Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HOMESTEAD, FL – For many race teams, a different crew chief atop the pit box in a pressure-packed, high stakes race like Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship finale (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90) would be a hands-up, unpredictable situation.
But when Tony Gibson climbs into the hot seat, pit-side at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday night, the No. 4 SHR Ford team he will lead and its driver Kevin Harvick will likely feel fortified and ready for the challenge even with the team’s crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Robert Smith sidelined for a second week by NASCAR after Harvick’s car failed inspection at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago.
Gibson, 54, certainly isn’t “new” to the sport, or to the kind of professional pressure he’s got this week filling in for Childers. He is a Daytona 500 winning crew chief (2017 with Kurt Busch). He was the car chief on the late Alan Kulwicki’s 1992 Cup championship team and also on Jeff Gordon’s 1998 and 2001 title winning teams.
The Daytona Beach-native is a longtime, highly respected strategist and personality that SHR is confident can glide into the season’s hottest pit seat and lead the team’s championship contender Harvick a fantastic shot at winning a second title.
“I think personally, all these guys want to step up and show Rodney that, you know what, we are a great team and you have built an awesome race team here and we want to show you that, how mature we are as a group and how we can function as a group even when our leader is not with us,” Gibson said Wednesday during a national conference call with the four championship-eligible crew chiefs.
“We can still follow your lead and we can still get this done.”
Achieving against the odds is something Gibson is well-versed in.
Just this season, the longtime SHR employee has overcome major health problems. A blood clot put him in the hospital this summer and resulted in a “mini-stroke,” Gibson said, which left him with severe hearing loss and the loss of some function in his left eye. But intense therapy and regular appointments with his doctors have helped Gibson regain his vision and he wears a hearing aid to help with any lingering issues there.
There was actually a follow-up appointment with his neurologist scheduled for this Friday.
“I’m not going to make that one, I’m going to be in Homestead,” Gibson said.
“I contacted my doctor and they all released me to go and fly,” he said. “…if at all possible, I was going. There was no way I was going to let those guys down. So as long as my doctor said I could go, I was going. That’s what they got me here to do.”
Instead Gibson’s challenge will be guiding this super-achieving No. 4 team to an exclamation point on a stellar season. Harvick’s eight wins is a personal best for the 2014 Cup champion and his 28 top-10 finishes through the first 25 races ties a career mark set in 2015. Gibson would like to help Harvick top that mark with a victory and championship trophy this weekend.
At this point, the team is not on “auto-drive” but certainly knows what needs to be done. And if anything, the big penalty – which also included a loss of 40 championship points and forced Harvick to race his way into the Championship 4 last week – has motivated the team even more.
Gibson said he essentially just wants to keep the season-long good juju going. That’s what they did last week at Phoenix and that’s what they plan to do this weekend.
And NASCAR has given the okay for Childers to come inside the race track should Gibson guide this team to a championship Sunday evening.
“We took each practice, each run, one at a time, thought about changes and what we needed to do, and Rodney had a great plan laid out and we kind of just followed his lead through that,” Gibson said. “He has an awesome race team. They all pretty much know what to do. You don’t have to tell them what to do. They follow right along.
“My biggest fear is just making the wrong call or doing the wrong thing. I want those guys to be proud of me. Like I told Rodney, I just want to do you a good job and hope you can be proud of me, so that’s what I want to get done.”
As it turns out Gibson and Childers are close friends away from the track and that relationship may turn out to be especially beneficial this weekend.
“Me and Rodney have a really, really good relationship, along with Kevin,” Gibson said. “Me and Rodney, we do a lot of things off the track together. … we have a lot of things in common that we love to do, so we’ve got a friendship outside of the racetrack part of it and the racing side of it, which I think kind of helps all that kind of merge a little easier.
“I don’t have an agenda in this whole deal coming in. .. I have a company agenda of winning a championship.”