Hamlin’s team win NASCAR pit crew title again

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.”