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The best pit crew in NASCAR? Jimmie Johnson's guys beat Denny Hamlin's guys to win the 2012 Sprint Pit Crew Challenge

The best pit crew in NASCAR? Jimmie Johnson's guys beat Denny Hamlin's guys to win the 2012 Sprint Pit Crew Challenge

Jimmie Johnson's crew (R) avenges last season's pit crew challenge loss to Denny Hamlin's team by winning Thursday's battle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



    By Mike Mulhern

     Call us purists, or just old school NASCAR, but it certainly seems strange to have a stock car racing pit crew challenge inside a coliseum, with no engines running, and few if any real drivers at the wheel.
    If a team can put the driver's wife or daughter at the wheel, well, just how believable is that for sports competition?
    It's the All-Star week kickoff, leading up to Saturday night's sometimes wild and zany All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
    And this All-Star race could be a little wilder than usual, because it looks like a number of drivers may have their jobs on the line.
    The men to keep an eye on:
    Joey Logano.
    Ryan Newman.
    Kurt Busch.
    Logano, one of this sport's up-and-comers, and only turning 22 next week, was on the hot seat last summer when sponsor Home Depot – after watching Lowe's-sponsored Jimmie Johnson win five straight NASCAR championships – reportedly told team owner Joe Gibbs to find a driver who could go head-to-head with Johnson. Carl Edwards was the man on the hook, and in early August he appeared on the verge of making the leap….only to have that deal fall apart, for still not fully explained reasons. Did Home Depot execs balk at the money it would cost to sign Edwards? Did Ford make a better counteroffer?
    Whatever went on behind closed doors, it appears that Home Depot has become rather disenchanted with NASCAR as a marketing platform. It's sold off some quarterpanel space this season, and its NASCAR-oriented marketing has been generally hard to find.
    Where all that leaves Gibbs and Logano is unclear.
    Ditto for Ryan Newman. He's been less-than-fully sponsored during his two years with Tony Stewart, and the $7 million a year Army sponsorship has become a hot political potato lately. The Army sponsorship has appeared to be the bedrock for the Newman team, but Army is typically a year-to-year sponsorship. And some Washington politicians have been arguing to cut the Army-NASCAR deal.
    Without full sponsorship for Newman, it's unclear what Stewart might do.
   Plus, Stewart is already laying plans for a full Sprint Cup team for Danica Patrick for 2013, and she does have sponsorship.
   Kurt Busch meanwhile, still reeling from last weekend's run-in with Newman, and Newman's crew, at Darlington, may be straining car owner James Finch's finances. Busch is very talented, yes, but he also drives very hard, and that can leave Finch with torn-up sheet metal. And Finch is not a high-roller in this sport.
    Other reports are circling the Richard Childress operation for possible shakeups too. Childress was forced to cut from four Cup teams to three this season, because of sponsorship issues. Might Childress be looking to pick up one of these three drivers for one of his three teams? If so, Newman might be the one to watch.
    That's some of the behind-the-scenes action here this week.
    Out front is the Thursday night's pit crew challenge, with 24 Cup teams pairing off in head-to-head competition.
    The best pit crew in NASCAR?
    Usually Matt Kenseth's guys are at the top of that list, and Shane Wilson's crew – last season with Clint Bowyer, this season with Kevin Harvick – is also one of the tops.
    The made-for-TV event (set for one-hour tape delay for some reason) is in downtown Charlotte, right next to the new NASCAR Hall of Fame.
    And this particular event is, well, odd.
     The long-running NASCAR-Unocal pit crew championships at North Carolina Motor Speedway at Rockingham had a decidedly different flavor. For one thing, crews could cheat. Er, trick up their cars, with special transmissions and such.
    Plus, the real drivers had to make a lap around the track and come down pit road and hit their pit spot-on.
    Now a better way perhaps to determine the 'best' pit crew in NASCAR through some competition might be to run this show at Bruton Smith's dragstrip right across from Charlotte Motor Speedway…where the rest of the All-Star week carries on.
    At the dragstrip, fans could line both sides of the lanes, and crews could start at one end with a pit stop, and the drivers could carry the machine down to the finish line.
    Smoke and drangst….

    The 2011 finals: Denny Hamlin's crew edging Jimmie Johnson's. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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