News & Media

Kenseth's pit crew carries on 17 team's legacy

May 17, 2012, David Caraviello,

Cameron Cobb's call to the big leagues came at Richmond International Raceway, and the final event of the 2007 Sprint Cup regular season. He was the jack man on Carl Edwards' car in the Nationwide Series when Robbie Reiser, then crew chief for Matt Kenseth's team, stopped Cobb in the garage area and asked him to come by the shop the following Monday morning. Russ Strupp, the longtime jack man on the No. 17 squad, had injured his back. Reiser wanted Cobb to fill in beginning the next week -- in the opening race of the Chase.

"When I showed up, there was not much talking," Cobb remembered. "I was just a [Nationwide] guy, and they wanted to see what I could do."

"I don't want to say we don't ever make mistakes at the race track, but we try to limit them. Because I don't want to have a meeting with Jimmy and Robbie and Matt. That would not be fun."


He did well enough that Reiser, who following that season would step off the pit box and become Roush Fenway Racing's general manager, offered Cobb the position full time for the next year. The wariness of Cobb's future teammates was understandable, though, given the reputation the No. 17 team has enjoyed almost since its inception. From the heyday of the "Killer Bees" -- so named because of their black and gold firesuits at the time -- in the early 2000s until now, Kenseth's team has been known as one of the best units on pit road.

Pit crews step into the spotlight Thursday, when NASCAR's All-Star week opens with the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge at Time Warner Cable Arena in downtown Charlotte. But the real pit crew competitions take place each race day, when teams try to minimize mistakes and help their drivers gain positions in 13-second bursts of activity along pit road. Although some names and faces have changed over the years, few squads have been better at that than the No. 17 team, which enjoys a relatively low rate of turnover and maintains the high standards set forth by Reiser, who still keeps an eye on the unit he created.

"They work really hard at it," Kenseth said. "It's a performance business. I think everybody on pit road has gotten so much better than they were six or seven years ago, it's hard to have a big advantage. Track position is more important than it probably has ever been, so we put as much emphasis on that as you do in the race car. You really have to work on your pit stops as much as anything else. Those guys work really hard at it, and I think they do a good job."

Cobb, a 36-year-old Illinois native, could sense the pressure inherent in becoming a member of the No. 17 team the moment he joined the group for the 2007 Chase opener at New Hampshire. Coming up through the Roush system, he said, making Kenseth's team was always the goal of every crew member. "When I got in that position," Cobb said, "I was like, 'Oh, now I'm one of these guys.' I think it's just the expectation of the 17 team."

Although Kenseth plays a very active role in the management of his race team -- some recent crew chief moves have been his call -- the driver leaves pit crew decisions to Reiser, pit crew coach Andy Ward, and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. While there has been some turnover because of crewmen retiring or curtailing their over-the-wall responsibilities, Cobb said most of his teammates have been with the squad for a while. Kenseth said his pit crew has only one different member from a season ago, and cohesion and familiarity are advantages in a sport that requires a pit crew to function as a team.

"It's a group that's been together," Kenseth said. "There are a bunch of moving parts to that deal. You've got to have a group that works good together. You might have the fastest tire changer somewhere, but maybe they're not in sync with the tire carrier and the jack man, so I think keeping that group together and keeping them trying to improve is always an advantage."

Although a pit crew's performance is timed in seconds, the most obvious measure of a unit's effectiveness is the success of its driver. Kenseth isn't typically one to criticize his pit crew publicly, as some drivers do when mistakes on pit road cost them position on the track. Part of that, though, is because he rarely has to.

"We try not to make mistakes," Cobb said. "He's usually pretty good about not throwing us under the bus too bad. If we lose a spot on pit road or something, he'll come over the radio and say, 'Come on, guys. Let's get it together down there. Let's pick it up.' And I don't want to say we don't ever make mistakes at the race track, but we try to limit them. Because I don't want to have a meeting with Jimmy and Robbie and Matt. That would not be fun."

Reiser is a constant presence within the No. 17 team, even though he doesn't directly oversee the unit anymore. As its first, longest-tenured and most influential crew chief, the burly Wisconsin native built a pit crew that in many ways mirrors its driver -- steady, methodical, and maybe not flashy, but also less prone to make mistakes. Now the Roush Fenway GM, Reiser still checks in on the No. 17 team from time to time, and still hangs out with his former squad when he's at the race track.

The days of the Killer Bees may have passed, and the colors on the team's firesuits may have changed, and rule changes like longer tire studs and new fuel cans may have increased pit stop times, but the standards within the No. 17 team remain the same. In that way it feels just like the old days, when Reiser was still calling the shots on Kenseth's unit, directing a team that swarmed around the car outfitted in black and gold.

"He built a heck of a team," Cobb said, "and we're just kind of carrying it on for him now."