News & Media

48 team ready to try out its revamped pit crew

February 11, 2011, Dave Rodman,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson's remodeled over-the-wall crew for Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout special event at Daytona International Speedway is a sign of things to come in Sprint Cup in 2011, according to the crew's architect.

On Friday, Hendrick Motorsports announced its over-the-wall crew would include three men who serviced Johnson's car last season, along with three newcomers.

Brandon Harder and Calvin Teague, last year's backup jack man and catch-can man, respectively, are this season's gas man (Harder) and rear-tire changer (Teague). Art Simmons returns as the front-tire carrier. The new recruits include front-tire changer Colin Fambrough, jack man T.J. Ford and rear-tire carrier Matt Tyrrell.

"I can tell you right now, everybody in the garage is doing something similar to this," Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said Friday afternoon two hours before the start of Speedweeks' opening Shootout practice. "Just about every team in the garage has some type of developmental system set up -- a scouting system.

"There's a lot that goes on, it's just that this is the first time that it's gone to this level. It's nothing really new -- it's growing everywhere. It wasn't that long ago that people didn't have gyms at their facilities -- now they have gyms, they have trainers, they have pit crew practice facilities, all of that. So it's growing industry-wide."

But what Hendrick Motorsports did, not only with two-and-a-half races to go last season but in the offseason as well, is the most blatant example of how critically important pit crews are. Hendrick organized the equivalent of a football or basketball "scouting combine" to screen potential crewmen.

"You'd be shocked how many people showed up," Knaus said. "We had an open combine and we had people from every team in NASCAR [Cup] and just about every Nationwide team and Truck team -- and some people that were just athletes in general from other sports who wanted to come in and see what it was about.

"I was really excited to see the amount of interest that we got when we said, 'Hey, we're going to have open tryouts.' We had a lot of guys; veteran crew members from the Cup Series and Nationwide Series come in and they were just as humble as can be. They went through all the drills and did everything they could to try to prove their worth."

Knaus said the tryout consisted of more than just physically doing the job.

"We can teach people to do pit stops," Knaus said. "It's how they handle the pressure and how they do things and how they have the athletic ability to sustain over the course of 39 events -- it's really difficult.

"So we had a lot of different things. We had emotional quotient tests, we had some physical aptitude tests, [and] we did do some pit stops. And that's how we made our decisions. Our decisions weren't made just off of what they could do over the wall and changing tires on the car."

But that's what started this process. Knaus sensed his crew was off on its stops as last year's Chase wound down. Midway through this past November's race at Texas, Knaus and teammate Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's crew chief, swapped pit crews in the middle of the race, and the 24 crew serviced Johnson's car through the championship finale.

In the offseason, NASCAR made an equipment change, to self-venting fuel cans that eliminated the over-the-well member who formerly held a "catch-can" to capture fuel that spilled out an overflow vent.

Now, only six crewmen go over-the-wall and the change was the final impetus for Hendrick to hold several tryout camps for crewmen.

"We got some new guys with experience; some without -- and it's pretty good," Knaus said. "We're pretty excited about it. Stevie [Letarte] and I worked really hard on it during the offseason to try to get a little bit of depth into our pit crew group and I think we're getting down that path and it's looking really promising for us."

Knaus said between his team and its shop-mate, the 88 team guided by Letarte, they had a pool of 16 athletes to choose their six "starters" from. Knaus said he wasn't sure but thought it was about a 50-50 split between men who had other roles, as mechanics and those whose only role was going over the wall.

And Knaus just laughed when he was asked if he would now pull the trigger on changes after one stop, or one miscue -- considering he also said he potentially would have uniformed backups in his pit area during races. He said he'd have at least some patience.

"If you look back over history, we are pretty tolerant and we give people a lot of opportunities," Knaus said. "But, it's going to take time. When I say these guys have to gel you have to realize these guys have only been working together for a month and a half.

"Give me a break -- we have to give them an opportunity. When I talk about these guys gelling, I'm not necessarily talking about the six guys going over the wall, I'm talking about the 16 guys that we've got working as a unit, because right now we're doing pit stops at the shop.

"You can pull one tire changer out and put another one in there and not lose any time. That's a way to get the whole group to gel and the whole group to work as a unit and that's what we're working towards. We're not working on trying to get the starters to be the only part and get their own little clique going. That's not how it's going to work."

Knaus said Hendrick's other set of shop mates, servicing four-time champion Gordon (crew chief Alan Gustafson) and Mark Martin (crew chief Lance McGrew) were not quite as far along on a similar program.

And while the team hesitated to commit to the "starting six" beyond the Shootout, Knaus said he was optimistic.

"We're hoping it's the same group of guys [from the Shootout to the Daytona 500]," Knaus said. "But we've got the ability now, and the depth, that we feel like if we do need to make some changes or interchange some of the guys or the players between the teams, with some of our second-string guys that we can.

"So the possibility is there, but we're hoping we're starting with who we think our starters are going to be for the first part of the season."