With track position each season becoming more critical to success in Winston Cup racing, every team looks to make gains each time its driver heads down pit road.
Though drivers and crew chiefs alike will tell you there is no such thing as the "perfect pit stop," teams devote a considerable amount of time and resources to building better pit crews, which ensure a driver can take advantage of every opportunity to make up ground in a race.
Series points leader Bobby Labonte has been able to take advantage of excellent pit stops this season, which has helped him to consistently strong performances each week. At the September race at Darlington, S.C., his crew's quick stop allowed Labonte to bring his No. 18 Pontiac off pit road first and win the race as a rainstorm erupted while the race was still under caution.
Labonte's team, led by crew chief Jimmy Makar, showed its expertise last season when it won the annual Rockingham World Pit Crew Competition, which is held each fall during the second Rockingham race weekend. This year's competition is Saturday at North Carolina Speedway.
"Everybody by now realizes how important the pit crew is to race day. They have the opportunity to make or break winning or losing a race or gaining positions on the racetrack for the driver. The competition is so keen on the racetrack today, anything you can gain on pit road is a very important thing," Makar said.
Makar calls the annual pit crew competition in which teams complete a four-tire and gas stop and are penalized for loose lug nuts as a way to showcase the talent of individuals whose contributions are sometimes lost behind the scenes.
"I know a lot more emphasis has been put on pit crews lately, but this still gives them an opportunity to see who is the best on that given day. There are a lot of good pit crews out there that can win that contest. It all comes down to doing everything right one time, one shot," he said.
Though there is no perfect pit stop, Makar said the crew's job should always be to gain track position through a stop, or at least maintain the position the driver was in before the stop.
"If you come in leading and go out leading, it's a good pit stop," he said. "If you're in the top three or four cars that are coming in and you're up against very good pit crews, sometimes maintaining is good."
So what does it take to make a successful pit crew? Makar said he looks for several qualities.
"Each guy has to do their job in order for the group to be successful. The individuals have to do their part, but it's for the good of the whole pit crew. They have to work together," he said. "They have to be able to adjust a little bit, have some give and take and be able to make up for each other's small mistakes. The ability to do that is what's important to have consistently good pit stops.
"You have to be able to think on your feet. You can't go over the wall with blinders on thinking only of your job and that's it. You have to notice what's going on around you and be able to adapt to things going on around you because they will change."
The importance of pit crews has grown to the extent that several teams, including Labonte's, have hired experts to help improve the fitness of pit crew members. James Ince, the crew chief of Johnny Benson's No. 10 Pontiacs, recently employed Phil Horton as the team's pit stop coach and athletic trainer to improve his team's stops.
Horton said the biggest key to a pit crew's success is getting team members to believe it is more important to be precise in their work rather than quick.
"If they bought into that concept, they would be excellent across the board. So many athletes come into this sport with the mindset they are going to attack the pit stop like a football player attacks the ball carrier," Horton said. "But racing requires the finesse mindset. It's like golf. If you attack the ball, you are going to slice it. But if you finesse it, you are going to have better results.
"I think you will see more and more teams using a whole different set of guys for their pit stops than just the mechanics. We are asking a lot of these guys to work on the car and pit the car. Their dedication is unbelievable."