Johnson’s team won the NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge on Thursday night, avenging last year’s loss in the finals to Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 team.
Hamlin’s team was the two-time defending champions coming into the event and cruised into the finals again this year, but lost to Johnson’s team by three-tenths of a second.
Johnson’s six-member team changed four tires, put in gas and pushed the car 40 yards in 22.3 seconds without a penalty to earn the $80,675 first-place prize and the front pit stall in Saturday night’s All-Star race for Johnson.
When pit crew coach Greg Morin realized who his team would be facing in the finals he knew there wasn’t much that needed to be said to his highly competitive crew.
”It was sort of like, seriously? Seriously, you’re going to let them beat you again?” Morin said. ”When the two numbers went up on the board you couldn’t write a better story.”
Morin said he’s never been a around a crew with better camaraderie. Johnson’s team included gas man Brandon Harder; front tire changer Dave Collins and carrier R.J. Barnette; rear tire changer Calvin Teague and carrier Matt Tyrrell; and jack man T.J. Ford. Their crew chief was Chad Knaus.
”I think it came down to who wanted it more and we had some stamina at the end,” Barnette said.
Johnson, who sat in on the press conference alongside reporters while his team was up on stage, said he was extremely proud of his guys.
”It’s cool to sit here and watch all of that, and to watch their celebration on the stand,” Johnson said after the press conference. ”I know how much this means to them. To see their smiles and their celebration, it’s well deserved. They’ve put in the time.”
Johnson’s team came in as the No. 1 seed and earned a first-round bye.
Johnson said it’s a ”big advantage” to have the best pit stall and it could come in handy in the All-Star race.
The 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 Wednesday and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 27.
The top 24 crews in the Sprint Cup standings competed in the standings with the top eight ranked teams earning a bye into the second round. The teams faced each other in a head-to-head, single-elimination tournament.
The event consisted of eight similarly marked NASCAR cars, four on opposite sides of the floor at Time Warner Cable Arena The six-man pit crew teams simultaneously changed tires on two cars, filled the gas tank with water – a lot less cleanup and odor than using real gas – on another and a jack man lifted both sides of the fourth car.
After completing their tasks the jack men hustled to the teams’ regular cars, lined up side-by-side at the corner of the arena floor and began pushing their own car 40 yards to the finish as teammates joined to help after completing their tasks.
Teams received time penalties for loose lug nuts, spilled water and other infractions.
For the pit crews, it was a night of fun and a rare chance to shine.
”They are like the special teams like when a field goal kicker comes on to kick a 38-yarder and we all sit on the couch and say `Why can’t you kick that 38-yard field goal?”’ said veteran driver Jeff Burton. ”When (a car) comes in leading the race and they go out in fifth place that’s when they get noticed. But when the car goes in third and comes out first, for whatever reason, when they race is over they don’t get recognized.”
Burton said that’s not particularly fair, sort of like blaming the game on a kicker’s missed chip shot field goal.
”You almost take it for granted they have great stops just like a guy should make that field goal every time,” Burton said.
Said former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne: ”It’s like a field day for them, a chance to showcase their talents both individually and as a team. Although this is a little different than our pit stops in a real race the qualifying is exactly what we’d be doing.”
In the individual competition, Jeff Kerr (jack man); Tom Lampe (gas man); Tim Sheets (front tire changer); JD Holcomb (front tire carrier); Jake Seminara (rear tire changer) and Kenny Barber (rear tire carrier) earned championships.
With the exception of Kerr, all set new individual records.
It was, however, Kerr’s third individual title.
”The biggest thing is to learn to deal with the pressure without making a mistake,” Kerr said. ”A pit stop when you’re running first and a pit stop when you’re running 43rd are two completely different things. The people that can do it under pressure are the ones that you want on your team.”