, and later in the race.
Years of experience pay off in many ways that fans might not realize. Gibson’s experience comes into play, not only with bringing along a driver, but helping them deal with different factors that some people might not think about. With 25 races left until the Chase, he’s still thinking about winning a race and making it into the playoffs — and he’ll keep instilling that confidence in Patrick. Gibson hopes that making the right calls, at the right time, will put his whole team into the title hunt.