CONCORD, N.C. ‚ÄĒ Kurt Busch‚Äôs first victory of the season last weekend came with the usual trappings. The trophy. The checkered flag. A playoff spot. The burnout. An emotional post-race interview.
One element of the celebration, though, stood out as different amid the late-night hoopla at Kentucky Speedway. The jubilation level for the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 team seemed particularly high, especially when contrasted against the heartbreak of a storm-related defeat the previous weekend at Daytona. Plus, many of the crew were cheering their long-awaited first win at NASCAR‚Äôs top level.
But the festivities took on a decidedly old-school aura after the post-race interview, when one by one, a half-dozen crewmembers piled onto Busch‚Äôs No. 1 Chevrolet for a triumphant ride back to the pits.
It was a celebration that had been in the works for at least two years.
PHOTOS: Old-school celebrations
‚ÄúJust one day out of the blue, we were having a little group meeting,‚ÄĚ said car chief Ryan Bergenty, who rode the No. 1 Chevy‚Äôs passenger-side door. ‚ÄúIt was just the guys and I, and we were going through pre-race stuff for the weekend. Something just popped into my head ‚ÄĒ a little throwback, a little old-school kind of racing. We‚Äôre all racers, right? We all like the old-school celebrations and stuff, and celebrations nowadays have gotten pretty mundane ‚ÄĒ just burnouts, right?
‚ÄúSo it just popped in my head, I said, ‚ÄėI tell you what, when we win a race, I promise we‚Äôll ride on the race car,‚Äô and they all just kind of had that little fire.‚ÄĚ
Those initial flames simmered for nearly two seasons until Kurt Busch outdueled his brother, Kyle, in a fender-scraping Saturday night shootout at the Kentucky course. It‚Äôs the passion that prompted interior mechanic Matthew House to occupy the driver‚Äôs-side door ledge, opposite a fist-pumping Bergenty. It‚Äôs the desire that drove shock technician Bryce Seales to find a perch on the rear decklid alongside hauler driver Scott Woodfin and underneath mechanic Jon Ellis. And it‚Äôs the motivation that coaxed front end mechanic Nick Case into rushing to retrieve the checkered flag, then snagging the only spot left: the hood.
Honoring the celebrations made famous long ago by names such as Petty, Allison and Waltrip sparked a post-race stir, one that rivaled the buzz created by the bare-knuckled finish. But it also provided one of the season‚Äôs most searing images from one of the garage‚Äôs most tight-knit teams. Here is the story of the six men who made that ride.
Rewind well back into the history books, decades ago when the most prestigious races were celebrated with rowdy gatherings on streamlined sheet metal. House, the interior specialist, remembers watching that sort of vintage footage from his family‚Äôs lo-def TV with a primitive remote control.
A more recent remembrance of those grainy images was where the idea hatched.
Case (front end mechanic): ‚ÄúIt may have been a rain delay, we were hanging out in the hauler and we see one of the flashbacks of everybody riding and said, ‚ÄėHey, we need to do that.‚Äô But it‚Äôs kind of like, you joke about winning the Powerball. You know, what would you do with all the money.‚ÄĚ
Bergenty (car chief): ‚ÄúIn the sport, everybody‚Äôs always pushing, right, and everybody wants to win. And so you always have to have little goals, you have to have big goals, you have to have personal goals, you have to have team goals. ‚Ä¶ That‚Äôs a way that I saw a little reaction to put a little pep in the step of everybody and keep the ball rolling as a team to keep shooting for the same goal. And so, it‚Äôs been hit and miss a couple times over a couple years talking about it.‚ÄĚ
Woodfin (hauler driver): ‚ÄúFor me personally, getting on that car was just absolutely awesome because I‚Äôve been a race fan since I was 6 years old and watching the old-school guys do that and watching Richard Petty pull into Victory Lane with all his guys on it, it was just something I was in awe of as a kid.‚ÄĚ
Ellis (underneath mechanic): ‚ÄúFor me, this entire crew is a bunch of old-school racers. I mean, that‚Äôs what we grew up watching. It just happened, just living in the moment.‚ÄĚ
House (interior mechanic): ‚ÄúI think it came about that everybody grew up watching NASCAR and the Southern style. Everybody rode on the car. It was just great. Everybody, it was what you grew up watching ‚ÄĒ all the old-timers, the originals, they loved it and would climb on the car. So we wanted to relive that, and felt like that was something we wanted to do. ‚Ä¶ So I always remember playing with the TV remote and watching the race, and you see that. As you get older, you‚Äôre like, ‚ÄėMan, that‚Äôs what I love. That‚Äôs what I want to do.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
Rewind not quite as far back, to the beginning of a season full of promise. The No. 1 Ganassi ride hadn‚Äôt won in five-plus years, a drought that grew heavier with each passing start.
A new name atop the car‚Äôs door offered the chance for rejuvenation. That new figure was Busch, a former series champion set to make CGR the sixth stop in his long career. The 40-year-old driver made his intentions clear early on: Not content to play out the string in the twilight of his driving days, he was determined to restore the No. 1 team back to its winning ways. His conversations were framed in terms of when the team would win, not if.
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The crew bought in.
Woodfin: ‚ÄúHe came in and his first thing (he said) in the introduction meeting we had in the shop (is), after one win we would have a luncheon; after a second win he‚Äôs closing the shop down early and having a party; and after the third win he‚Äôs inviting some friends. So there was no doubt that he wants more than one, and he knew that we‚Äôd get at least one. Just working with him and the guys, everybody pushes each other to go harder.‚ÄĚ
Case: ‚ÄúThat guy gives 100 percent every single lap. When you see him get out of the car, he‚Äôs beat, covered in sweat, covered in salt. He drives every lap as hard as he can. So when we knew when that last caution came out and we were fourth, he‚Äôs bringing back the steering wheel or the checkered flag.‚ÄĚ
Bergenty: ‚ÄúDefinitely Kurt gets a lot of credit for that, but it‚Äôs definitely something that we‚Äôve had. It wasn‚Äôt so much bringing more to the table, it was the reassurance. Our group‚Äôs really pushing, like I mentioned before. Our group‚Äôs really refined details. Our group every week is just pushing really hard and not missing anything, and so when you are in this sport, it‚Äôs a complete team thing. You need the road crew, you need the shop crew, you need the marketing group, you need the driver, you need the pit crew ‚ÄĒ there‚Äôs so much that goes in. Ultimately, Kurt has probably the biggest factor in the outcome of it all, so we all had the attitude and the fire, it was just like putting a cherry on your ice cream. It was just that little bit extra that honed our focus in a little bit better.‚ÄĚ
House: ‚ÄúI think his determination in every day, every minute when he gets at that car is we‚Äôre going to win. We‚Äôre going to be up front, no matter what. People see that things affect him, he may get upset, but I don‚Äôt really see he‚Äôs getting upset, I see that‚Äôs just will and desire.‚ÄĚ
Seales (shock technician): ‚ÄúCertainly when he came here, we were all really pumped because we hadn‚Äôt had a really good year for different reasons in 2018, had a pretty good year in 2017, and he‚Äôs motivated every single race. And we got really close there a few races during the year; we just knew that it was going to come our way. And you know at the end of the race when there‚Äôs 10 to go, he‚Äôs the right driver to get it done.‚ÄĚ
Ellis: ‚ÄúYou know what you‚Äôre getting when you get Kurt Busch. It‚Äôs wide open, all the time, and he‚Äôs going to bring the best out of you. It was a big confidence booster.‚ÄĚ
Bergenty: ‚ÄúWhat I think Kurt‚Äôs done is, Kurt doesn‚Äôt lift. Kurt‚Äôs very on the gas, every day. It‚Äôs just gotten everybody to where if you were six days on, one day off, now we‚Äôre seven days on. It‚Äôs pushed us and everyone‚Äôs accepted that role, that sense of pressure.‚ÄĚ
Rewind to just one week before Kentucky, back to the summertime return trip to Daytona. Busch rallied from one incident, avoided the race‚Äôs largest pileup and rose back into contention. Then a split-second decision to pit from the lead right before a fateful lightning warning and torrential rain ended the event early cost the team a victory.
Case: ‚ÄúThis is a very humbling sport, but the driver that we have was very determined from the time that car came off the truck. Our first laps were super-fast, so we knew we had a shot that weekend. But to lose Daytona like that, that one hurt ‚ÄĒ especially because we had a fast car. We got caught up in a wreck, drove up back through, made it through the second wreck and kind of had that one taken.‚ÄĚ
Seales: ‚ÄúThe Daytona thing was a real ‚Ä¶ that was like the highs and lows. Like every minute there, we weren‚Äôt sure what was going to happen. One minute, we‚Äôve won this and we‚Äôre good to go; the next minute, it was all over. That was a real kick in the guts, but it didn‚Äôt stop us. We thought, ‚ÄėMan, one event‚Äôs not going to define us.‚Äô We keep pushing because we‚Äôve been doing well all year. We just haven‚Äôt had that last bit of luck to get first.‚ÄĚ
Bergenty: ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not super-happy how it all went down, but on the positive side, it pulled our group a little closer together and we did what we were supposed to do. We were supposed to come back next weekend and kick some butt.‚ÄĚ
Rewind to just a few days ago, when overtime set the table for a brotherly battle, a two-lap sprint destined to play on repeat in highlight supercuts.
With both drivers struggling for control and the upper hand, the older brother outfoxed the younger in a captivating side-by-side finish. After the checkers, the customary burnout, the interview and Busch‚Äôs impromptu stage dive off the car‚Äôs roof, a twinkle in the eye reminded the crew about the pact they‚Äôd made two years earlier.
Bergenty: ‚ÄúOnce everybody just got out there and we were congratulating Kurt and stuff, and everyone‚Äôs adrenalin‚Äôs going because it was a heck of a race, I just kind of looked over at one of the guys and said, ‚ÄėRemember what I told you a couple years ago?‚Äô He said, ‚ÄėNo way!‚Äô I said I promise you we‚Äôll do it. So we just kind of spur of the moment hopped on and see you later.‚ÄĚ
Case: ‚ÄúI wasn‚Äôt really sure if we were going to do it, but right after we jumped off the wall, (Bergenty) said, ‚ÄėLet‚Äôs go out there.‚Äô Oh, OK. We‚Äôre going to do it.‚ÄĚ
House: So we all talked about it, about hopping on the car and getting on the car, but we‚Äôve never seen anyone execute it in this modern era. ‚Ä¶ To be honest with you, when we hopped on the car and it was a celebration and we were waving at the fans, for just a moment, I kind of got tunnel vision. Just in the zone, we had just won, you‚Äôre riding on the car, no one‚Äôs done this in years. It‚Äôs great, the best moment.‚ÄĚ
Ellis: ‚ÄúI was just going to get on the car. It didn‚Äôt matter where. But we were all standing there and Kurt was getting ready to get back in the car, and Ryan, our car chief, was like, ‚ÄėLet‚Äôs hop on.‚Äô Just found a spot and rode ‚Äėer out.‚ÄĚ
Case: ‚ÄúWe were all pretty excited so everybody started getting on the car, and someone‚Äôs like, ‚ÄėThe checkered flag!‚Äô We looked up and the officials‚Äô waving ‚Äôem. All right, be right back. So I sprinted up and grabbed that and came back. Well, everybody had already piled on the car, so I‚Äôm like, the hood, that‚Äôs the last place, so I‚Äôm sticking my hand in the airbox and let‚Äôs go.‚ÄĚ
Seales: ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs been a lot of different photos on the media, and when you really look at it, if you look at the emotion of all the guys on there ‚ÄĒ probably except for me because I‚Äôm busy hanging on ‚ÄĒ but I think it really stands out. You‚Äôve got Nick with the flag, you‚Äôve got Jon-Jon just hand in the air and you can see the emotion and the excitement, and for some of those guys their first win, and certainly my first win in Cup as well. Yeah, to finally do it, you let it all hang out and celebrate. It was great.‚ÄĚ
Bergenty: ‚ÄúSo when we kind of jumped on the car, Nick‚Äôs got a flag, Jon-Jon‚Äôs clapping, I was giving a little fist bump, then when we pulled away, you could hear the crowd. The crowd was excited, so for us that‚Äôs the most important part. Without our fans, our fan base and the guys that are cheering on Kurt and our team, we‚Äôre not much. For us to be able to perform like that week in and week out so they have something to cheer for, like I said, it‚Äôs important to me personally, but it‚Äôs important to our group to interact and give back to our fans when we can win races.‚ÄĚ
Woodfin: ‚ÄúThe crowd was going nuts. It was amazing. I was fighting back tears the whole time. It ranks right up there with kids being born, for me. That‚Äôs how awesome it was.‚ÄĚ
Ellis: ‚ÄúWinning‚Äôs hard in this sport, so enjoy it. When it happens, take full advantage of it because you don‚Äôt know when your next one is going to be. What we do next, I don‚Äôt know. We‚Äôll see when it happens.‚ÄĚ
Bergenty: ‚ÄúThe fans deserve it, Monster and our sponsors and partners deserve it. The guys deserve it. It‚Äôs been a long couple years for us, and then since then, those guys are going to have a picture that they‚Äôre going to blow up and I‚Äôll make sure they get to hang up in their house. It‚Äôs a memory that they‚Äôll have forever, and it‚Äôs pretty cool. It really is.‚ÄĚ