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Newman's win stirs memories of former champion Kulwicki

April 05, 2012, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com



Newman's win stirs memories of former champion Kulwicki
Crew chief sees similarities between drivers on anniversary of '92 champ's crash

In the world surrounding NASCAR, April 1 has held a profoundly deep meaning for the past 19 years.

Alan Kulwicki was killed in a private jet crash in 1993. Thousands of friends and fans have remembered the 1992 Cup Series champion every year since.

Kulwicki, who had an engineering degree, was the last owner/driver to win a premier series championship before Tony Stewart achieved the feat in 2011. Kulwicki's influence still is felt through every garage.

""[Kulwicki] is inspirational to a lot of people in the garage -- that never-give-up attitude, the underdog kind of mentality that he had. It's 'no matter what, we'll do our best and that's all we can do.'""

--RYAN NEWMAN

It's that feeling that made Sunday's sobering anniversary transition to joy. Ryan Newman beat AJ Allmendinger on the second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish to win the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Both cars had a close connection to Kulwicki's championship team.

Newman's Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief, Tony Gibson, was Kulwicki's car chief. Allmendinger's public relations representative, Tom Roberts, served the same role for Kulwicki.

Kulwicki was on both men's minds, particularly for Gibson the night before the Martinsville race. He said Newman reminds him of Kulwicki almost daily.

"It's just pretty cool to be with Ryan with the engineering background, and he's just like Alan," Gibson said. "[Newman's] wicked smart, and when you ever try to catch him on something, he's got a little bit better answer for you. So I don't try that anymore."

What they always try to do is win, and Sunday worked out perfectly. That had Gibson, who went to work for Kulwicki in 1986 shortly after relocating from Daytona Beach, Fla., to North Carolina, reveling in the memories.

"A lot of the reason I'm where I am is because of Alan," Gibson said. "You know, the fight to never give up and always believe in yourself comes from [Kulwicki], too. So I think Alan, he put a lot of that into a lot of guys in this garage -- not only me."

Newman echoed Gibson.

"I remember this day 19 years ago when I was in high school," Newman said. "[Kulwicki] was an inspiration for me. He was part of the reason why I chose to be an engineer and follow through with my racing career at the same time.

"[Kulwicki] is inspirational to a lot of people in the garage -- that never-give-up attitude, the underdog kind of mentality that he had. It's 'no matter what, we'll do our best and that's all we can do,' and that's what we did."

It had Gibson, a big man who consistently shows an even bigger dose of heart, glowing.

"It means a lot," said Gibson, who was 28 when Kulwicki was killed. "Anytime you win is important, anytime you can win is gratifying, but [Sunday] is really cool to be able to win and think about Alan and where we have all come.

"I'm just happy to still be in the sport. I know I'm getting old, and I can't believe I've lasted this long. But hopefully I can dig along for a little longer and get some more wins."

Roberts is one who doesn't doubt his and Gibson's ability to keep digging, any more than he ever doubted Kulwicki. The two met when Kulwicki was running the national ASA series and Roberts was helping run the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, an ASA stop. After he relocated to the Carolinas, Kulwicki reached out to Roberts to be his PR rep.

As much of an influence as Kulwicki was in his short but brilliant stay in Cup racing, Roberts said Gibson did his share.

"Tony was so instrumental in keeping the team morale going," Roberts said of the run to the championship, when Kulwicki battled Bill Elliott, Davey Allison, Harry Gant, Kyle Petty and Mark Martin before prevailing in the Atlanta finale.

* SPEED The Day: Relive the 1992 championship battle at Atlanta

To Roberts, the moment that epitomized the team's spirit came before that, in September at Dover. Kulwicki crashed his primary car but won the pole in his backup. During the race, Kulwicki crashed early and finished 34th in the 36-car field.

"I got Alan back from the infield medical center and he got our team members together," Roberts said. "He explained that our chances of winning a title really took a blow there that day ... Tony said, 'That's not the important thing right now. The important thing is that you're OK and will be behind the wheel for us next week. We can build new cars, but we can't replace you.'

"That was like a resounding battle cry that made the bond between all the guys on the team even stronger."

Years later, that bond hasn't lessened for Roberts and Gibson.

"It's like every year, no matter where we are, Alan's spirit lives on," Roberts said, "especially with all the guys who were blessed to be a part of that miracle team.

"I couldn't help but think of that when Tony's car finished first and my car finished second there at Martinsville Sunday, on the anniversary of Alan's passing."

To Gibson, doing it with Newman meant the most.

"It is really cool," Gibson said. "It's pretty neat if you look back, same type of guy -- a guy that all he wants to do is race, all he believes in is racing. Just goes to show you, you can be smart and you can drive, too."