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Pit crew changes create opportunities for Cup playoff drivers

The playoffs begin at Darlington on Sunday (6 p.m. ET on USA Network, post-race on Peacock). Ten flawless weeks are the goal for all 16 teams, but midseason pit crew changes will raise the stakes for three drivers.

The majority of the playoff drivers enter the final 10-week stretch with the crews that got them to this point in the season. This is not the case for Christopher Bell. He will kick off the playoffs with Ty Gibbs’ former pit crew after Joe Gibbs Racing swapped the No. 54 and the No. 20 groups.

Bell’s new pit crew includes Blake Houston (front tire changer), Michael Hicks (rear tire changer), Jacob Holmes (tire carrier), Derrell Edwards (jackman) and Peyton Moore (fueler).

This pit crew spent most of 2022 with Denny Hamlin. They were moved to Kyle Busch’s team after the first round of the playoffs because Busch’s crew was faster. This crew joined Gibbs for this season before moving to Bell this past week.

Bell is not the only driver who has undergone a pit crew change this year. Back in April, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s pit crew was pulled by RFK Racing and moved to Chris Buescher’s team. JTG Daugherty Racing leases its crews from RFK.

The Southern 500 will be the first race for Bell and his new crew, one that ranks third in the Cup Series in average time for a four-tire stop at 11.254 seconds, per Racing Insights. Bell’s former crew was 20th-fastest.

“On this new team, we have Derrell,” Bell said during the Cup Series Playoff Media Day. “I drove for Derrell in 2021. I believe he’s the only one that I’ve driven for in the past. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens, but I’m excited about working with such a talented group.”

Bell’s former pit crew’s fastest four-tire pit time this season, according to Racing Insights, is 9.8096 seconds. His new pit crew has had 13 faster stops this season.

The race will not be the first time Bell and this crew have worked together. He took part in pit practice after the change to get some reps before every stop matters. His new pit crew has also put in time preparing to work with their fourth driver in the past two seasons.

“They’ve told me they’ve studied film of me getting in and out of the box and knowing my tendencies of whether I stop long, or if I stop short, or go towards the wall or outside the wall,” Bell said.

“From my standpoint, it really doesn’t change, but from their standpoint going from Ty to myself is going to be a slight adjustment. I know that we have the best people in the business across all of the JGR pit crews and so I know that they will be able to make the adjustment.”

The past several seasons of the NASCAR playoffs have shown that pit crews can make the difference between a championship celebration and an offseason of disappointment.

Kyle Larson’s crew put him at the front of the pack for the final restart of the 2021 season finale, and he used that advantage to win the championship race over Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott.

A rare miscue from Truex’s crew in 2019 led to the wrong tires being put on the wrong side of his car. He missed out on his second championship while Kyle Busch secured his second.

The first round of the playoffs – Darlington, Kansas and Bristol – is full of potential problems for pit crews. There will be more than 20 stops in the next three weeks. The winner of last season’s Southern 500 at Darlington, Erik Jones, made 11 pit stops. They were all four-tire changes due to the tire wear on the aged track.

Capitalizing on every stop and minimizing mistakes is crucial at this point of the season. The pressure only increases as the playoff schedule continues and the field gets smaller. The crews that can turn in flawless stops are the ones that increase their chances of contending for a championship.

“We’ve had so many strong moments this year,” Buescher told NBC Sports. “I’ve had so many good pit stops, some times where they’ve really just come in clutch in situations, and it’s cool to see everybody’s confidence get built up. I mean, we’ve got pit crew members that never pitted a car before in a stock car race, had never been to the racetrack before this year. We have very green individuals on our team that have done fantastic. It is so impressive to see that.

“It’s cool to get to go into the shop and the gym and work out with them a couple times a week. I’ve been to pit practice a little bit here and there, try and drive and just see where they’re at. It’s cool to see everybody’s excitement, to see just that enthusiasm. It’s been big. And to see that their experiences are being built upon but also rewarded, it’s been a huge season for all of them. Really proud of our group and what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

Losing a pit crew in the middle of the season is not the easiest hurdle to overcome. There is a learning curve for both the crew members and the drivers, and there is little room for error due to the importance of every stop.

Stenhouse was able to benefit from having a secure spot in the playoffs due to his Daytona 500 win. He didn’t have to stress about pursuing wins while building chemistry with his crew. He could focus on delivering clean performances over the final 17 weeks of the regular season after the pit crew change in April.

“Yeah, I’d much rather the switch happen when it did, versus a week before the playoffs,” Stenhouse told NBC Sports. “I think we’ve got a group of guys that’s used to working with our whole team. There’s a lot that goes into pit crews on the road, not just going over the wall. Setting up pit boxes, getting stuff from the haulers, getting it to pit road -- there’s a lot that goes into that. I think my guys are prepared and ready.”

There are common threads that tie these three drivers together. They all won their way into the playoffs while dealing with changes on their respective pit crews.

Buescher and Stenhouse have had time to adjust while Bell will build chemistry with his new crew one race at a time.

“The pressure has not gotten to our group,” Buescher said. “They have performed at the highest level of motorsports when it counts and when it doesn’t. I mean, just in moments when it didn’t matter, we still practiced like it’s that moment that you’re going to need to make everything work.”