The No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson saved the best for last Thursday night.
Posting its fastest time in the final round of the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge, the No. 48 NASCAR Sprint Cup team dethroned the two-time defending champion No. 11 crew of Joe Gibbs racing driver Denny Hamlin.
In a competition that includes simultaneously changing front and rear tires, fueling and jacking four different common cars and then pushing a team car across the finish line, Johnson's crew accomplished the task in 22.239 seconds to edge Hamlin's over-the-wall gang (22.533 seconds) in the finals.
Gas man Brandon Harder, front tire changer Dave Collins, front tire carrier RJ Barnette, rear tire changer Calvin Teague, rear tire carrier Matt Tyrell, and jackman TJ Ford were the winning team for the 48, which finished second last year.
"In this discipline, the athleticism and training really pays off," Johnson said after the event. "We made a big effort to get full-fledged athletes who did nothing but work on their pit stops and disciplines. And then they focused on this -- the distance to run, the car push and all that -- and I think it just shows how strong they are, how physically able they are to get the job done."
The victory was the first for the No. 48 team in the eight-year history of the event held at Time Warner Cable Arena. The team won $80,675, a $10,000 increase over last year's prize money. In addition, the Jimmie Johnson foundation received a donation of $9,169 from the NASCAR Foundation.
The team also won the right to select pit stall No. 1 for Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race, which pays $1 million to win.
"I think it's going to be a big advantage, especially if you can get out there and win one of those first couple of segments," said crew chief Chad Knaus, who sprayed his team with champagne after the victory.
The winners of the first four 20-lap segments of the All-Star Race enter pit road 1-2-3-4 for a mandatory stop before the final 10-lap dash to the finish.
Conserving their strength for the finals, the No. 48 crewmen employed a strategy of stopping the push and letting the car roll to the finish whenever they had an insurmountable margin. That approach worked impeccably en route to the finals, setting up the confrontation with the champions of the previous two years.
With a clean run in 22.453 seconds, the No. 48 team cruised into the finals by winning a head-to-head matchup against Matt Kenseth's No. 17 crew (23.228 seconds). The No. 11 team earned its spot in the title match with a semifinal run in 22.869 seconds, beating the No. 88 crew of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (23.567 seconds).
Whenever the 48 team had a clear win, Teague would signal his mates to stop pushing.
"I saw that, too," Johnson said. "I wasn't involved in the training that went into it, but I think they were trying to conserve energy, and once they felt like they had a heat won, they just kind of backed off."
The event also crowned individual winners in each of the skill categories. Jeff Kerr of Kasey Kahne's No. 5 team won the jack man competition for the third time. Tom Lampe of Kyle Busch's No. 18 crew won the individual competition for gas men with an event-record time of 8.610 seconds.
Kerr said the secret to winning the competition was "to learn to deal with pressure without making a mistake. It the same thing when you go across pit road. The pit stop when you're running first and the pit stop when you're running 43rd are two totally different pit stops.
"The people that can do it under pressure are the people who can do it when it counts, and those are the people you want on your team."
Representing Jeff Burton's No. 31 team, the front tire changer/tire carrier combination of Tim Sheets and JD Holcomb were fastest in their category with a record time of 13.615 seconds. Changer Jake Seminara and carrier Kenny Barber took home individual honors on the rear tires in a record 13.073 seconds.
Each individual winner received $10,000 for his efforts.
This year more than ever, the Pit Crew Challenge was a perfect lead-in to All-Star weekend, given the emphasis on pit crew performance both in Friday's unique Cup qualifying session and Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race.
A pit stop is an integral part of time trials, and the mandatory pit stop precedes the final 10-lap segment of the All-Star dash for $1 million.
"We love that," Seminara said. "I think it was two years ago we came in the pits fifth on the last pit stop and came out second, I believe, and put him in position to win the race (though a late crash cost Busch a chance for the victory).
"We relish it," added Barber. "We wish we could do it every week."