JJ’s pit crew dethrones Hamlin’s

Bragging rights were on the line for Sprint Cup crews Thursday night in the eighth annual NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge.

After 24 teams squared off through four skills stations for jackmen, gasmen, front-tire changers and carriers, rear-tire changers and carriers and a group push to the finish line, it came down to a final-round rematch between Denny Hamlin’s two-time defending champ No. 11 crew and Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team — with Johnson’s crew winning its first challenge crown.

Before the final battle, Hamlin offered his team simple advice: “Kick ass!”

Johnson echoed the sentiments.

The teams then faced off, with the No. 48 Lowe’s crew extinguishing the No. 11 Fed Ex squad’s attempt at a third challenge title with a winning margin of 0.294 seconds after a 22.239-second effort in the finale.

“In this discipline, the athleticism and the training really pays off,” Johnson said. “We made a big effort to get full-fledged athletes that did nothing but work on their pit stops and disciplines, then they focused clearly on this with the added distance to run and the car push.

“I think it just shows how strong they are, how physically able they are to get the job done and do it. We’re seeing great stops on race day, and then we put them in a situation like this [and] they’re able to show their physical strength, and they shined even better.”

Johnson’s team earned $80,675 and $9,169 for the Jimmie Johnson Foundation. But the great bonus for the team will be the first pit selection for the All-Star race Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“We’re all trying to figure out exactly how that last segment is going to go and what that last pit stop is like,” Johnson said. “Being in that last pit stall off of pit road, you only have to go 10 to 15 feet to hit that camera line and that’s a big advantage.”

Twenty-four teams started the competition, with 16 advancing to the second round. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team advanced over the No. 21 Wood Brothers crew to the quarterfinals after posting a time of 22.628 seconds.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 squad logged a time of 23.192 seconds to edge out Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 56 crew. The No. 24 HMS crew outdueled the No. 16 squad with a time of 23.313 but was penalized five seconds for excess spillage by the gasman, allowing Greg Biffle’s boys to advance.

JGR’s No. 11 crew continued its winning ways with a 22.769-second execution to knock out the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing squad. Richard Childress Racing crews faced off against each other, but with both the Nos. 29 and 31 squads collecting penalties, the Caterpillar car driven by Jeff Burton’s wife Kim outpaced the Budweiser Chevrolet with a time of 23.317 seconds.

The seventh matchup lined up the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet alongside the No. 9 Ford from Richard Petty Motorsports. RPM received a penalty and was outpushed to the line, with SHR notching a cumulative time of 23.144 seconds.

The final pairing featured the pit crew of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., against Clint Bowyer’s over-the-wall boys. A late three-second penalty on the No. 15 Toyota enabled the No. 88 team to advance to the quarterfinals with an overall time of 22.668 seconds.

The quarterfinals lined up five-time Sprint Cup champion Johnson’s men against Joey Logano’s squad. While the individual efforts were fairly equal, the No. 48 crew smoked the No. 20 team in the pushing exercise by 0.105-seconds for a total stop of 22.903 seconds.

Roush Fenway Racing’s Nos. 16 and 17 pit crews battled second. Despite penalties on both sides, Matt Kenseth’s team beat Greg Biffle’s bunch to the line by 0.135 seconds.

The Hamlin/Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 crew easily knocked off the RCR’s No. 31 team with a 22.728-second effort.

Tony Stewart’s crew outperformed Dale Jr.’s team in the individual contest, but it was the No. 88 at the line with an overall time of 22.774 seconds, assisted by a 11.160-second push to the line.

The semifinals paired the crews of former champions Johnson and Kenseth. But the No. 48 team won the sprint to the car and inevitably a 10.5-second push to the finish line. The second duel between Hamlin’s crew and Junior’s team turned out to be no contest, as the defending champs breezed to the line with 22.869 seconds on the clock, setting up the final matchup between Hamlin and Johnson.

“We knew we had a good shot coming in here,” No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus said. “The guys have been training really hard. They finished second here last year. To be able to come back and do this, I’m pretty proud of them.”

The individual champions were jackman Jeff Kerr (No. 5); gasman Tom Lampe (No. 18); the front-tire changer/carrier combination of Tim Sheets and J.D. Holcomb (No. 31); and the rear-tire changer/carrier duo of Jake Seminara and Kenny Barber (No. 18). Each crewmen earned $10,000 for his achievement.

Kerr said the key to his winning his third individual title was “learning to deal with pressure without making a mistake.”

“It’s the same thing when we go across pit road,” Kerr added. “The pit stop when you’re running first and when you’re running 43rd are two totally different pit stops. The person that can do it under pressure is the person that can do it when the time counts, and that’s the person you want on your team.”