At 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning, crew members from the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing team pushed their car back toward one of the last remaining haulers in the Kentucky Speedway garage.
Post-race inspection was complete. The group had torn down and put back together their winning machine, getting the all-clear from NASCAR that Kurt Busch’s fight for the checkered flag with younger brother Kyle a few hours ago was officially theirs to celebrate.
A joyous vibe enveloped the garage stall occupied by the team during the process. They downed tools to sign autographs for fans who approached, and cheers arose in response to the honk from teammate Kyle Larson’s hauler driver as he pulled out to begin the journey back home.
When the 1 car was eventually on its own lift gate, there were more handshakes and pats on the back. Busch arrived after the car had been safety stored away, done with his media obligations. More cheers erupted from the group and they gathered around their driver.
This team had been working and waiting for their time to be in victory lane. The last time the No. 1 car had won a NASCAR Cup Series race was with Jamie McMurray in 2013 at Talladega, and there has not been much to write home about in the years that followed.
The records will show that the win was earned at Kentucky under the lights on a Saturday night in July, but the seeds were planted by something Busch did in early December of 2018.
After months of speculation, Busch was announced as the driver of the No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet on December 4. Chip Ganassi had snatched up a former champion and proven winner. Matt McCall was going to continue as crew chief, and the nucleus of the team was going to remain the same as it had been for the last few years.
On this day in December, at the team shop in Concord, NC, Busch first met with McCall. Then engineers Jonathan Branzelle and Josh Sell, along with car chief Ryan Bergenty, were brought into the meeting. The first impressions were strong
What Busch did next went even further.
On the shop floor, everyone at Ganassi – shop guys, crew members, and others – gathered. There were even Monster girls there to celebrate. Then Busch spoke and changed everything.
“When” we win races, he said. When, not if. Ears perked up, especially those on his new team. A noticeable confidence emerged. Even Busch’s new PR rep, Jeff Dowling, made it a point to tell the driver what he had just done and how far it would go.
“I just want you to know you’re getting a really good team,” Dowling recalls saying.
Once the proceedings were done, team members began talking amongst themselves. Busch’s words had struck a chord.
“The guys in the garage didn’t need any more motivation, but there were definitely people in the shop that came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for somebody to say that for a long time,’” says Sell. “It definitely kind of puts everybody on notice that it’s time to go.”
Branzelle described the moment as “pretty cool.” This was a mentality that had been missing from the group for a while.
Before joining CGR in late 2013, Bergenty had worked with Busch at Furniture Row. Hearing Busch talk with such confidence wasn’t a surprise.
“The part for me was, a lot of the shop guys, I’ll say the older guys, that worked at [Ray] Evernham or the guys that worked on the 3 car with Dale [Earnhardt], they all came up and were like, ‘That’s a championship-caliber driver,’” he says. “The way he presented himself, the way he asserted himself, the way he talked to the group, the way he kind of drove everybody to find an extra gear. It’s a new level for the company. It’s a confidence booster.
“In this sport you have to be great at everything: pit stops, short runs, long runs, media. It’s a really complex sport, and he’s brought out the best in all of us to be the best at all of it, and the end result is when we were due and deserving of one (win), we got one.”
McCall pointed to Busch’s credentials as being a reason his words go so far when he speaks.
“When he starts talking (and) he tells you, ‘we’re going to win’, it’s definitely a confidence booster for sure,” McCall says. “He’s almost delivered, and he delivered (Saturday), so it’s been pretty fun this first half of the season.”
Tyler Green started spotting for McMurray four years ago and now does the same for Busch. He, too, used the phrase “confidence booster,” and says everyone watching Busch give 110 percent leads them to do the same.
Green and his teammates all agreed there was collective excitement when they heard that Busch was going to be their next driver. The 40-year-old has a title under his belt from 2004, along with 31 career wins. He has won with Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Tony Stewart, and now Ganassi.
A future Hall of Famer, Busch is one of the best in the business. But he also has a reputation that precedes him. Brash. Quick to lose his temper. Vocal.
“Anxiously excited,” was Greens reaction to Busch’s hiring. “Outside looking in, he’s a very high-strung, confident guy, so a little intimidating, but now that we’ve gotten to know each other and the team has bonded with him he’s a great, super dude.
“He holds everyone accountable to their job, and as long as you do your job, then everything’s good. And he holds himself accountable as well. He’s the first one to blame himself if anything goes wrong. We all work really hard to do the best job we can, and he does the same thing and does a great job at it.”
Seeing Busch cross the finish line brought a release of frantic celebration for his team on pit road. Screams pierced the night as they hugged, high-fived and jumped around. One crew member so excited he fell over the wall trying to get those on atop the pit box.
It didn’t take long for the group to leave the area and greet Busch at the car on the frontstretch. He jumped in their arms, and some hitched a short ride on his Chevrolet before everyone eventually made it to victory lane. Kentucky was the first win for Busch with Ganassi, McCall as a crew chief, the first for Chevrolet at Kentucky, and a first for many of the members of the 1 team.
“Obviously last year didn’t go as we wanted it to, so when you have a driver the caliber of Kurt come in, you know he’s just going to make everybody better,” says Branzelle. “But at the same time, it’s a little nerve-wracking, because you have to step up your game as well. I think all of us do a pretty good job of striving for perfection at everything we do, so I think as whole, he’s just made everybody better.
“I think in the past, I feel like, some people get dragged down because we’ve had fast cars and (didn’t) get the results you feel like you deserve, and this year you got a guy that comes out there and proves that he can win anywhere. He went from fourth to the lead on a restart, and passed Joey Logano and Kyle Busch – two of the best on restarts. Pretty cool.”
“It’s been pretty impressive,” says Sell. “At least for me, I don’t think I appreciated how talented he is and his knowledge and feel for what’s going on. It’s pretty impressive to see up close this season.”
Busch reminds Bergenty of the late Teddy Christopher, for whom he once worked, and says that he has been important in reinforcing a sense of team spirit.
“This year has been refreshing to have him in a car; he’s brought a little fire back to everybody,” says Bergenty. “He’s brought out our inner short track, hard nose focus, and it’s been super-fun. Now we just need to get on a string. I think we have a group that can go for a championship. This group’s been together for quite some time, now it’s all coming together and we’re going to make a run at it. We really are. We’re focused. We’re focused on a championship. That’s all that matters right now.”
Busch says that his power of positivity was learned by watching the athletic side of his polo-playing wife, Ashley. The process of changing his own mental attitude helped him to do the same for his race team.
“You come in and you talk a game, and you deliver it, and you do it with execution through team meetings, showing up early, staying late, and motivating guys to do a better job,” Busch says. “And the way that I’ve won races in the past, I try to go after the weakness of a team and fix that first, and then start to make things better as we go.
“But I’m the guy that gets to hold the steering wheel and go 200 miles an hour. I get the name recognition and all that, but this is a team effort. Matt McCall, when I first met him, I knew he could be a winner, and he’s a winner in the Monster Energy Cup Series. Tons of guys on this team, it’s their first win. There was a guy that is our car chief that I was with at Furniture Row when we were running up front but never winning. It’s like, I know we can win with this group, and now here we’ve done it. But it’s thanks to Chip Ganassi’s commitment with Felix Sabates and Rob Kauffman, our ownership. They’re in it to win it, and now we’re winners. Let’s grab another gear, though. Let’s try to get this thing where the second half is one of those phenomenal years.”