CONCORD, N.C. – The grass of the gridiron and the pavement of pit road often have more in common than you might think. A clutch pit stop where positions are gained can produce the same momentum for a team as a crucial defensive stop does in football. Dax Hollifield has experience in both worlds.
"It’s very similar. I compare it to like third down," Hollifield said. "The adrenaline is pumping out there right before you are about to jump in front of a car. It is a high-pressure moment, but you’ve got to be relaxed and very focused as it is a very critical situation. The strong survive. The people that thrive in those situations usually turn out to be the best."
Hollifield is the latest athlete to transition from football to pit road. While he came to the organization following a decorated career at Virginia Tech University, his path to Hendrick Motorsports traces back to his father’s collegiate football playing days at Wake Forest University.
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Pit crew development coach Keith Flynn coached Dax’s dad Aubrey, a defensive lineman at Wake Forest. The two ran in the same coaching circles for a bit before losing touch until years later when Flynn happened to have a Virginia Tech game on television.
"I am watching all the games and this linebacker at Virginia Tech with the last name of Hollifield is playing," Flynn said. "I put two and two together and started watching him the last two to three years of his eligibility. I thought this guy could be a heck of a jackman. I reached out to him when he finished his career at Virginia Tech (University). At that point, he was pretty focused on the NFL and I let him know that if things don’t work out, feel free to give me a call. This could be a good plan B for you."
Hollifield starred at Shelby High School in North Carolina and attended Virginia Tech, where he ranks fourth on the all-time list of career tackles (355) at the school in Blacksburg, Virginia. He received the Charlotte Touchdown Club Defender of the Nation Award in 2022, which honors a defensive football player from one of the nation’s service academies and senior military colleges. Following his release from the Jacksonville Jaguars in the spring of 2023, he visited the campus of Hendrick Motorsports and came back for a mini-tryout that left an impression on the staff.
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"We tried him out – we have one-offs that we will try out – especially jackman, which is a big need in the sport right now," Evan Kureczka, the pit development manager at Hendrick Motorsports, said. "We felt like naturally he could be a good jackman and we jumped on the opportunity instead of waiting until the combine to potentially lose him to another team."
Flynn scouts the country looking for prospective pit crew athletes and the organization hosts an annual combine for recruits. The background of many pit crew members at Hendrick Motorsports ranges mostly from football to wrestling as well as various other sports played at the top collegiate level. Besides his athletic ability, Flynn liked the intangibles that Hollifield brought to the table.
"We knew that he was physically capable," Flynn said. "We could see his explosiveness, change of direction, strength, quickness and all those things are super important. We wanted to look to see what kind of fit he was going to be. How he would fit in with the rest of our guys and be a great teammate. That was evident after the first 20 minutes of talking to him.
"He was a leader on his team at Virginia Tech (University). He brings those same leadership abilities here. His ability to get along with his teammates from the oldest guy on the team to the guys underneath him and his eagerness to learn how to do pit stops and how to be a jackman. He is going to have a nice career at Hendrick Motorsports."
Less than a month after Hollifield came aboard, he was pitting a car at Daytona International Speedway in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. From there, he also pitted a truck in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series. Hollifield ended the season pitting the No. 53 Chevrolet of Emerling-Gase Motorsports in the Xfinity Series and the No. 12 Young’s Motorsports Chevrolet in the Truck Series at Phoenix Raceway.
"What you notice with Dax is that he is a quick learner," Kureczka said. "Dax breaks it down, learns it quicker and can move on to the next steps. He is picking it up at an accelerated pace compared to others."
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Honing his skills is a continuous process for the Shelby, North Carolina, native and not without its challenges.
"Coach Flynn says this all the time. Everybody grows up playing football in the backyard but nobody grows up pitting cars in their backyard," Hollifield said. "That jack can be a little fidgety at times. Learning your piece of equipment is key in this sport – the ins and outs of how it works."
Besides the ins and outs, there is a routine similar to that in football of how to go about preparing and practicing for the coming race and the season. As one of the newer members, Hollifield gets in some extra reps on Mondays. He gets his body stretched out and warmed up, practices (usually lasts about an hour or so), works out, gets any treatment needed and watches film before heading home. That is the daily process until heading out for the race weekend and Hollifield would not trade it for anything.
"It is such a rush being out at the track every weekend and being in the thick of competition," Hollifield said. "Every little detail matters. It’s a great environment."
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During the offseason, Hollifield has continued to get as many reps as he can to build up his experience as he furthers his development. That usually means handling the jack if one of the veterans wants to get some work in on the pit pad. Even in a short time, Flynn has seen plenty of progress and promise in his young pupil.
"He has had tremendous growth in all areas," Flynn said. "Most of his experience so far has been with the five-lug cars. He hasn’t pitted a Cup car as of yet. His ability to learn the pit stop on the (NASCAR CRAFTSMAN) Truck (Series) level and the (NASCAR) Xfinity (Series) level was impressive.
"We had to farm him out to some other teams on pit road where he was going with guys he didn’t practice with. He was the jackman going with changers he didn’t know and a driver he had never seen come into the box. That is a lot of unknowns and a lot of things to manage. Learning and putting that experience underneath his belt has been tremendous for him."
Hollifield comes into the 2024 season competing for a spot as a jackman on one of the crews fielded by Hendrick Motorsports. The organization’s pit department fields pit crews for multiple teams across the sport's three national series.
"I’d love to pit Cup," Hollifield said. "There's some guys ahead of me who have been here a little bit longer but I expect myself to compete for that position. I was on the Nos. 53 and 35 (with Emerling-Gase Motorsports) last year a lot, so I got to familiarize myself with them a lot. My goal is to pit all three series and hopefully get at least part-time on the Cup Series this year."