There was a time in NASCAR racing when pit stops were more of an afterthought, just a step that needed to be completed as part of the process.
Not anymore. Nowadays, the pit crew can be the difference in winning and losing a race. With the advent of double-file restarts among the leaders, the multiple attempts at a green-white-checker finish and an increased parity among those contending for wins week to week, the team concept matters more in NASCAR than perhaps ever before. That's not team in terms of driver mates on the track, but rather the group both building the car at the shop and those pitting it in races.
This week, those crews will gain an unusual annual spotlight. Generally laboring in relative obscurity, this month they will be noted not only as part of a mandatory pit stop during the annual All-Star Race, but also in their own battle. This week in Charlotte, N.C., the pit crews will go head-to-head in an annual championship. The top team and top individuals at each position will be competing for their own trophies - and a year of bragging rights.
It's the one time the sport in general embraces the men who build a career in 12-second segments.
Don't think these men are overlooked otherwise, though. Within each team, their work is recognized and admired.
"You can have the greatest cars on the racetrack and you can be fast and come on pit road and that first pit stop and have the worst pit crew on pit road and you'll never win a race, ever," Sprint Cup points leader Kevin Harvick says. "It definitely takes all the pieces, whether it's engines, cars, pit crews. It takes it all to make it go round."
Especially in the modern environment of tight, tight racing.
Drivers, team owners and crew members know just how crucial those stops can be, especially late in the race.
"Two seconds in the pit can happen in a hurry," four-car Cup team owner Rick Hendrick says. "It's so hard to pass. So many people are competitive that run good.
"It's critical. I'd say that's the hardest thing we have to work on. You can measure the horsepower and you can measure the aerodynamics on the car and you know the driver's talent, but when you've got guys jumping over the wall in the heat of battle and changing tires and all the sudden guys can slide through the pits."
Stewart-Haas Racing placed so much emphasis on it that the group put together a third pit crew before the season to fill in for any potential injuries. Most top crew members are under contract early in the year, so if something happens to a key member of a team, it's difficult to find a top replacement.
"That's probably the greatest area where our sport is probably behind a lot of stick-and-ball sports," Clark says. "Our talent is really stretched thin at the Cup level. We have guys at the shop and we have guys here at the track that will come in and fill in if one of our guys gets hurt, but typically because the talent is so thin and there's such a need for excellent top superior pit stops that a pit crew athlete that really can come in and do the job regularly is probably going to try to go to work for another team. So that's a big hole that we're trying to close and fill."
But it wasn't always this way.
Back in the day, pit stops were performed with basic equipment and without any particular flourish.
And then the Wood Brothers changed everything.
Leonard Wood, the genius behind the engineering aspects and innovations of the team, went to work on shaving precious seconds from the team's pit stops in the 1960s - much to the dismay and admiration of his competition. He quickly figured out a method for making faster and faster stops - especially after the team could see the results of its efforts.
"Nobody was really concentrating on pit stops. They were just changing tires with a lug wrench, which was taking 45 seconds to change two tires and gas," he said. "Well, we saw that we could improve that and we began working on it and we were right away down to 25 seconds, two tires and gas, and then you're looking at this thing, 'Wow, we're half a lap ahead.' People began noticing this, and then everybody started working at it and that got the ball rolling.
"When you're making your pit stop and (you're thinking,) 'What's keeping me from being fast enough? Is my gun fast enough? Can I get my socket on the lug fast enough?' So you work on the socket so you can jam it and it goes right on without hanging up. Now we change the tires fast enough, but now we can't get the car up fast enough. So we speed the jack up. And then long before anybody else did and then the jack people filmed it and said, 'This guy is coming up in three pumps. Ours is taking 10.' Then they went to work on making jacks that were fast. ... You work on your weakest link. And then you want your personnel to be very active, quick reflexes."
In essence, the Wood Brothers changed the way stops were viewed - and learned lessons that still apply today.
"You can do more than you think you can," Wood says. "You'll find another second you didn't think you had."
That remains true in modern competition.
Pit stops are becoming increasingly critical once more. They've always been important, but the new rules have only heightened the intensity and the pressure these teams face.
Crew members try not to let that affect how they react race to race.
"We try to be in the same frame of mind wherever we go, and our singular goal is to do top-level pit stops. ... To us, it's important every week," Burton jack man Adam North says.
Still, that frame of mind will shift a little this week as the pit crews get their due by competing in the Pit Crew Challenge. Team members acknowledge they train a little harder for this event.
Drivers, too, want to see their crews win. After watching the team members practice for hours at the shop and pull off lightning-fast stops at the track each week, everyone hopes his team gains a little added spotlight this week.
"The pit crew is huge," Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch says. "It's a really, really big deal. The guys are really pumped up. They work all year long and they do everything they do in order to get ready for the competition. So they're all really excited."