CONCORD, N.C. -- Members of the No. 9 pit crew were the heroes for Chase Elliott last year at Martinsville Speedway when the team was doing what they could to move on to the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 race.
Elliott dominated the race and earned his berth at Phoenix Raceway the following week, eventually cementing his name as the 2020 Cup Series champion. However, during a routine pit stop, jackman T.J. Semke jumped over the wall too soon as Elliott pulled into his stall. Immediately realizing his mistake, Semke leapt back to the wall and tagged his foot before he did any work on Elliott’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. That quick thinking prevented a penalty and Elliott from having to restart at the rear of the field.
Almost one year later, the No. 9 team is entering the cutoff race at Martinsville second in the playoff standings 32 points above the Championship 4 bubble. The buffer and experience from 2020 has the NAPA AUTO PARTS pit crew excited and ready for any challenge thrown their way.
“I think it will be nice going back there this year after what we went through last year – that’s probably as much pressure with what all transpired during that race,” Semke said. “Now we’re going in with a little bit of cushion, a little bit of a different mindset. We’re just hoping to go out there and have a clean day and not get on TV for doing something silly. That’s the plan, and hopefully we’re heading to Phoenix after this weekend.”
It’s easy to think that going to Martinsville ranked second instead of below the playoff bubble would lift some of the pressure of the pit crew’s shoulders. However, the team has seen countless times how a points lead can disappear in the matter of minutes. Luckily for Elliott, he has a stellar track record at Martinsville. The 25-year-old driver has finished outside of the top 10 only once in his last seven trips to “The Paperclip” and has posted one win, two runner-up results and four top-five finishes in that span.
“It’s nice to go back and have a little bit of a points lead going into it this year and not feeling like we have to win,” rear-tire changer Chad Avrit said. “So, a little less pressure but it’s almost the same. We’re excited. We always run well there. We have a good starting position; we have a great pit stall – we’re just excited to go. We just want to get through the race and make it to Phoenix. That’s where the magic happens.”
While the intensity of a must-win situation isn’t as prevalent this year, now the No. 9 crew will buckle down more than ever to defend its 2020 championship. The last time a Cup driver won back-to-back titles was more than 10 years ago when Jimmie Johnson took home the championship hardware from 2005 to 2010. With this unique pressure over the team, Semke said they are focused on remaining relaxed and fine-tuning their craft to turn out the smoothest pit stops this weekend.
“I think that’s how you perform the best; it’s by staying loose and calm and confident,” Semke said. “We’ve put together a string of some pretty good races and some good pit stops. I think we’re in a pretty good place with that, so I think the confidence that you carry through practice and previous races allows us to go out and play loose and tight and take a little pressure off our shoulders. You know it’s there, but you kind of embrace it.”
Avrit agreed with Semke and added that they have been in this position before, which is helping them even out any jitters. The consistent practices have allowed the No. 9 pit crew to be the third-fastest in the Cup Series with an average four-tire pit stop of 13.37 seconds in the playoffs.
“We have a championship team here and we thrive on victory,” Avrit said. “We’re doing everything we possibly can to stick together, working with each other and building the best product that we can.”
Sunday’s Round of 8 playoff race at Martinsville Speedway will begin at 2 p.m. ET and air on NBC.