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The fastest guns in NASCAR? Well, they've had a lot of misfires this season...so what about this pit crew championship?


The fastest pit crew in NASCAR? Last season, in the official Sprint Cup challenge, it was Brian Vickers' Red Bull team (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   The fastest pit crew in NASCAR?
   As many mistakes as crews – and their drivers – have been making this season, that's a very good question.
   Not that Thursday night's annual NASCAR Sprint Cup pit crew challenge will really determine that, but it's going to be interesting to see what some of these guys can do in a somewhat controlled environment.
   The top-24 Cup crews go head-to-head at the Time Warner Cable Arena in downtown Charlotte, beginning at 7 p.m. EDT. It will not be televised live, so if you want to catch all the drama and mistakes as they happen, you'll have to be there (http://www.pitcrewchallenge.com/ .)
    The pit crew chase will kick off the sport's annual All-Star weekend, which concludes with Saturday night's All-Star race. The rules? Hey, the late Dale Earnhardt was the only guy who ever really understood the All-Star rules and all their variations from normal Cup event rules.
   "It changes every year," Kyle Busch says of the All-star rules. "So you try not to pay attention to it until you get there for the weekend, and then you get a refresher course on what's going to happen -- because they might change it between now and when it comes up."
   Busch is one of Saturday's favorites – maybe Thursday's too – even though he had a ragged weekend at Darlington.
   However Busch's record at Charlotte's Lowe's Motor Speedway is not all that great: In his three previous All-Star appearances Busch has failed finish. Crashes knocked Busch out of the 2006 and 2007 events, and an engine failure forced him out early last year after leading 38 laps.
    One kicker Thursday night: The finishing order of the Sprint pit crew challenge (Craftsman is one of the big sponsors) will set the order of pit selection for the Sprint Showdown or the All-Star Race.
   Pit work this season has been chaotic at best.
   Drivers miss their pit signs with uncommon regularity. Just talk with Dale Earnhardt Jr. about that.
   And pit crews themselves are under such race pressure – since it's very difficult to pass out on the track – that they're making far too many mistakes. Just ask Carl Edwards about that.
   Some point to NASCAR's new rules this season requiring 'longer' wheel studs, saying that tire changers have lost their rhythm. NASCAR says the new rules were added because crews kept shortening the studs, for faster pit stops, and that caused dangerous loose wheels too often.
   Others point to the glue used to hold the lugnuts on the wheel. Teams have been 'gluing' up wheels for years. However this season for some reason that glue has been failing too frequently. Some point to the shelf-life of some of the glues as being quite short; one distributor apparently got a good deal on old glue, and when teams used it, their lug nuts kept falling off.
   Others point to the 'set-up' time of the glue. Apparently the glue – or some of the glues – have to be allowed to 'set' for maybe an hour or so, before teams can hit those lugs. And some teams, trying to cut costs, have been refusing to buy full sets of tires before the race (because Goodyear has a no-return policy, and tires can cost about $2,000 a set); those teams will go back and buy more tires during the race – however they're not allowing sufficient time for the glue to 'set.'
    According to some insiders, teams have been an all-out push on for 'better' glues. And 3M – which happens to be one of Jack Roush's key sponsors – is reported to be working on just such a project….following a series of pit road miscues that were very costly.
   It remains to be seen what the NASCAR-Sprint rules on lugnut glues are this weekend.
   One suggestion – that NASCAR keep pit road open the entire race, and stop 'closing' pit road whenever the caution comes out.
   By artificially closing pit road, NASCAR bunches up the field….and that makes pit road far more dangerous.
   Why close pit road at all?
   Because some 20 years ago, NASCAR had trouble keeping track of the race leader whenever the caution came out, particularly when midway through a round of green flag pit stops. In fact at least one driver, maybe more, might have been credited with winning a race because of just such scoring errors. Ask Darrell Waltrip.
   But now NASCAR has a series of computer scoring loops embedded in each track's asphalt, and it hasn't lost track of the leader of the race in some time.
   So closing pit road when the yellow comes out is an anachronism.
   Yes, if pit road were always open, then sometimes something freaky might happen – like the leader might be on the wrong side of the track when the yellow comes out and everyone has to slow down…and drivers closer to pit road could pit before the leader.
   Well, that's the way it was for years and years in NASCAR. Just chalk it up to the luck of the draw.
   The men in the All-star race are chosen this way:
   -- Winning drivers and car owners from the previous and current Cup seasons;
   -- Drivers who have won the All-Star race in the past 10 years;
   -- Cup champions in the past 10 years;
   -- The top two finishers in the Sprint Showdown, a 40-lap preliminary race Saturday evening;
   -- One driver who is voted in by the fans.
   The seven-man crews eligible for Thursday's event include all teams qualified for the All-Star event. Also eligible -- the 2008 pit crew challenge winning team of Brian Vickers.  Seeding will be set Cup owner standings; the top eight in the points receive a bye into the second round.
   That means these drivers' crews are eligible:
   David Reutimann, Casey Mears, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya, Reed Sorenson, Marcos Ambrose, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, and Carl Edwards.
   James Finch's Talladega winning team (driver Brad Keselowski) is eligible but has declined to compete.
   The All-Star race format:
   -- First segment: 50 laps, with a mandatory green-flag pit stop on lap 25, and teams must pit and take four tires.
   Following the end of the first segment, the caution flag will be displayed for an optional pit stop.
   -- Second segment: 20 laps, with the caution flag at the end of the leg for an optional pit stop.
   -- Third segment: 20 laps, with a 10-minute break at the end of the leg, with teams allowed to make "normal adjustments" to their cars. The finishing order after the third leg sets the starting positions for the final segment.
   -- Fourth segment: 10 laps, with only green-flag laps counting.



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