While many Americans will fire up the barbeque one final time and watch the opening weekend of college football this Labor Day weekend, Danica Patrick and her fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors will be “laboring,” for lack of a better term.
Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500 Sprint Cup race is certainly no holiday for drivers as the marathon, 325-lap event around the fast, old and slick 1.5 miles of Atlanta Motor Speedway asphalt is one of the biggest challenges of the season.
The Atlanta “quad” oval is one of the fastest tracks on the circuit, but its old pavement means that cars slip and slide around, putting a driver’s ability to the test. Factor in that the race starts in the hot early evening sun and ends under the stars, and it’s an experience that can cause headaches for both drivers and crew chiefs as they attempt to figure out how to maximize the handling of their cars from beginning to end.
Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), and her crew chief Tony Gibson will attempt to find a handling package that is comfortable to drive without compromising speed.
Easier said than done.
But if Patrick needs any advice about Atlanta, she can certainly lean on her crew chief.
Gibson was the car chief for Jeff Gordon from 1998 to 2001 and, during that time, the team scored two wins and finished outside of the top-10 only twice in eight races at Atlanta.
Perhaps the most important moment of Gibson’s career came at Atlanta in 1992 as car chief for Alan Kulwicki.
Back then, the team was famously known for being an underdog, lacking the funding or the manpower of the super teams but knowing it had heart and a resolve to beat the best.
Its goal was to win the 1992 championship but, after a disastrous outing at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, where Kulwicki destroyed two racecars, it looked as if the championship hopes were over. With six races to go, the team was behind by a seemingly insurmountable 278 points.
As Gibson tells the story, Kulwicki walked into the hauler following the Dover race. He closed the doors behind him and said to his team, “Don’t give up on me, I won’t give up on you. We can still win this championship.”
And that’s precisely what happened. Kulwicki and his team rattled off four top-five finishes in the final six races and the championship battle between Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and Davey Allison went down to the wire that season 22 years ago.
Kulwicki entered Atlanta in third place in the championship standings but led the most laps and finished second to squeeze by race-winner Elliott for the title. Tragically, Kulwicki was killed in plane crash the following April.
Gibson never forgets his time with Kulwicki and is hoping to show some of that same magic in this week’s race at Atlanta.