Back in November 2017, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. pitted during his final full-time race on at Homestead-Miami Speedway, fans may have noticed that his pit crew looked a bit different than a normal pit crew.
It's not an ordinary pit crew, and they don't have backgrounds as mechanics or working for NASCAR teams. However, they do have sports backgrounds, and chances are college football fans have seen Earnhardt's pit crew members play on Saturdays in the past.
Rusty Harrell, the rear tire carrier, won three national championships as a linebacker at Alabama under Nick Saban. Dustin Lineback is the front tire carrier, and he won two Conference USA championships as a linebacker at East Carolina. Jackman Nick Covey played linebacker at Nebraska from 2005-09, before injuries derailed his career. He moved to JTG Daugherty Racing in 2018.
None of the three made it to the NFL, so they decided to become professionals at the highest level of another sport. It's unusual for a pit crew, but it's a trend that started with Hendrick Motorsports in the 1990s with Jeff Gordon.
An ESPN story from 2017 details how Gordon started the trend when his crew chief, Ray Evernham, brought in former Stanford offensive lineman Andy Papathanassiou to coach the pit crew. Andy Papa ran the pit crew through drills, and he taped their performances so they could break down the film like a college football team.
Gordon was initially made fun of for his pit crew having a coach, but it worked for him as he won four championships between 1995 and 2001.
Fast forward to 2017, when there were 14 former college football players employed by Hendrick Motorsports that work on pit crews.
Harrell compared the intensity of working for Junior to playing for Alabama, and he said the fan base for both is about the same and expects the most out of him.
"You've got Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans and you've got Alabama football fans and you've got a bunch of people who are both," Harrell said. "That's my group of people right there. That's my guys ... They want to know who it was that did something wrong and they'll blast you on social media."
The football pit crews have helped save valuable seconds for drivers for Hendrick Motorsports, and their strategy will likely be copied by other teams in the near future, given the success it's had in recent years.
This post was originally published on November 16, 2017.