CONCORD, N.C. – The athletic aspect of a NASCAR team extends beyond the driver inside the car. The pit crew is a team of athletes focused on speed and accuracy.
The leader of the Nos. 5 and 24 pit crews is head coach Chris Burkey.
Burkey has an extensive background in coaching, especially in football. He coached college football from 1992 to 2005. In 2005, he joined the Miami Dolphins as a scout.
In 2009, Burkey made the transition from football to NASCAR when he was hired as a developmental pit crew coach for Hendrick Motorsports. He moved up to the head coach position for Nos. 5 and 24 teams in 2014.
Below are five things to help you get to know Burkey and his job:
1) As the head coach, Burkey travels to every race of the season with the team. He splits his time at the track between the Nos. 5 and 24 teams.
“I am with the No. 24 team for two weeks and I go to the No. 5 team for two weeks,” Burkey said. “Now, if we are really close, within walking distance -- four or five pit stalls -- I will just walk back and forth.”
Burkey is in communication with the crew chief and his team throughout the race.
“I am on a digital headset so I can hear exactly what is going on with the crew chiefs,” he said. “Typically, if things go well there is not a whole lot of communication, but when something goes bad, he wants to know what happened.”
2) When evaluating a pit stop, Burkey looks at the rhythm and synchronization of the stop.
“Collectively as a group, the timing aspect of a pit stop is key” Burkey said. “To me, if I can visually look at it and listen to it, everybody being in sync is kind of like an offensive play -- when everything works exactly right, it’s a big play.”
On the other hand, when a pit stop is out of sync, the play can cost the team greatly. Burkey shared a football analogy to explain the importance of accuracy during a pit stop.
“A pit crew’s miss is almost like an NFL kicker's miss," Burkey explained. "He’s got to miss by inches, he can’t miss by feet, otherwise he probably won’t kick next week. His misses have to be so marginal where you just don’t quite know if he missed it or hit it. That is the way our world is, if you run an 11 flat versus an 11.3, you might get beaten off pit road by three teams.”
3) Burkey chooses what plays to run during practice based on what is most likely to happen during the upcoming race.
“On a normal week, I try to look back on what we did there previously and talk to the crew chief to get his strategy,” Burkey said. “So, we can kind of get a general idea and the team can get the flow of how it might go for the day.”
The majority of the racetracks have a similar pit road setup. However, Watkins Glen’s unique setup creates an additional challenge for the pit crew.
“Watkins Glen is backwards for us, so we transition out about two weeks prior to Watkins Glen because it is different,” Burkey shared.
4) The most challenging part of Burkey’s position is keeping his teams sharp throughout the long season.
“I think keeping the guys sharp throughout this 11-month period is the hardest part, because you don’t want to wear them out, but you want to keep them mentally fresh,” Burkey shared. “I think that’s the hardest part of this job because the pressure is immense on these guys all the time.”
5) Burkey finds satisfaction in seeing the growth and development of his athletes when they perform at a high level.
“For me, I think it’s just going over the wall seeing everybody step up together, come down and have a little bit of emotion about beating people off pit road,” Burkey shared. “And then watching these guys grow, because the majority of these guys come from a sport that they were really good at and they come in to an arena that they have never done before and become very successful at this.”