CONCORD, N.C. — Being the best pit crew when it matters most is no accident. That status is the result of a collective daily effort from all individuals working toward a common goal: Put your driver in the best position to win the race.
Such is the recipe that the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports crew has used to produce elite-level service for driver Kyle Larson. So it should come as no surprise that front changer Blaine Anderson, tire carrier R.J. Barnette, rear changer Calvin Teague, jackman Brandon Johnson and fueler Brandon Harder have helped either keep or propel Larson in winning contention throughout the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.
The No. 5 team will vie for this year’s Cup title after a Las Vegas Motor Speedway win locked Larson into the Championship 4 for the second time in three years. A blazing fast pit stop in 2021 launched Larson to the win and championship at Phoenix Raceway. Four of the five current members of Larson’s pit crew — Anderson the lone exception — were servicing the No. 5 Chevrolet two years ago when they rocketed Larson from fourth to first on the final stop of the day en route to title glory.
Together, this crew, its driver Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels have the opportunity to create new memories in the Arizona desert this weekend. According to Racing Insights, the team ranks second in the series in average four-tire pit stops this season at 11.071 seconds — only behind their teammates pitting William Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
The unit was elite with the old car — thinner tires, steel wheels, five lug nuts — and remains elite with the Next Gen car — thicker tires, heavier aluminum wheels, a single lug nut — two years later.
“It really wasn’t that easy,” Barnette told NASCAR.com. “And we didn’t get it as quick as other teams.”
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CHEMISTRY AT ITS CORE
Barnette, Harder and Teague have worked together at Hendrick since 2010 — 13 years ago, when they collectively pitted the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Jimmie Johnson and crew chiefed by Chad Knaus. There have been moments of separation over those 13 seasons, but this core has been intact for the better part of a decade and a half.
That sort of tenure is uncommon on pit road — let alone with the same teammates at your side for over 10 seasons. It is an unquestionable advantage for this particular group, whose moves have been painstakingly choreographed to replicate perfection — or its closest comparison — as tenths, hundredths, thousandths of seconds are hopefully shaved off every stop.
“It’s knowing his move without having to see it,” Barnette explained. “I don’t have to think about what he’s going to do. I know exactly what he’s gonna do. I can close my eyes and I kind of just know where everyone’s going to be. The longer you’re with someone, the more comfortable you get, the more things are going to flow.
“We’ve been together for three years,” he continued, referencing jackman Johnson. “I’ve worked with Blaine in the past and I’ve been with Harder and Calvin for 15, 16 years, something like that. So you know, you’re a family. You’re with these guys more than you’re with your family at times. The more you’re together, the smoother things get. You do butt heads from time to time, but it’s family.”
With so many years at each other’s side, the group’s notebooks grow with every rep, each stop a reminder of how things can be improved.
“Having that experience together and then leading through all the years has been a big benefit for us,” Harder said. “And just learning how the team operated at a younger age like (Teague) said and growing that I guess from 2010 until now, and keeping that discipline and drive and everything that entails has been a huge benefit for us.”
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ADAPTING TO CHANGE
The No. 5 team ended the five-lug-nut era of the Cup Series with its fastest time of 2021 — a four-tire pit stop that featured refueling, adding tape and making a chassis adjustment all in a stop timed at 11.8 seconds.
Then came the Next Gen car — a radically different machine with independent rear suspension and, more importantly for the crew, a single lug nut responsible for holding these thicker, heavier wheels on the race car. As Barnette alluded, the transition was not easy.
“Coming off ’21, we didn’t start practicing for one lug until several weeks before the season,” Barnette said. “So we were a little behind the eight ball when it comes to that. This group of guys, we are pretty quick at adapting and figuring it out. And you know, we started ’22 and we weren’t good. To our standards, we were — actually, we were really bad. So we just, you know, figured it out. We made some changes personnel-wise and it kind of clicked in the middle part of last year to this year.”
Indeed, a turning point came midway through the 2022 season, the inaugural year with the Next Gen car on track. The right front wheel of Larson’s No. 5 car detached during competition in June at Sonoma Raceway, resulting in four-race suspensions for Daniels, Johnson and then-front-changer Donnie Tasser.
In came Blaine Anderson, a member of Hendrick Motorsports’ pit crews since 2018 who clicked instantly with the No. 5 crew.
“When I had my opportunity to fill in for the four weeks that I was kind of guaranteed to fill in for, I didn’t really know what my future was gonna look like after that,” Anderson said. “So it was kind of just my job just to keep us where we left off and not really skip a beat — if anything, add to the team. And once I was kind of given the role permanently, I just did everything I could to be a good teammate, you know, kind of learn from the veteran guys. I knew they had been in championship settings before and just trying to do what I could to lean on them to keep that elite status.”
In a team full of strong personalities who know what ingredients lead to success, Anderson’s newfound teammates saw something in him the No. 5 team needed.
“This team’s different than other teams as when we get someone new, it’s not necessarily the crew chief or upper management that makes that decision. It usually comes from us,” Barnette said. “We’re the ones that (say) ‘Hey, we like this guy. He fits our mold.’ When you look at it — and it’s happened with countless other positions well before Blaine. Chad wanted a guy and we got together like, ‘No, like, that’s not the guy. This is the guy we want.’ And then, you know, we get him and we move on.
“But this team is different in that we kind of build our own team and kind of groom our own guys. And that’s just the three of us, I think, just being around and knowing that you gotta like the person. You got to want to be around them because you know you’re going to spend a lot of time with them.”
The other benefit to Anderson’s addition? A clean slate mentally with less to forget from the old style of pit stops.
“I think he adapted,” Teague, his tire-changing counterpart, said of Anderson’s attitude to the single-lug stops. “You know, some people have pushed back. They don’t like change and they’re set in their ways and they don’t want to change the way that they do things. And as it’s been touched on, our team is a little different where we have certain expectations, and we are very disciplined. And there’s things that we do that a lot of other people did not do. And he was very open-minded to taking all of that in and basically accepting the challenge to be a part of this team.”
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Rarely is a single pit stop so revered as the final dash of service given to Kyle Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet in 2021 at Phoenix. But two years later, its staying power rings as a loud reminder of how critical a role these five crew members can play in determining the outcome of a sequence — a race — a season.
The success produced that day was no accident, crew chief Daniels is keen to note. Daniels knows these crew members about as well as they know themselves, joining what was then the No. 48 team with Jimmie Johnson and Knaus as the team’s race engineer from 2015-18 before becoming crew chief midway through the 2019 campaign.
So there was full trust in his crew in 2021 when Larson needed a stellar pit stop to shoot from fourth to first on pit road to have the optimal opportunity to win the championship.
“I think it highlighted the importance that a lot of folks may not see because it always sits below the surface of how valuable your process is as a team,” Daniels told NASCAR.com. ‘Whether you play football, basketball, baseball, or you’re in racing, your process is everything. And so what led to that moment wasn’t some magic for the moment. It was a tried and true, beaten-up, battle-tested process that we had established all year throughout the year.”
Daniels has experienced two championships in his career — 2016 with Johnson and 2021 with Larson. Most of these crew members have three or four, with Johnson triumphant in 2010 and 2013 to add to the tally. The run-up to Phoenix wasn’t all roses with Daniels and the crew, though.
“I want to say it was the week before in Martinsville,” Daniels recalled. “We had just won three in a row, and at Martinsville, there was something that Calvin and I were talking about with his approach. And we ended up getting in a screaming match — an actual screaming match at each other about how we were going to handle that week and on and on.
“I guess the point I’m making is even after winning three races in a row, going to the next week — the race hasn’t even started yet. So we don’t even know if we’re gonna win four in a row. We were still pushing on each other that hard to be better that we were willing to fight each other to continue to build our process. Now, that’s not a moment that you want to have happen often. That’s not something that you’re going to celebrate. But the point I’m making is that is one of the building blocks to the process.”
That process is a key part of why while the team’s routine stops are solid, the high-intensity, impactful moments are when this group shines brightest.
“Personally, I think because we don’t let pressure get to us,” Brandon Johnson said. “I think you can’t really think about those kind of moments. When people do tend to think about those moments, that’s when you tend to I guess fold to the pressure, and this team is very good at not coming to that.”
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THEN AND NOW
Of course, there’s a difference between the glory of what those 11.8 seconds meant in 2021 and where the No. 5 team is right now.
Kyle Larson enters the NASCAR Cup Series championship race Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as the only eligible driver who has experienced title-winning nirvana. He has the crew to do it.
More critically, they proved they can rise to the challenge in 2023 already.
A yellow flag waved at Lap 210 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Chase Briscoe crashed in Turns 1 and 2. Christopher Bell was leading ahead of Brad Keselowski and Larson in third. The field hit pit road with 55 laps remaining, and Larson’s crew again propelled Larson to the lead, this time besting Keselowski and Bell.
There was pride within the team that they executed, but there was no exceptional jubilation, a reminder that this is simply the expectation.
“Anytime you can put your driver out front, it’s exciting for the team and it’s exciting for all people back at the shop that have worked all week on the car,” Anderson said. “The driver still has to go out there and finish the race and there’s only so much you can do, and that’s just kind of what we’re here for: Take care of what we can control and do our job in the moment.”
They did. Again.
Larson went on to win that race by merely a car length over Bell, locking him into the title round once again. Now a 23-time winner in the Cup Series, Larson praised his crew after the win.
“I love cautions and I love pit stops,” Larson said with a smile. “I do. I look forward to coming down pit road. I have got a ton of confidence in my guys. They showed today why they‘re one of the best on pit road.”
Per Racing Insights, the stats back that up: On a race-by-race basis, the No. 5 crew had a top-10 crew in 18 of 33 races this season (excludes Bristol Dirt and Martinsville-2) including seven of the eight playoff races. And while the crew shines, Barnette noted the critical role Larson plays in the equation too.
“The other thing that no one talks about is Kyle puts us in this position a lot,” Barnette said. “Whether it be the championship race or whatever race we’re talking about, he can come in third for the money stop, so we’ve been in this situation more times than probably any other pit crew. So when it comes down to Phoenix again, like, we’ve been there multiple times, and that’s a strength that we have that there’s not really any other consistent driver that is always up front putting his pit crew in position for the money stop.”
It’s a mindset that permeates the entire crew. Sunday, they will have a chance at another NASCAR Cup Series title.
“Hell, I hope Kyle has a five-second lead and it goes green,” Barnette said. “But we’re there if you need us, and we’re comfortable in the moment. We’re ready. That’s kind of how we look at it.”