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Tonight; Out Of The Pits And Into The Spotlight

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 19 2011

Teams line up for the pre-event ceremony at last year's Sprint NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge in Charlotte. The 2011 competition is scheduled for tonight. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

A couple of years ago, tension ran high between young driver Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing over-the-wall gang. Hamlin had more talent than tact and it resulted in some regrettable over-the-radio chatter.

A year ago, any lingering wounds were healed when Hamlin’s team competed in the NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.

The No. 11 JGR team knocked off other teams one by one in the annual competition and all through it, Hamlin looked on as his boys’ biggest cheerleader.

“I wanted it so bad for these guys,” Hamlin told reporters that night. “I wanted them to enjoy their success. I always get all the credit when we win, and this night was about them and it showed how steady and good that they are.”

In the final round, Hamlin’s team –  with Hamlin’s girlfriend, Jordan Fish – at the wheel, beat Jeff Burton’s to win the championship in front of a national television audience and an enthusiastic live audience inside the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.

After that night, Hamlin and his closer-than-ever team would go on to win five more points races and finished second in the points championship to Jimmie Johnson.

Tonight in Charlotte, the 2011 edition of the Pit Crew Challenge will be held and the opportunity for other teams to step out from their drivers’ shadow, demonstrate their talents and come closer together

The teams of Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. push their cars up the track in the 2010 event.

in the process will be presented.

“I am so happy, so proud and pumped up about our Furniture Row pit crew being one of the teams competing in the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge,” Regan Smith, driver of the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 car said. “These are the perks of working hard and being successful. They’ve earned this honor and I’ll be there to cheer them on.”

The format will be much the same as last year.

All teams competing in this year’s All-Star Race are eligible to send their over-the-wall gangs to the Challenge. Also eligible is the winner of last year’s Challenge. If more teams are needed to fill out the field of 24 teams, the positions will go to the teams of car owners ranking highest in the 2011 owner-point rankings that are not otherwise eligible.

Seven-person over-the-wall crews from each of the teams will compete. Six of those seven remain the same from last year; front-tire changer, front-tire carrier, rear-tire changer, rear-tire carrier, gas can man and jack man. New this year will be a second gas can man who will take the place of the catch can man, a position which is no longer relevant in the series.

The new fueling cans and systems, however, will not be used.

The competition is different than a normal pit stop. The crews start at four separate stations. From those stations, the crewmen do their normal duties and then hit a split-timer button. They then have to run to one end of the arena and collectively push their 3,200-pound car across the arena floor to the finish line.

“We started training about a month or so ago,” Greg Miller, crew chief coach at Michael Waltrip Racing said. “The biggest thing that we all gear up for is the car push. So we’ve been out with our tractor tires and our land mover tires trying to push those around and lift those up. The pit stop

Denny Hamlin's tire changes go to work in last year's Pit Crew Challenge.

component of it is similar enough to our normal day-to-day that we practice that all the time. The main thing is that the competition is won by the car push and we’ve been trying to gear up with our legs and doing extra stuff in the weight room, extra treadmill work and deadmill work things like that just to get in shape to do it.”

All team members will begin simultaneously at the sound of a starter’s pistol. They will hit a stop button positioned on pit wall as they leave their respective pit box, creating their individual split time.

The format is single-elimination ladder.

Also crowned are top individuals in their specialty areas.

It is all overseen and policed by NASCAR officials.

“The NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge has become extremely popular with our

fans and with our teams as it provides an opportunity for the real unsung heroes in our

sport to be on center stage and showcase their talents and their outstanding teamwork ,” said Robin Pemberton, vice president of competition at NASCAR. “It’s a great lead-in for the week of activities heading into the all-star race, and it promises to deliver another exceptional experience for the fans and for the competitors.”

It can also give competing teams a boost. A very tangible boost. A victory gives the winning team its

The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing over-the-wall crew celebrates its victory in the 2010 Sprint NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

choice of pit stalls in the All-Star Race or in the Open which precedes it.

But it is the intangible stuff that may be even more important.

“We all talk trash to each other – all the teams do – that’s part of the fun,” Miller said. “Individually I think it’s the one time of year that the changers, carriers, jack man and gas guys get the publicity as to who is the top dog in the series. There are a lot of different things that happen at the competition where someone is sour over something because somebody thinks outside of the box to get something accomplished to gain a competitive advantage, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens this year. I know everyone is psyched for it. That first round is for the individual competitors to win some money – everybody gets hyped up for that. That’s what everybody shoots for.”

In the field again will be Hamlin’s boys. Can they successfully defend?

“I think athletically they’re very good,” crew chief Mike Ford said. “The thing with that competition is it rewards athleticism, and weve got a very good group when it comes to athletes.”

This year’s event will again be broadcast by Speed.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 19 2011
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