Tonight’s NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge will see some of the best teams in the Sprint Cup Series compete against one another for bragging rights as the best crew on pit road. For the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, the competition is a chance to show they are once again among the sport’s elite.
At the end of the 2010 season, the pit crew struggled as the battle for the championship heated up between Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. When the crew continued to make mistakes at the eighth Chase race in Texas, crew chief Chad Knaus made a mid-race decision to swap the No. 48 pit crew with teammate Jeff Gordon’s over--the-wall guys. Once among the most respected and successful pit crews, the move was a surprise to many.
The No. 48 team was able to soldier on with the No. 24 pit crew for the final two races and claim its fifth consecutive championship, but the over-the-wall crew saw all but one person changed during the offseason. Heading into tonight’s Pit Crew Challenge, car chief Ron Malec says the team is eager to prove its worth.
With fresh faces going over the wall, many of the No. 48 crew members will be taking part in their first Pit Crew Challenge. Made up of former athletes, the crew has the finest of facilities to train at, including a new turf field complete with a track course for sprints and a sand pit with what appears to be monkey bars for additional conditioning.
“I think this is the best group of athletes we’ve ever had,” Malec said. “These guys are very focused and it’s a great group of guys. They’ve done really well for us this year. With Chad restructuring the team like he did at the end of last year, I think they have performed flawlessly for what you can expect for a new group of guys working together in a high-pressure situation like we are every week.”
While the team has performed better over the first 11 races, the crew has not gone without its hiccups and shuffling of crew members in 2011. Following a slow day on pit road in Bristol – where Johnson finished third – there were changes made at the tire changer position. Malec explained the crew member was not replaced as much as he was benched.
“We have a second string system,” he explained. “We put in the guy in that was a back-up who filled in on the 88 when the other guy got hurt for three weeks. It’s basically keep them in line, and if somebody needs to refocus or do something more in practice, it gives them time off if they’re fighting an injury and they’re not quite able to be doing their job as well as they could.
"(Then) we put that second string guy in and he may be the first string guy and the other guy may become the back-up. It’s like a pitcher – when he’s struggling they pull him out of the game.”
Making the connection between a pit crew and traditional stick-and-ball sports teams is not an exaggeration by any means. More and more these days, pit crews are made up of former athletes from baseball, football and hockey, among other things. The days of working on the car in the shop and pitting the car on Sunday are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
According to Malec, the No. 48 team has made the shift from mechanics to athletes in the last year, adding that the No. 88 pit crew still has a lot of guys that work in the shop throughout the week.
“We’re using (the No. 48 crew) as a benchmark to try and build for the future and maybe use as a template for developing the rest of the teams,” he said.
Although they do not typically set up the cars for a race weekend, the No. 48 guys set up the car they will push across the finish line in tonight’s Pit Crew Challenge. Malec explained even though the pit crew members are highly specialized, they still need to know how to work on the car in the pits if need be. As a result, Hendrick Motorsports is beginning to include the pit crew on various things around the shop without taking away from their over-the-wall training and conditioning.
Tonight in front of fans, friends and family at the Time Warner Cable Arena, the men of the No. 48 pit crew will shake off the jitters, focus on the job at hand and attempt to win the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.