Denny Hamlin was livid.
Despite leading a race-high 179 laps at Darlington on May 13, Hamlin's efforts were foiled when dropped lug nuts on a late pit stop toppled him from second place to 16th. Although the driver of the No. 11 Chevy rallied to a second place finish, he was not happy with his pit crew, and he spoke out in anger after the race.
"If we lose by 20-30 points when it comes down to the championship, we know exactly where we lost it, and that's on pit road," Hamlin said. "I gave away Phoenix, that's my fault. But there's two to three other races that we had the best car most all day, and even at the end, and just gave it away on pit road."
Days later, Hamlin's pit crew lineup was shuffled, with several team members losing their jobs. While Hamlin may not have been very diplomatic in his criticism, his message was dead on: with margins of victory as small as hundredths of a second, NASCAR races can be won or lost on pit road.
Andy Papathanassiou, training and development director at Hendrick Motorsports, knows how important a well-trained pit crew is to a NASCAR team. Papathanassiou is widely credited in the garage as the man responsible for the current training and fitness regimen practiced by virtually all pit crews.
It began in 1991, when the former Stanford offensive lineman snuck into a race at Sonoma, Calif.
"I could see that there was more to the sport than the driver and the mechanics," he said. After seeing an opportunity to help a short-handed team, Papathanassiou volunteered to do odd jobs, which eventually led to a paid position.
"They ended up hiring me full time at just a modest salary, enough to pay my expenses, but I was thrilled with that," he said. After relocating to Charlotte, Papathanassiou landed a stint with Alan Kulwicki racing in 1992. Although he had left by the time Kulwicki celebrated his championship, he would celebrate multiple championships in his new job -- as pit coach for Hendrick Motorsports.
"I was looking for a team that wanted someone to do that full time," Papathanassiou said. "At the same time, Ray Evernham was looking for someone to head up his pit crews because he felt it was as important an area as any of the others. So we found each other and that's what I was hired to do."
Although developing pit crew members' athleticism was part of what Papathanassiou taught, it wasn't everything.
"There were some teams that might have done some work in the weight room, but this was different," he said. "This wasn't, 'hey, get your guys working out and you'll have a better pit crew.' It was really a multifaceted approach."
That approach went well beyond traditional weight training.
"We were practicing pit stops, developing drills, using video for feedback and trying to get the procedures for pit stops better," Papathanassiou said. "So the weight room was a part of that, but just a part. Motivation and all that -- heck, your guys need to be self-motivated. It was really just as you would see any other professional team prepare for their event, that's what we did with the pit crew. There's practice, there's injury and rehab, there's training involved, there's finding the right people -- all of it."
Under Papathanassiou's pit crew tutelage, the No. 24 DuPont team went on a tear, racking up championships in 1995, 1997 and 1998. And another Hendrick team, the No. 5 car piloted by Terry Labonte, took the title in 1996. Other teams took notice, and soon, it was standard procedure for all pit crews to train and practice under highly structured conditions.
"The seven guys that go over the wall are required to be in a workout program Monday through Friday," said Robbie Reiser, crew chief for the No. 17 driven by Matt Kenseth. "Some of it is more stressful than others. Wednesday is usually the hard workday here when you take them out back and really run them through their paces."
"They are required to work out every day," he added. "Then they have a pit stop practice three times a week, and there's one day that's set aside for just looking at films from the previous race so we can pick out things that we want to work on."
But it doesn't end there.
"We also have a full-team practice where the guys behind the wall work with that same group so that everybody is pretty coordinated when we show up at the racetrack," Reiser said.
Reiser said that all of the members of the Roush pit crews also have jobs in the shop.
"Everybody that goes over the wall on the 17 team is also a mechanic on this team, and I think that's pretty hard to find in this sport today," he said. "These guys have a part of the car, plus what they do over the wall, and maybe that's what brings them success. We are required to use mechanics to go over the wall here at Roush."
It's a similar routine at Dale Earnhardt, Inc., said Kevin "Bono" Manion, crew chief of the No. 1 car driven by Martin Truex.
"Two to three days a week in the mornings, our team will work out for an hour-and-a-half doing cardio, hand-eye coordination skills," he said. "Two or three days a week in the afternoon, they will actually work on a live pit stop car with a driver, pit sign, a pit wall, basically everything you go through. It's about on an average, three to four hours, three to four days a week for training."
Since Papathanassiou entered the sport, typical pit times have been cut dramatically from around 19 seconds to just under 12 seconds. Despite the best training, however, mistakes still happen.
"We're all human," Manion said. "We're all going to make mistakes. The best thing to do is to pat the guy on the back, look over the tapes, find out where the problem was, and just take it easy and show them their problems -- work it out and shake it off."
"The good and the bad of racing is that there's always something coming up. So if it's a bad pit stop, there's another one coming up; with a bad race, there's another one that's coming up. It's the same for all of us -- drivers, pit crew, whoever. You've got to stay focused and work on your next assignment."