Hamlin's crew wins
CHARLOTTE — Denny Hamlin and his crew finished 39 points shy of ending Jimmie Johnson’s dominance last year in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup title chase.
Hamlin’s team exacted a little revenge Thursday night — without Hamlin behind the wheel.
“We know where the weakest link is, obviously,” Hamlin said, smiling.
Hamlin’s No. 11 team successfully defended its title in NASCAR’s Pit Crew Challenge by edging Johnson’s No. 48 crew in the final round, producing smiles, champagne soaked firesuits and confidence of a potential repeat win come November that would end Johnson’s five-year dominance as Cup champion.
Hamlin’s seven-member team changed four tires, put in gas and pushed the car 40 yards in 22.298 seconds without collecting a penalty to earn $70,675. The crew gets to pick its pit stall — it chose No. 1 — for Saturday’s All-Star race.
“This is their main stage. This is not my main stage,” Hamlin said. “Obviously, we had a great shot and a great year last year. This was kind of the spot we really started hitting our stride last year. So hopefully that momentum keeps going.”
Hamlin’s experienced team was quicker pushing the car down the simulated pit road all night. It paid dividends in the final round to deny Johnson’s team, which was seeking its first victory in this event.
“It’s especially gratifying to beat them,” jack man Nate Bolling said about Johnson’s crew. “Going back-to-back is especially gratifying, too. But we’d trade this in a heartbeat to beat them at the end of the year.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing team, which became the first repeat champion in the competition’s seven years, included gas man Scott Wood; catch-can man Justin White; front tire changer Nick Krizmanich and carrier Brandon Pegram; rear tire changer Mike Hicks and carrier Heath Cherry.
Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 team and Tony Stewart’s No. 14 crew combined to split all the individual awards — and rewrite the record book. They set event records based on their times in the seeding and opening rounds to collect $10,000 each.
But the No. 14 crew had 10 seconds worth of penalties for spilled gas in the semifinals to wipe out a victory and give Johnson’s team its first spot in the final. Hamlin’s team edged Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 crew in the semifinals, silencing much of the pro-Earnhardt crowd as the driver watched from the arena floor.
The event at Time Warner Cable Arena included the top 24 crews in the Sprint Cup standings, with the top eight getting a bye into the second round. Teams faced each other in head-to-head, single-elimination stops that looked much different from pit stops during races.
There were eight identically marked cars, four on each side of the arena floor. Teams simultaneously changed tires on two cars, filled the gas tank with water on another and a jack man lifted both sides of the fourth car.
The jack men then ran to the teams’ regular cars, lined up side-by-side at the corner of the arena floor, and pushed them to the finish as teammates joined to help after their tasks.
No. 33’s rear tire changer Dustin Necaise — who said he’ll use the money to help pay for his wedding later this summer — and Matt Kreuter defended their title from last year in 13.846 seconds.
“Guys maybe practicing a little more because now there’s more emphasis on it,” Necaise said in explaining the record times.
“Every year you try to go out and do one step better than last year.”
The No. 33’s front tire changers Jason Pulver and Austin Craven won in 13.901 seconds. The No. 14’s gas men Rick Pigeon and Ryan Flores (8.652 seconds) and jack man Mike Casto (5.071 seconds) were also victorious.
The two teams then faced off in the second round, with Stewart’s team cruising to a win. Another intriguing matchup had Kurt Busch’s team knocking off brother and top-seed Kyle Busch’s crew in the second round.
NASCAR’s only sanctioned, indoor pit crew competition kicked off a busy 11-day stretch in the Charlotte area that includes Saturday’s All-Star race, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Monday and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 29.
This night belonged to the often overlooked — yet athletic and competitive — over-the-wall crews.
“It’s a huge deal for these guys,” Gibbs said. “There’s a lot of pressure on them and to do it two years in a row, that’s hard to do.”