Hendrick wins class in Le Mans pit crew competition

AP Auto Racing Writer

LE MANS, France (AP) – NASCAR scored a victory at Le Mans on Tuesday when the Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit crew competition.

NASCAR‘s “Garage 56” is entered in the 24 Hours of Le Mans but not eligible to win the twice-round-the-clock race because the No. 24 Chevrolet is competing in a specialized category.

But the five-person Hendrick team was eligible to win the pit crew competition and it topped 16 teams to capture the GTE class. HMS was the only team to compete with a manual jack.

The Hendrick crew pulled off a final four-tire change in 10.364 seconds to beat Northwest AMR by 0.12 seconds to win the class. Hendrick finished fifth overall.

“It was actually our fastest stop of the day, so I would say I was surprised, but also very pleased,” said Hendrick pit crew coach Evan Kureczka. ”You can tell the fans were very impressed with the fact that we were using a jack to jack the car up. You could see the smiles on their faces, we put on a great show for the fans.”

The Hendrick crew all compete for Hendrick cars in NASCAR‘s Cup Series.

“This is a special moment to be able to represent Hendrick Motorsports, represent our families, America and NASCAR as a whole,” said Donovan Williams, the only jackman competing in the competition. “We just relied on our training and it came into place instinctively. I think we all just went out there and performed and didn’t think too much.

“That’s what’s special about sports – we all come from athletic backgrounds and were able to lean on that when you talk about canceling out the crowd, locking in and being in the moment. It was a special moment and we were able to capitalize.”

Garage 56 is a special project approved to participate in the centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car is a version of the second-year Next Gen raced in the Cup Series, and the project is between NASCAR, Chevrolet, Hendrick and Goodyear – marrying the winningest team, manufacturer and tire in NASCAR‘s 75-year history.

The NASCAR brigade began arriving in full force on Tuesday, when NASCAR chairman Jim France, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi all made the journey from the United States. It’s an unprecedented collaboration and brought together many top industry minds.

Chad Knaus, who won seven championships with Jimmie Johnson, is spearheading the project alongside Greg Ives, who at the end of last season stepped down as a Cup crew chief for a projects role at Hendrick.

Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon is expected to arrive in France on Wednesday, when action resumes at the raceway. The No. 24 is being driven by Johnson, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller, the 2010 Le Mans winner.

Even though Garage 56 can’t win the race, the participants are racing Saturday into Sunday for pride and to showcase the skills required to build a program and developing a car capable of completing the 24 hours of Le Mans.

So the effort is, of course, at top level with heavy professionalism and also a very splashy presence. The amount of people associated with the project makes the NASCAR garage stall – it’s all the way at the end of pit road – a gathering place. The bright blue Chevy was on display Tuesday outside the garage and other drivers stopped to take a look.