Even with all of the suspense that the Sprint All-Star race built going into the final 10-lap segment, every driver said before the race that the driver with the clean air to begin the final segment would be difficult to pass. Denny Hamlin was that driver with clean air and he rode it to win his first-ever All-Star race win, but it was his pit crew that put him in a position to get the clean air and go on to the win.
The pit crews had the opportunity to shine on that night and it was Hamlin’s crew that eventually showed why it has been considered to be one of if not the best on pit road the last two seasons. Hamlin started the season with a new crew chief in Dave Rogers and a new road crew, but his pit crew that goes over the wall on race day remained the same as last season.
Saturday began with qualifying for the event and just like every other aspect of the race, it was different from what we see take place at every other stop on the schedule. Instead of the group qualifying that NASCAR started using last season, the All-Star race’s qualifying consists of two laps with a four-tire pit stop. To make it even more exciting, NASCAR waived the pit road speed limit that allowed every driver to come down pit road as hot as he wanted to and still be able to stop his car inside his pit stall.
Since the cars were coming down pit road so hot, NASCAR also mandated that pit crewmembers could not leave the pit wall until the car came to a stop. Each of these variables made every one of the 20 pit stops during qualifying a little different as both drivers and crewmembers had to perform what turned out to be anything but a routine pit stop.
Kevin Harvick went out early during qualifying and came down pit road so hot the he went several pit stalls past his own before he could get his Chevrolet stopped. If became a fine line between coming in so hot that you couldn’t stop, or slowing down to early and losing time with about every driver.
When Hamlin took his Toyota off pit road and onto the track to begin his qualifying, he had seen it all but when it came time to come down pit road he did not play it cautious and back off the throttle before approaching his pit stall. He came in hot like so many others, but as he locked up his brakes, he went ahead and shifted into reverse so as soon as his car came to a stop just a few inches past his pit stall, he was able to quickly back his car up and let his pit crew show why it may be the best in the sport. The crew’s performance combined with Hamlin’s lap times were good enough to put him on the pole.
At stake by qualifying first was the opportunity to be the first team to pick its pit stall location. The rules of the race included a four-tire pit stop before the start of the last segment, and getting your driver out on the track first to begin the final segment gave him the advantage of clean air. It was Crew Chief Rogers’s selection of the first pit stall that turned out to be the difference in the race and the reason why Hamlin left Charlotte Motor Speedway that night with a million dollar check and the firstever win for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota in the All-Star race.
Brad Keselowski was caught speeding trying to beat Hamlin back to the line exiting pit road after his last pit stop, but said afterward that he knew that if he didn’t come out first that he would not be able to make the pass during the final 10 laps. Keselowski was right as Hamlin took the lead on the last restart and was able to hold off Harvick on his way to victory lane.
Race Preview Event: Coca-Cola 600 Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (1.5-mile quad oval, 24o of banking in the turns) Date: May 25, 6 p.m. TV: FOX Radio: PRN Defending Champion: Jimmie Johnson