Vickers' crew takes Sprint Pit Crew Challenge

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Metcalf just missed out on the start of Appalachian State's run of three straight national championships in football.

He was just the kind of hungry athlete Red Bull Racing wanted.

Metcalf, a former fullback for the Mountaineers, was the catch-can man for driver Brian Vickers' athletic team that won Thursday's Sprint Pit Crew Challenge by edging Denny Hamlin's team in an all-Toyota final round.

Metcalf, and former hockey players Brian Haaland (front tire changer) and Shaun Peet (jackman) were part of the seven-man team that changed four tires, filled the car with fuel and pushed it 40 yards in 22.902 seconds to collect the $70,000 first prize.

"I finished up one year short," Metcalf said of Appalachian State's dominant run in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision, "so it feels good to win a championship."

Vickers' team just edged Hamlin's team, which crossed the line in 23.011 seconds, giving Vickers his choice of pit boxes for Saturday's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

But with Vickers without an automatic spot in the race, that will only happen if he first qualifies to get in.

"We're pretty confident our driver will get us into that deal," Peet said while smiling at Vickers, who was sitting in the crowd of reporters. "All the pressure is on him."

In keeping with the trend to recruit athletes for its pit teams, Vickers' crew includes its share of college athletes. But Peet and pit crew coach Greg Miller are picky.

"We told all these kids we don't want the guy who had the most receptions or stole the most bases," Miller said. "We want the kid we got, that was the kid who walked on, who stayed four years, who put on the hard hat. When push comes to shove, their character speaks for itself."

Metcalf, who suffered two knee injuries at Appalachian, fits that role. He passed on applying for a medical redshirt that would have allowed him to play in 2005, when the Mountaineers won their first title.

"I'm still kicking myself for not doing that," Metcalf said. "But the transition was smooth."

The rest of the team includes gas man Doug Newell, front tire carrier Aaron Schields, rear tire changer Danny Kincaid and rear tire carrier Jake Brzozowski. They train constantly, and rarely come to the race shop, part of the new wave of pit crew teams.

"The athleticism is ramping up on pit road," said Peet, who played minor league hockey. "You're going to see ex-NFLers, ex-college athletes getting into this thing."

The event also included individual prizes of $10,000 each to crew members for completing their tasks the fastest in the early rounds.

Caleb Hurd, Jeff Gordon's gas man and a former holder on the Virginia Tech football team, combined with catch-can man Jamie Frady to shatter the competition record by filling 18 gallons in 10.031 seconds.

Kasey Kahne's jackman, Eric Wilson, set a record by lifting both sides of the car in 5.431 seconds. Other winners included Nick Odell and Brad Donaghy, front tire changer and carrier for points leader Kyle Busch, and Dave Smith and Jason Binger, rear tire changer and carrier for Matt Kenseth.

The team competition included 24 crews, with the top eight in the Sprint Cup standings getting a bye into the second round. Teams faced each other in head-to-head, single-elimination stops.

It was far from what you see during a race.

There were eight unmarked cars on each side of the arena floor. Teams changed tires on two cars, filled the gas tank on another and a jackman lifted the fourth car.

The jackman then ran to the team's regular car, which was lined up next to their competitor's car. He pushed the car -- often with team's driver inside -- to the finish line in a simulated pit lane. The rest of the crew joined in as they finished their tasks, and the first car to reach the finish line 40 yards away was the winner.

Teams received time penalties for infractions ranging from loose lug nuts to spilled gas. A 5-second penalty on Kahne's team for spilling gas knocked the crew out in the first round. Kahne's crew won the inaugural event in 2005 and finished second a year later.

Ryan Newman's crew, the 2007 champion, was knocked out in the second round by Carl Edwards' team.

Busch, the resident villain of the sport for his success and his wreck that ended popular Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s chances at Richmond earlier this month, reached the semifinals before his team lost to Hamlin's crew.

Hamlin's solid showing came a year to the day after three crew members were replaced and two other were given new jobs in response to Hamlin's criticism following a mistake during a late pit stop.

But they couldn't stop Vickers' team, which first sprayed themselves with their sponsor product, Red Bull, before switching to champagne. Nobody seemed to mind it left a sticky, smelly aftermath.

"We're just one big family," Miller said. "We're together so much if you don't have character first, you can't deal with each other. ... I've got to say it, I love this group up here."