Tony Gibson was on the shop floor for the first moments of Danica Patrick's tenure with Stewart-Haas Racing, working a preseason Saturday preparing cars for Ryan Newman's No. 39 Chevrolet when she strode in to be fitted for her first Sprint Cup car seat.
"My guys were helping her get in the seat and get it all fitted up," Gibson, crew chief for Newman at the time, told espnW.com. "My guys built all her cars. Everybody on the 39, we were building 39 cars and [Patrick] cars, so I was here the very first day she sat down in there."
Less than a year later, Gibson will oversee the next phase of Patrick's development as a stock car driver in a more official, more scrutinized capacity as her new crew chief. That phase begins this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, with Gibson having taken over for the final two races of her 10-start Cup schedule. The goal: acclimation, continuity and a foothold to push into 2013, when she will commence her first full season at NASCAR's highest level in the No. 10 SHR Chevrolet.
Gibson, who won Sprint Cup championships as car chief for Jeff Gordon in 1998 and 2001 and another with Alan Kulwicki in 1992, seems eager for what will be one of his most expansive, if not highly documented of projects. Like former Patrick crew chief Tony Eury Jr. at JR Motorsports, Gibson considers the vocational satisfaction and historical importance in grooming the first female to undertake a full Sprint Cup schedule.
"I've won three Winston Cup championships," he said. "I've won a ton of races with championship drivers. I've been with some rookie drivers, and every one of them I've had success with. It's a lot of fun to have a new driver. The sky is the limit here. The first time we sit on a pole, the first time we get a top 10, top five, the first time we get a win, it's going to be amazing. That's the part that excites this race team. There's a carrot out there, and we're trying to get it."
This is very much a we project. Gibson, who turns 48 Saturday, wields a mix of homespun sensibility and technical, nuts-and-bolts expertise. He also brings his "pack of wolves," a close-knit pit crew whose core has been together since the 2002 season at now-defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc., working for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip, Mark Martin and others. That highly unusual length of tenure together fosters a strong sense of team. There is the feeling Patrick will be amalgamated into this group as much as they to her.
Gibson discussed the possibility with his crew of switching to Patrick's program soon after his first informal discussions with Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli, who served as her crew chief in her first eight Cup races this season. They were enthused. Those initial talks, Gibson said, were borne of a casual conversation leaning against a race car at Daytona International Speedway this July.
"I think all of my guys were ready for a change, ready to try something different, and we saw an opportunity to do something different with somebody new and to try and build a relationship," said Gibson, who qualified for the Chase for the Championship twice and earned three Cup wins as crew chief with Newman. "Everybody on my race team was pumped up about it, like, 'Let's give it a whirl, man. Let's see if we can take this girl and do something.'
"And on the other side of it, [team owner] Tony Stewart was looking for a solid team to put with her. He could go outside and hire an outside guy and he'll bring new guys. And now you've got new guys, new crew chief with a new driver, and when you have all that stuff that's new, it's really hard to build a relationship. This way made more sense from the company side of it, so we're going to take a really good, solid race team, guys that have been together for 10 or 11 years and we're going to plug her into their system and that will give her a good solid foundation, and we should be able to rock and roll and give her some confidence."
Patrick has expressed an immediate comfort with the selection, and the pair has been in frequent conversation via text messaging through two tests and in preparation for this weekend, in which Patrick will also contest the Nationwide Series race for JRM. They don't share many personal preferences or hobbies -- though Patrick engaged in some chats about hunting, fishing and real estate -- but they found somewhat of a commonality in discussing Patrick's appearance in a Miranda Lambert music video this summer.
"I know Tony about as well as I know anyone else at Stewart-Haas, other than Zippy, Patrick said. "I've always felt really comfortable around Tony. I feel like he's always listened to me. I feel like he has a lot of respect and I have a lot of respect for him. I get along with him great and, most of all, I trust in what they decide for me because I'm not experienced enough to make those calls. That's why I went with a team like Stewart-Haas, because I know they're going to give me what I need."
That process will begin by using Newman's cars as a starting point to ascertain what Patrick likes in a race car and how they communicate with each other about assessing performance and adapting changes. Gibson said similarities in Patrick's and Newman's fuel injection telemetry and driving styles from two tests reinforced the decision.
"I've looked at her EFI data and her braking and throttle traces, and it fits our processes a little bit better," he said. "It's stuff I'm used to running, and it's easier to tweak on it, I think, and it's easier to dictate and talk to her about certain setups than it is to try and change everything. And we'll have to tweak on it. Don't get me wrong. I think it helps us being in a more familiar setup with everyone being new, for the first two anyway, with stuff we've run before, and if we can adapt to her driving style, then I think we'll be in good shape."
That Newman was quick at Texas this spring and Patrick produced her best finish in the Nationwide Series so far this season -- eighth -- makes the 1.5-mile oval outside of Fort Worth a logical starting point for the new pairing. The starting point, Gibson said, is both mechanical and interpersonal.
"My job, my first job, is to give her good race cars, to surround her with a good team and be supportive and keep confidence in her," he said, "and that's what I'm going to work on, and that's probably why we fit so good together.
"It's a lot of fun right now. It'll be a lot of fun a year from now, two years from now."
And so, 2013 begins immediately.