The Most Precise Pit Crews in NASCAR

Monte DuttonFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2016

The Most Precise Pit Crews in NASCAR

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    Pit road is crowded before a NASCAR race. At times, it's almost as crowded and much more frantic once it gets started.
    Pit road is crowded before a NASCAR race. At times, it's almost as crowded and much more frantic once it gets started.Associated Press

    One lightning-quick stop does not a pit crew make. Not even statistical rankings separate the men from the boys. The best pit crews in NASCAR rise to the occasion.

    On long days at intermediate tracks, passing on the track can be especially difficult. The difference between winning and losing can often be traced just as readily to the positions gained on pit road. It's often not a matter solely of efficient work but rather the right call: two tires, or four or fuel only.

    The best crew chiefs are not often geniuses, but they share a virtue just as rare. They possess a knack for thinking clearly amid bedlam, the same gift of great head coaches on sidelines, courtsides and third-base boxes. They are clever and quick-witted.

    The modern era forever changed the makeup of pit crews. In the 1990s, Ray Evernham's Rainbow Warriors began a trend of pit crews that were as purpose-built as the cars they serviced. Where once a tire changer was a guy who tuned engines during the week, now he is typically a linebacker who gave NASCAR a try after being cut by a CFL team.

    Here's a NASCAR.com explanation of pit stops.

    Watch the stops closely. They are orchestrated and synchronized. Imagine the uniformed man carrying a tire around the car as a pulling guard on a trap play. Yes, racing, too, has X's and O's.

    And, oh, how they've changed.

    Forty cars start every Sprint Cup race and all the crews are competent, but money buys speed as much on pit road as on the track. The best crews rise to the top, as in any competitive endeavor. The best teams pay handsomely, and by and large, they get the best crewmen.

    Ranking the pit crews isn't easy. With introductory honorable mentions to the Chip Ganassi-owned teams of drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson and the Hendrick Motorsports team behind Chase Elliott, following are those that made the cut.

No. 10—Stewart Haas #4: Kevin Harvick

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    The 2014 champion's crew is underrated, mostly because Harvick has, at times, been unsparing in his criticism. Sometimes Harvick's candor gets in his team's way. The entire operation is thick-skinned. Harvick and co-owner Tony Stewart have taught them well. Rodney Childers is the most practical of crew chiefs. This team takes care of business as well as any. It just doesn't get the rave reviews.

No. 9—Penske Racing #22: Joey Logano

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    The name Penske evokes precision. The name Logano evokes innate talent. Put the two together—with a no-nonsense, technically proficient crew chief in Todd Gordon—and a title threat is almost inevitable. Logano's crew may not be as creative as others, but efficiency is its calling card, and it comes in handy as a counterbalance to the the driver's impetuosity.

No. 8—Furniture Row #78: Martin Truex Jr.

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    Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

    The single-car team from Denver, Colorado, entered the Chase as one of the favorites. Truex won two of the three opening-round races. Then...disaster. Truex failed to make the Round of 8. Crew chief Cole Pearn is the most well-known figure in NASCAR among those barely known at all at the beginning of the year. Bad luck hurt them at times, but pit-road performance was always sublime.

No. 7—Joe Gibbs Racing #11: Denny Hamlin

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    In one area, Hamlin is NASCAR's fastest driver. Unfortunately, it's on pit road, where speeding is as tightly enforced as at any Georgia crossroads. Hamlin digs himself a lot of holes. That he is still in contention for a championship is a great testament to his team and crew chief Mike Wheeler, both of whom have grown adept at damage control. Wheeler deserves more credit than he gets.

No. 6—Joe Gibbs Racing #20: Matt Kenseth

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    Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

    This team is perfectly matched. Kenseth—with one notable exception during the 2015 Chase—is unflappable. He is remarkably adept at peaking near the finish and getting the most out of his car. His team, led by crew chief Jason Ratcliff, reflects his coolness. It seldom makes mistakes. Driver and team share the intuition of when it is time to go.

No. 5—Joe Gibbs Racing #18: Kyle Busch

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    The younger Busch brother is NASCAR's mad scientist on the track. His talent is unquestioned. Occasionally, he beats himself. Give him a fast car and a crew that can adapt to his whims, and he will win more than his share. Busch demands as much of his crew as he does of himself, and it takes a crew chief who won't let himself be caught in a clash of egos. Adam Stevens is such a man.

No. 4—Penske Racing #2: Brad Keselowski

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Keselowski is analytical and talkative. An important aspect of the 2012 Sprint Cup champion's success is the communication between him and crew chief Paul Wolfe. Wolfe passes instructions along coolly and precisely, and the team executes his and Keselowski's agreed-upon tactics with efficiency. They work for Roger Penske, which means they know what to do and look marvelous doing it. The chain of command works perfectly.

No. 3—Stewart Haas Racing #41: Kurt Busch

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    Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Of the remaining eight drivers eligible for the championship, Kurt Busch is third in both average finish (11.7) and top 10s (20). He is also the only one in the Round of 8 without more than one victory this year. Busch won the first Chase in 2004, but in recent years he has become more mature on the track. He makes the best of what he has, and his crew, led by veteran Tony Gibson, hitches up its britches and goes to work. If a pit crew can win a title, this one will.

No. 2—Hendrick Motorsports #48: Jimmie Johnson

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Every year it looks as if this six-time championship-winning crew has developed chinks in its armor when, in reality, it's business as usual. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus make sort of The Odd Couple, and the original was also a long-running show. Knaus is so smart, and at times arrogant, that his only weakness is, once in a great while, outsmarting himself. His greatest virtue is getting everything perfect—driver, car, team, crew—when it matters the most. This crew may not be the best season-long, but it's the best at season's end.

No. 1—Joe Gibbs Racing #19: Carl Edwards

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Carl Edwards is a star, on and off the track. He has the temperament of a quarterback. Dave Rogers, his crew chief, has the personality, if not the build, of a pulling guard. Rogers has little ego. He serves the drivers' needs effortlessly. They listen to each other and interact. No team is more cohesive. No team adapts to unexpected twists and turns better. No team works more effectively to maximize their driver's prospects. In short, no other team is better.