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February 23, 2024

From Victory Lane to pit road: The frenzy of a Monday night double


William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, and crew spray champagne in victory lane after winning the the NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500
Jared C. Tilton
Getty Images

CONCORD, N.C. – Ryan Patton has a recurring nightmare about his job that has awoken him in a cold sweat and clutching for a phantom tire.

“Usually it’s at Martinsville, and I’m outside the track trying to get in,” the Hendrick Motorsports tire carrier said. “And I’m not ready at all for a pit stop.”

That terrifying feeling hit him again Monday night at Daytona International Speedway – and somehow it happened during the biggest waking dream of his life. After pitting the No. 24 Chevrolet that William Byron drove to victory in the 66th Daytona 500, Patton, rear tire changer Orane Ossowski, front tire changer Jeff Cordero and jackman Spencer Bishop got barely an hour to celebrate the most sought-after prize in NASCAR.

The confetti hardly had settled on the Harley J. Early Trophy when the foursome suddenly was dashing off to 300 more miles of work on the pit crew for Sammy Smith’s No. 8 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series race – the nightcap of the first Monday doubleheader in Daytona history. As Patton sprinted the length of pit road with a fresh set of radios while his teammates scrambled to grab new pit guns and equipment, the reality set in quickly.

“I’m like, ‘Holy (crap), I’m living my nightmare right now,’ ” he said with a laugh. “One of the guys on our team was trying to congratulate me, and he’s like, ‘Why are you running?’ Because I’ve got to go pit the next race!

“It was a lot of excitement, emotion and panic.”

Duty called at Daytona amidst the chaos of playing catch up. Though it was roughly 10 laps into the Xfinity race before they actually were ready to service Smith’s car (and another 10 laps before the pit box was complete), the crew members answered the bell and nearly swept the day (Smith led six laps and was contending for the top five before a last-lap incident) – a feat that left Dale Earnhardt Jr. stunned on social media.

Though jokes were made in a pre-race meeting about skipping the Xfinity race if the No. 24 won the Daytona 500, there was no recourse for finding replacements. Plus, the challenge of possibly being crowned 800-mile Daytona champions immediately was accepted, as the crew explained Thursday during a group interview on the Hendrick campus to recount their wild adventure.

“With this group, whatever we do, we want to do our best,” Bishop said. “Even though we just won the 500, we can’t just half-ass it. So yeah, you’re on an emotional high, but we’ve got to refocus, lock in and do a good job for Sammy Smith as well. We can’t just phone it in and say, ‘Oh yeah, we won the 500, so sorry about that loose wheel.’ You still want to do a good job because that’s your reputation and your job.”

But there also still needed to be time to soak in the aftermath of winning The Great American Race, which was a first for Ossowski, Cordero, Bishop and fueler Landon Walker. As the party began with Byron on the frontstretch grass, there was an understanding that every last second of exultation would be used. Told no after asking half in jest if any substitutes had been found for the Xfinity race, Ossowski replied, “All right then. We’re going to be late!”

William Byron is surrounded by his team as they celebrate his Daytona 500 win
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

“When we went to Victory Lane, I wasn’t going to take one or two pictures and then bounce to pit the Xfinity race,” Cordero said. “I wanted to enjoy all of it. We got done taking pictures and were just hanging out after we sprayed the champagne. Then the Xfinity cars fired up, and I said, ‘This is fun. But we’ve got to go!’ “

Walker tried to hustle his teammates to their next gig while also thrashing with a hodgepodge of Hendrick team members to get the No. 24’s pit disassembled and reorganized for transport to Atlanta Motor Speedway (a task normally handled by the full pit crew).

“I didn’t know if they were going to make it to the Xfinity race because Patton still was in the 24 hauler as the cars were literally about to take the green,” Walker said. “Obviously, I wanted to celebrate longer with those guys, but that was the only downside. It was funny how it all worked out.”

Between races, there were moments of absolute frenzy for every crew member.

After realizing he didn’t have their Xfinity pit guns (usually obtained an hour before the race), Ossowski made a mad dash to the supplier’s hauler in the garage and ran into Cordero, who was rolling back their equipment cart. While dropping off the Cup radios at the No. 24 hauler, Patton tore through every locker to ensure nothing was missing. Bishop scrambled to confirm he had the proper jack for the Xfinity car, and everyone hunted headsocks that went missing in the Daytona 500 celebration.

But the scene was relatively calm upon reaching the No. 8 Xfinity pit. JR Motorsports road crew members had done the heavy lifting of assembling the pit box with tires at the ready. Aside from a few personal touches and hooking up their pit guns, the setup work mostly was done.

“They did a really good exponentially helping us get all the basic stuff ready,” Cordero said. “It really took the pressure off us.”

Those orders enthusiastically came from the top down. When he arrived with a champagne bottle in one hand and a bag of Victory Lane hats in the other, Cordero immediately was greeted warmly by Earnhardt Jr. “Dale Jr.’s won that race, and he understands,” Cordero said. “Everyone at JRM knows how important that race is. They gave us a lot of grace when we got there, and they all congratulated us, too.”

Patton never will forget Earnhardt Jr. proclaiming, “Damn, man, I’ve got the Daytona 500 champs pitting my race car!” and Ossowski got a big hug from the Hall of Famer. “That was awesome,” he said. “I looked up before one of our stops, and Dale Jr.’s just standing there on his phone, taking pictures of tires on the wall. In Daytona history, Dale Jr.’s pretty high up, and he’s there with his headset just like ‘Hey man!’ “

In another massive time-saver, JRM allowed the pit crew to stay in their Cup fire suits instead of changing into their Xfinity sponsor-branded gear.

“It hit me after the first pit stop when Sammy came on the radio and was like, ‘Great stop, boys. It’s good to see you made it,’ ” Patton said. “Kudos to him, because he’s looking for a Pilot Flying J red fire suit, and we’re out there in white Axalta suits. Pulling in with guys wearing different logos and fire suits running in front of him, it was a good heads up on his part not to think he was coming into the wrong stall and clipping one of us.”

The No. 24 team executes a pit stop at Daytona
Courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports

Monday marked only the second time since the Next Gen era began in 2022 that Cup and Xfinity races were held on the same day (May 29, 2023 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was the first). Cup switched to a single lug nut with Next Gen while Xfinity remained at five lug nuts, and there are distinctions in choreography, processes and speed.

On their first Xfinity pit stop, Cordero and Spencer slightly got crossed up because the jack man follows the tire changer in Xfinity and leads in Cup (where stops are much faster).

Bishop views the series’ pit stops contrasts “as two different sports. It’s almost like a heptathlete where one is shot put and one is discus. They’re similar but different enough. And whenever the car hits pit road, it really doesn’t matter what’s going on around you. You’re singularly focused. It’s just the nature of doing pit stops. If your mind is elsewhere wandering around, you’re not going to be great at your job.”

That includes distractions such as the bone-rattling mid-February chill of Daytona as midnight approaches. As the temperatures plummeted into the mid-40s for the final 20 or so laps, the No. 8 crew was left to shiver inside firesuits still damp with Gatorade and champagne from Victory Lane three hours earlier.

“That’s when it kicked in that the adrenaline was starting to tail off,” Patton said. “Because we hadn’t eaten since before the Daytona 500. We’d been there since 9 a.m. when the garage opened.”

The full wait actually was much longer. The pit crew arrived Saturday morning for Xfinity’s original afternoon start time. After a Sunday morning postponement of Xfinity and Cup, the team fruitlessly tried to pass the time with fun activities that never came to fruition – with everyone idling in Daytona, there were three-hour waits for go-karts and escape rooms. After another long wait to switch to unplanned hotel rooms Sunday night, they at least got a nice steak dinner at Firebirds (where they ran into No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle, who picked up their check).

There still was hope of the Xfinity race as a nice warmup before Monday morning rain pushed its start time from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“We’d been there since Saturday morning, and now it’s Monday morning, and we haven’t done anything,” Ossowski said. “You’re anxious. We’ve been here three days. Can we pit a race car?”

Aside from a nervous moment on the first stop for Byron – who missed his stall after a near-collision with teammate Alex Bowman, whom he later would outduel for his 11th career win – the Daytona 500 went off without a hitch with most of the pressure on Walker, who made four fuel-only stops among the team’s seven.

“I am used to it, but it doesn’t ever get easier,” Walker said. “When it gets down to that moment of a fuel-only stop to potentially put yourself in position to win the race, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it. It feels like the first time.”

William Byron celebrates in Victory Lane with the No. 24 team.
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

The No. 24 pit crew got home at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday and had the day off. They were back at it Wednesday. Their Thursday morning pit practice ended with a red Cadillac Escalade V-Series driving the opposite way through the concrete launch pad. Team owner Rick Hendrick was behind the wheel, personally congratulating each team member who has made its share of history.

After delivering Hendrick Motorsports’ 300th victory last year, Byron gave the team a record-tying ninth Daytona 500 win (matching Petty Enterprises) on the 40th anniversary to the day of Hendrick’s first Cup start.

With so much to celebrate, the team threw another party Thursday night in Charlotte for a proper fete of the Daytona 500 triumph without time constraints.

“There are pit crew guys that go 10 or 12 years in a career and never win a race in all three divisions,” Ossowski said. “Every single one we celebrate like it’s our last because you owe it to yourself to be in the moment.”

MEET THE PIT CREW WHO PULLED THE DOUBLE

Ryan Patton: Tire Carrier
Hometown:
Delphos, Ohio
Ohio Northern University
Has been at Hendrick Motorsports since August 2011 and was part of Jimmie Johnson’s championship teams.

Spencer Bishop: Jack Man
Hometown:
Pine Hurst, North Carolina
Wake Forest University tight end from 2009-12.

Jeff Cordero: Front Tire Changer
Hometown:
Salem, Connecticut
Was formerly at Joe Gibbs Racing from 2018-21 and won a championship with Kyle Busch.

Orane Ossowski: Rear Tire Changer
Hometown:
Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada
Attended UNC Charlotte, interning with the chassis and composite shop at Hendrick before transferring to the pit department four years later.
One of a very small group of left-handed tire changers on pit road.

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