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January 31, 2018

New role suits Tony Gibson’s hands-on style at Stewart-Haas Racing

RELATED: Driver, crew chief moves for 2018

Nearly a year ago, Tony Gibson provided one of the most genuine celebration scenes of the season, with raw emotion from atop the pit box after watching Kurt Busch’s No. 41 Ford take the checkered flag in the Daytona 500.

One thing about that: Amid the build-up of the final lap in his chaotic work space, the longtime Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief couldn’t actually see the exact moment. His vantage point was too crowded with animated team members, but all the noise — from the fans in front of him and ecstatic team co-owner Tony Stewart by his side — told him his dreams were coming true.

“That’s why my reaction was so delayed is I never really saw us cross the start-finish line, but I knew something pretty good was going on when the crowd started screaming and Stewart started screaming and all the guys,” Gibson says. “But yeah, I missed the car crossing that line, but I got to watch it several thousand times on TV later on.”

After crossing a lifelong wish off his personal bucket list last year, Gibson will have a far different view for the 2018 NASCAR season. The 53-year-old veteran is rounding into the role of SHR’s production manager, a job that will center his mechanical know-how on the shop floor, ending his near-weekly travel routine after 31 years on the road.

Though his position is managerial in nature, Gibson says it hasn’t stopped him from staying involved in the Stewart-Haas trenches.

“I love being hands-on, which I’ve always been,” Gibson said. “So this will allow me to spend more time bringing everyone together as a group, getting to work with some guys in the chassis shop, fab shop and body shop — all the guys down on the floor, the grunts — everybody that’s really making this thing happen. Just being involved with them and making better parts and better pieces.”

Gibson made his announcement Dec. 16, a day after SHR released its driver-crew chief pairings for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign. John Klausmeier, an engineer with Stewart-Haas since its first season in 2009, replaced Gibson as crew chief for Busch and the No. 41 team.

MORE: SHR reveals driver-crew chief pairings for 2018

In his message shared over social media, Gibson indicated that such a change had been a long time coming. He said later that when he signed his most recent contract extension in 2014, an option clause was included for him to explore opportunities for a less travel-intensive role. His Daytona victory, combined with Klausmeier’s readiness for crew chief responsibilities, gave him the sense that the avenue was opening.

“I think he was just finally ready to get off the road but even more excited that he wasn’t just coming off the road and just taking an average job,” Stewart says. “I mean, his role with these crew chiefs and working on the floor with all these guys around the shop is something he will excel at. He’s such a good people person, he’s such a good motivator and he’s very hands-on, which is why the people that work under him appreciate him so much because he’ll get in there and dig as hard as anybody else to get the job done.”

Barely one month into the new gig, Gibson’s primary thrust has been to create uniformity across Stewart-Haas Racing’s four-team fleet. The twofold goal: To build identical cars with common reference points for all shop personnel and to jump-start compliance with NASCAR’s new at-track inspection system.

Those objectives might sound simplistic, but they involve plenty of technical nuance and communication that spans several of SHR’s departments.

“I think I’ve told Zippy (SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli) a couple times that it’s kind of like a mom,” Gibson says. “They call you a mom, but you’re actually a chauffeur, you’re a psychologist, you’re so many different things that a woman is. A banker, organizer … so it turned into being more than what I thought it was going to be, but that’s OK. Once people see your strength and see that you’re making a difference, they kind of latch onto you.

“Right now, we’re digging. So I do everything it takes, I’ll get in all the engineering meetings, all the design meetings to try to help those guys connect that gap from engineering to bolting it on the car. The guy that’s building or designing this part, making sure he goes on the floor and it’ll actually work on the race car and the guys that are putting it together. I’m trying to bridge that gap and then focus on things that the crew chiefs, let’s just let them go do what they need to do and I’ll focus on the actual building of the cars, putting them together, if we’re going to make a change, those type of things. So it’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot more work than what I thought it was going to be when I first signed up for it.”

The hours might be tough, Gibson says, but proximity to his children and grandchildren has become the priority in his new schedule. Gibson said he still expects to travel “every fourth or fifth race, just to stay up on top of the things that are going on at the track.” He also said he’ll likely be a natural choice as an interim replacement should any of SHR’s four crew chiefs need to serve a suspension or miss a race for other unforeseen circumstances.

So perhaps Gibson’s headset hasn’t completely been mothballed, but he still expects an adjustment period once the racing schedule begins in earnest.

“It probably will be,” Gibson says. “I’m sure when they peel off for Daytona, it’ll be a little different for me.”