Authors: By PETE IACOBELLI
DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) -- Carl Edwards loves plenty of things about NASCAR's All-Star week. One of his favorites, though, is seeing his crew members in the spotlight instead of himself.
Edwards' No. 99 team is among 24 Sprint Cup crews competing in the eighth NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday night. Denny Hamlin's No. 11 crew enters as two-time defending champions.
"It's cool for the drivers," said Edwards, who plans to cheer on his crew at Time-Warner Cable Arena. "We get to show up and watch our guys perform and the pressure's not on us, it's on them. That's neat to see everything kind of turned upside down."
It's been like that since 2005 when NASCAR held its first showcase for pit road's "Over the Wall" gangs. The event was an instant hit among the crew members, who soaked up the chance to show off their skills.
"The pit crew competition," says Mike Lepp, Joe Gibbs Racing's director of athletics, "is a big deal."
Crew members earn prizes - more than $260,000 was awarded last year - and gain a swagger they carry to pit roads throughout the circuit. The champion team also gets the No. 1 pit stall for Saturday night's All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Heath Cherry, Hamlin's rear tire changer, knows his team is in everyone's sights becoming the first with consecutive titles. Cherry and the No. 11 team have helped Hamlin win twice this year at Phoenix and Kansas, and finish second to Jimmie Johnson in last Saturday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Lepp has seen the pits transform in his six year at JGR. The days when a friend of a friend who knows something about cars could help change tires are long gone. Today, teams are stocked with well-trained professionals who thrive on competition and success.
Cherry played linebacker for Lenoir-Rhyne and has spent 13 years pitting cars. He was on the front edge of the change when NASCAR teams recruited ex-athletes accustomed to hard work and striving for success - people who finished up careers in college football, baseball and other sports and were "looking for that competitive outlet."
Lepp said the reasoning is simple: Better athletes mean faster pit stops.
"We still have guys that have racing backgrounds that are pitting cars, but they're starting to become few and far between," Lepp said.
Just look at how pit times have improved in the past few years. Lepp said 14-second stops were the gold standard six years ago. "Now, if you're not under 13 seconds, you're done," he said.
A year ago, there were only five teams who consistently broke the 13-second mark. Now, Lepp counts 15 teams in that group. "We're seeing an evolution in pit stops," he said.
Winning the race in the pits leads right to victory lane. Pit success is "critical because of track position," Lepp said.
Lepp breaks the season into three segments, concentrating on physical development in the first third and looking at recovery later on so his teams won't wear out in the Chase. "When we get to the Chase, we've got to be faster than we were at the beginning," he said.
The changes were evident in last year's Pit Crew Challenge.
The No. 14 team of Tony Stewart set an event record - the seven-man team competition includes pushing the car 40 yards - with a time of 21.472 seconds in the quarterfinals. Mike Casto of the No. 14 team set a record to win the jack man competition while Casto's teammates, Rick Pigeon and Ryan Flores, took gas men titles in record time.
The No. 33 team took both tire-changing-carrier crowns in record times with Jason Pulver and Austin Craven winning the front tire competition and Dustin Necaise and Matt Kreuter earning the rear tire title.
It's not the only time this week pit crews are center stage. There is a required four-tire stop as part of each qualifying run Friday night for Saturday's race.
"It's one of the most pressure-packed pit stops of the year," said Brian Dheel, gas man for the No. 55 team. "You are it. There are no others stops going on at the time. It's really easy to see if you make a mistake or if you do really well."
The increased emphasis on pit crew performance has ramped up the pressure at the track - many times past the boiling point. Crew members for Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch were involved in a post-race fracas last weekend at Darlington. NASCAR fined Busch $50,000 and placed him on probation until July 25 for reckless driving on pit road.
A Busch crew member, Craig Strickler, was fined $5,000 in the incident. Newman's crew chief, Tony Gibson, was put on probation until June 27 for his team's actions. Gas man Andy Rueger was fined $5,000 and put on probation.
Both Newman's No. 39 team and Kurt Busch's No. 51 crew are competing Thursday night.
The improvements in personnel and abilities aren't lost on Sprint Cup drivers. Veteran Mark Martin is certain he's never had a better crew than his current No. 55 group.
"There's never been a time in NASCAR when pit stops are as crucial as they are now," Martin said.