Hoosick native Barber part of Cup championship ride
HOMESTEAD, FLA. — With 10 laps remaining in the final NASCAR race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the No. 18 car driven by Kyle Busch was second, waiting for would likely be the last restart and a chance at the championship.
In the 18 pit sat 35-year-old Kenny Barber, nervous as the cars crept toward the start-finish line.
The tire carrier for Busch, the jobs for him and the rest of the team complete, he waited with bated breath to see what would transpire.
"Before the race [Kyle] texted us that we would go down there to Florida, it's just another race and we'd execute and dominate," said Barber, a Hoosick Falls native who has been a part of the 18 car's pit crew since 2005. "I was the most nervous at the beginning of the race, in the first 20 or 30 laps, you can tell how the car will be. Once it started, we knew we [had] something. Then it was 'Where's the 4 [Kevin Harvick], 24 [Jeff Gordon] and 78 [Martin Truex Jr.]?' We had consistently good stops, we didn't want to have it come down on us."
Busch started second on the final stop, getting past Brad Keselowski and holding off defending champion Kevin Harvick to bring Joe Gibbs Racing its fourth championship and first for Toyota.
"He was bound and determined, he said he held it to the mat," Barber said. "We felt like we had a big part in winning that day. We were the best car, the best crew chief and the best crew that night, no one could say we backed into it."
Barber's road to the NASCAR championship in the sport's top series is a long and winding one.
He lived in Eagle Bridge, where his grandparents still reside and his father owned the Barber and Fricke repair shop on Church Street until 2011, when he retired and moved to North Carolina.
"My grandparents, the Oglivies, took me to Lebanon Valley when I was young, like four or five," Barber said during a phone conversation last week. "I grew up a car kid, working in the shop. I fixed cars, my dad had old cars and then I raced go-carts at Albany-Saratoga [Speedway]."
At 17, he graduated from Hoosick Falls in 1998 and within a few days, he was off heading south to find a job that had been in his blood from the beginning — cars.
"I wasn't sure if I wanted to race or work on old cars, but my dad didn't get a chance to go to college, so I went to the Motorsports Management school in Concord, N.C.," Barber said.
During the two-year program at the school, he used a couple of his dad's connections to get into the sport.
"[College] is what got me down there. My first connection was my father knew someone at [Dale Earnhardt Inc.]," Barber said. "He volunteered with a couple of the pit crew in the 1990s, the poorer teams. He also had a connection with Ricky Rudd, who asked him to be a part of the pit crew, but he turned it down with the business and me in school, I was like 10 or 11."
Using that, he got in contact with Kevin Cram, who was going to be a crew chief with Stacy Compton in the Truck Series. Cram asked if he wanted to volunteer as a way to get into the business, and in the summer of 1998, he was on as basically an intern.
"I was sweeping floors, cleaning the trucks, breaking down tires, I was the low man on the totem pole," Barber said. "As time went on, they gave me more things to do and within the next two years, I was on the road, helping set the truck up. I got paid at that point too."
Compton's transition to what was then the Winston Cup came next, and Barber was on a team of about 10 guys with Harry Melling's team, getting to the races via commerical flights.
"It was a big step up. We did pit stop practice, we tested so much because [Stacy] was a rookie and I wasn't ready," Barber said. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to be on the pit crew or the road crew, but for a small team, you did both."
Barber decided to get out of the Cup Series team but ended up getting an opportunity with another truck team, this one for Coy Gibbs. He learned more about the mechanic side of NASCAR, working for Gibbs for the next two and a half seasons.
"We worked in the [Gibbs] shop to practice, and after that time, I wanted to go back to the Cup series and be on the pit crew, not the road crew," Barber said.
At the time, before the 2003 season, the Gibbs team had two drivers — Bobby Labonte in the 18 and Tony Stewart in the 20 — and neither had any spots available in the Cup Series.
So Barber, using his connections, found an opportunity with Kevin Harvick's team at Richard Childress Racing.
"It gave me a good taste of it, I got a lot of good experience on pit road with Harvick," Barber said.
He was part of the team that won the Brickyard at Indianapolis, Barber's first Cup win coming at the most famous track in all of motorsports.
In 2004, things were shaken up once again, but one phone call changed everything. The pit coach for the Gibbs team called, asking if he wanted to try out as the tire carrier.
He started the 2005 season for Labonte, then two years with JJ Yeley before Busch came to the team in 2008.
"When we got Kyle, I said, 'Now we'll see what we've got. We've been contenders week in and week out," Barber said.
There have been ups and downs in the past seven years with the 18 team and Kyle Busch, a driver from Las Vegas. He holds the record for most second-tier series wins, but he always seemed to self-destruct in important moments. Coming into 2015, it seemed that Busch was turning a corner in his career.
But then Kyle, racing in the opening event in the Xfinity Series at Daytona in February, broke his leg and foot and was out of action.
"I'm 35 years old, at the twilight of my career, I only have a few shots of winning the championship," Barber said. "When Kyle went down the first race, it was wind out of the sails. Is this a year down the tube?"
Busch was determined to get back into the race car as soon as possible and Barber and the rest of the crew saw that when they visited as he recovered from his injuries.
"He used his time [off] to get better," Barber said. "He didn't mope or sulk. He was sending e-mails to Adam [Stevens], the crew chief, every week."
Busch came back much faster than expected, driving the car in the all-star race in May at Charlotte after missing only 11 races.
"After a week or two coming back, he just settled in and then we went on a tear in the middle of the season," Barber said.
NASCAR ruled that Busch would be eligible for the championship Chase if he won an event and finished in the top 30 in points.
"He was pumped, it gave him life and gave us life as a team that radiates through everyone," Barber said.
A win at the road course at Sonoma, California made him eligible for the chase, then wins came in three consecutive starts at Kentucky, Loudon and Indianapolis to get him squarely on the plus side of the bubble.
Once the Chase started, there were challenges. A wreck at Talladega in the round of 8 put Busch into the good, knocking his teammate out of the running. Then after Phoenix in the penultimate race of the season, it would be the top four vying for the crown.
"He was on it as soon as he got back, I don't know if it was his son [Braxton] being born, or someone else driving his car, but he's mentally tough," Barber said.
At Homestead, the teams waited out rain to get the championship underway, but once it started, the nerves dissipated and Barber became part of a NASCAR championship.
Barber said he hasn't been back in the area in two years, but that didn't stop people all over the area e-mailing or calling, offering congratulations. He said he gets a chance to see people from the area when the series makes some of its northern stops at Watkins Glen, N.Y., Pocono, Pa., or Loudon, N.H.
"They are proud of me and they miss me and that's really neat," Barber said. "They come to the races, I always have people coming, we visit, hang out and I get the Hoosick Falls updates on the football team, field hockey and what's new in town. You're always interested in what's going on, no matter where you go and you appreciate it."
Just this past Friday, Barber was in Las Vegas, making appearances with the 18 team and Busch before the awards dinner. It shows that a kid from a small upstate New York town can make it in the bright lights of NASCAR.
"Just on our crew, we have guys spread out all across the U.S. and every one either raced or volunteered at a track in their area," Barber said. "It's local guys at the local speedway, they can make it to NASCAR's highest levels."
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