CONCORD, N.C. -- The Sprint All-Star Race is the only one where the names of the pit crews are prominently displayed on TV during pre-race introductions. It was appropriate considering the race turned for Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch on the mandatory four-tire stop before the final 10-lap segment.
For Busch, losing a position on pit road kept him off the front row and out of contention on a night when he won the second and third segments and appeared to have a car worthy to get him his first All-Star win. But for Johnson, improving to second coming off pit road led to him winning his record fourth All-Star race, moving him ahead of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt.
Interestingly, it was a poor pit stop in qualifying that led to Johnson starting 18th on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. With the new rule emphasizing average finish in the first four segments, a starting position toward the back put Johnson in jeopardy right from the start.
"I didn't do us any favors qualifying yesterday," Johnson said of a pit stop when he slid through the stall and was penalized for a loose lug nut. "With this average that we had through the first four segments I was really fearful that I wouldn't get a front-row start, or a second-row start, and I felt the winner would come from one of those two rows."
However, it didn't take long for Johnson to start making his move, and by Lap 30 he was in fifth place and lurking behind as Kyle Busch and his brother Kurt racked up wins in the first four segments. Johnson managed an average finish of fourth and came to the final pit stop with the spotlight glaring on his crew. And they stepped up to provide a shining moment for the team and a sense of redemption from Friday.
"I really didn't think that we would be able to come down pit road and have a stop that fast, and man, those guys just absolutely nailed it," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "My hat's off to them. They've been working really, really hard trying to improve, and we've had to switch some things around during the course of the last month or so and the guys really rose to the occasion."
From there, it was smooth sailing for the now four-time winner of the All-Star race. Johnson pulled ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne on Lap 81 and cruised to the win over Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. For Busch, the disappointment was hard to hide as he came up short for that elusive All-Star win for himself and for Joe Gibbs Racing.
"We definitely had the best car here tonight," Busch said. "Just didn't quite get the best pit stop there at the end to get us out on the front row. Then when you're back behind cars you're getting beat up on. It is what it is. We'll just take this -- good learning day. Hopefully, bring back some speed like this for the 600.
"... Once we came off pit road too far back like that we were done."
To be fair, though, Kahne came off pit road first but fell back to fourth, behind Busch, so clearly there were other factors playing into the outcome other than just the pit stop. But on this night the pit crews were in the spotlight, particularly in Johnson's case. And since it has been a work in progress this season, with Knaus saying the team has done a lot of juggling with its pit crew this year, it was no sure thing that the No. 48 pit crew would come through like it did.
"A lot of the individuals that we brought in didn't know anything about motorsports, but they were fantastic athletes, and now these athletes are starting to understand racing and understand the pressures that are involved to pit a race car for a guy like Jimmie Johnson," Knaus said. "It's tough, especially when you have cameras on your grille and watching every move and as soon as you make a mistake you get blasted in the media and the paper and everything else. These guys are starting to become numb to that type of pressure."
And just who were those new guys on the No. 48 pit crew? Camron Waugh (front tire changer), David Mayo (rear tire changer) and Ryan Patton (rear tire carrier), that's who.
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-- Crew chief Chad Knaus
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- Chad Knaus