How college football players found another gear on Dale Jr.’s pit crew

CONCORD, N.C. — Rowdy Harrell has more rings than Liberace, enough to cover all of his fingers, both thumbs and a significant portion of his skin.

“I can’t wear them all at once, so I actually have all of them tattooed under here,” he said, thumping the very large chest beneath his black Hendrick Motorsports sweatshirt.

As for the actual rings? “They’re in a safe,” he said.

There are 10 in all, eight earned on college football fields from Tuscaloosa to Pasadena, bookended by an Alabama state championship ring from Hale County High and another much larger piece inscribed with “2014 Daytona 500 champions.”

“Yeah,” the former Crimson Tide linebacker said, shaking his head with a bit of disbelief. “It’s quite a unique collection.”

The same could be said for Harrell and his current teammates. The men who go over the wall to service Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevy on Sunday afternoons have a decidedly Saturday afternoon flavor. It’s a pit crew packed with veterans of top-shelf college football programs. Harrell, who won three national championships with Alabama, is the rear tire carrier, slinging around 75-pound wheels, making on-the-fly chassis adjustments to the car and serving as the de facto quarterback of the crew. The front tire carrier is Dustin Lineback, who won a pair of Conference USA rings as a linebacker at East Carolina, famously forcing a couple of turnovers as the Pirates upset archrival NC State and Russell Wilson in 2010. Serving as the center for the crew is jackman Nick Covey, responsible for lifting the 3,500-pound stock car off the concrete so his teammates can go to work. From 2005-09, he patrolled Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium as a linebacker, his potential largely unfulfilled thanks to five surgeries in four years.

“Now we’ve all been given something all athletes dream of, right?” Covey said. “We’ve been given a second chance. A chance to compete for championships. Just not maybe the championships we thought of when we were growing up.”

They’ve all played in some of the biggest games in their school’s history, arguably some of the biggest games in the history of the sport. Their task this weekend is every bit as large, as they will be on the final crew to execute the final pit stops of NASCAR’s undisputed biggest superstar. After Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Dale Jr. is retiring from full-time Cup Series racing.

“It will be an emotional time, I think, for everyone at Homestead, but the reality of it for Dale has really started to show up over the last few weeks, knowing the end is coming,” said Lineback, who grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, right smack in the heart of Earnhardt Country. “We all know how that feels. We’ve all gone through it before. We’ve all played our last football game. It’s a little scary, that moment when you realize that, ‘Man, this is really it.’ But I’d tell him there’s another chapter to come. I mean, there was for all of us.”

Yes, there was, because they all happened to come along at just the right time. It wasn’t so long ago, when Earnhardt’s legendary father was still alive and Junior’s career was just getting started, that NASCAR pit crews were still made up mechanics from around the race shop. The same guy who built engines or shaped sheet metal during the week might be tasked with leaping over the wall and changing tires during the weekend, regardless of how fat he might be or how many cigarettes he burned down on an hourly basis.

That started to change in the 1990s, and it changed at Hendrick Motorsports. Seeking an edge over the competition, Jeff Gordon’s visionary crew chief Ray Evernham brought in NASCAR’s first “pit crew coach,” former Stanford offensive guard Andy Papathanassiou. “Andy Papa” started running Gordon’s “Rainbow Warriors” crew through football-style workouts and drills behind the shop. Then he started mounting video cameras on a pole above the pit stall, recording every in-race stop and every rehearsal stop, so that the team could sit in a meeting room and do film study, exactly like he’d done at Stanford.

In the beginning, rival teams laughed at Gordon’s crew, including other teams on the Hendrick Motorsports campus. It only took a couple of seasons of Gordon whipping them all for the rest of the sport to start copying Papa’s football playbook.

A decade later, pit stops took their next giant evolutionary step. Once again, Hendrick Motorsports led the way. And once again, it was football that drew up the route.

“Hendrick Motorsports was looking for a developmental coach at the time, who had a professional experience background in athletics scouting, things like that,” explained Chris Burkey, head pit crew coach for Earnhardt’s teammates, Washington Huskies fan Kasey Kahne and Georgia Bulldogs devotee Chase Elliott. Burkey played wide receiver at Division II Wingate University, just down the road from Hendrick headquarters. When the race team called, the former college assistant coach was working as an NFL scouting assistant. The majority of that time was spent evaluating talent and helping run practices for then-Miami Dolphins head coach Nick Saban.

“I learned a lot of things from Coach Saban, not just from football aspect of it but how you become a leader, how you do things daily, how you run your operations, because he’s really hands-on,” Burkey said of the day-to-day work ethic we have come to know as The Process. “He’s got a direct way he likes do it. He’s very businesslike. … You know he’s all football. When it’s all football and he’s tough and he’s hard, but as long as you do your job and you have conviction about what you do he really he likes that kind of stuff.” Burkey took what he learned from Saban, as well as his other football experiences, and completely reconstructed how Hendrick Motorsports went about looking for pit crew talent. He worked the phones, calling on friends and former coworkers sprinkled throughout college football programs across the nation, asking for names and film of those great athletes who were just a little too small to draw any interest from the NFL. That’s how he learned about Harrell, a walk-on who’d earned his place on the nation’s best football team through sweat and pain. Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran was a friend of Burkey’s.

“Coach Saban called me into his office and Coach Cochran was there, too,” Harrell recalled of a day shortly after the Crimson Tide’s 2013 national title victory over Notre Dame. “Coach Saban said to me, ‘We’ve found a job opportunity for you, and I think you’d better take it.'”

When Burkey had harvested enough names and information, he reached out to those athletes and invited them to North Carolina. Most knew little if anything about auto racing and totally zero about the mechanics and engineering behind NASCAR machines. Burkey didn’t care about that. He was much more interested in the mechanics and engineering behind their physical abilities. He set up practice equipment, video cameras and stopwatches. He mailed out invitations and plane tickets and booked a block of rooms at a local extended stay motel. A few weeks later roughly 100 former college athletes showed up in Concord, North Carolina, and found themselves standing on a practice field at Hendrick Motorsports.

It looked and felt and just like a football talent combine. That was no accident.

“They test your strength, your athleticism, your height, weight and speed,” Lineback explained. “The same exact drills as the NFL combine they’ll put ’em through in the pit crew combine.”

After athleticism tests, it’s on to NASCAR’s version of blocking sleds and tackling dummies. There are practice pads to test hand-eye coordination. An air wrench is put in their hands to see how quickly they can hit five lugnut posts. (The best NASCAR tire changers can do it in less than one second.) They carry 75-pound tires around obstacles, sling 30-pound jacks around race cars and see how deftly they can handle a sloshing, 100-pound can of racing fuel.

After a week of evaluation, a handful are asked to stay. The others are sent home. Now there are 14 former FBS/FCS college football players going over the wall for Hendrick Motorsports race teams. Their teammates come from other collegiate sports, from hockey to baseball. Other NASCAR teams have recruited similar athletic talent, and as a result pit times have plummeted in recent years, from the 14-to-15 second range into the 10s.

“These guys that come from those backgrounds, they don’t know how to do something other than to work at it as hard as they possibly can,” said Darius Dewberry, Hendrick’s strength and conditioning coach.

“”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. 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.””

Rowdy Harrell

Georgia fans might recognize his name from his days on the roster in Athens as a linebacker. When Dawsonville native Elliott started driving for Hendrick, he was certainly excited to have a fellow Dawg in the shop. And in case you were wondering, yes, there is a ton of smack that goes back and forth between Dewberry and Harrell, especially with a Bama-Georgia SEC Championship potentially looming.

After trying to make pro rosters with no success, Dewberry was biding his time between the hedges on the Georgia grounds crew. Now he uses his UGA degree to break crewmen into a world he knew nothing about. When he arrived and found a weight room full of college athletes, it felt surprisingly familiar. Well, except for the bit about jumping over a concrete wall.

“We do a lot of work with the ladders. We have some many hurdles and small mini hurdles. We have bigger mini hurdles,” Dewberry said. “A lot of stuff similar to football and a lot of footwork from soccer drills. I kind of take a lot from soccer drills since they have the guys with quick feet.”

Burkey’s evaluation process has reached beyond Hendrick HQ to holding smaller combines on college campuses around the nation. That’s how he recruited Covey, who saw a posting on the locker room wall in Lincoln for a “NASCAR combine” and wowed Burkey at a showcase held in Omaha.

He never expected to be sitting in a film room 10 years after his days as a Cornhusker, certainly not breaking down a different kind of lateral footwork. Now the former linebacker is essentially a center. Instead of a snap, he twists the handle on his jack to drop Earnhardt’s machine to the ground with its fresh tires. Like a center, it must be timed out perfectly. Otherwise, it’s a busted play. In stock car racing, that means a car trying to take off without tires secured or a fuel nozzle still stuck in the rear quarter panel.

Over the last three seasons, the crew of former footballers has found itself empathizing with its driver in unexpected ways. First came the celebration of winning the 2014 Daytona 500, giving Rowdy a new ring barely a year after winning his final piece of jewelry at Alabama. Then came a series of concussions, sidelining Earnhardt twice and ultimately sending him into retirement earlier than expected.

The racer admits he’s been able to lean on his crew, emotionally and competitively. He has repeatedly said that he wishes he was as buttoned up on his end as they always are on theirs. When they haven’t been, he hasn’t had to say anything. His legendarily passionate fan base takes care of that.

“Junior Nation is brutal, man,” Harrell said, shaking his head. His first race at Talladega Superspeedway — not far from his hometown of Moundville, Alabama, and the capital city of Junior Nation — a loose wheel on his watch cost the team a victory. It’s been three years and he still hears about it. He calls them Junior fans the “Finebaum callers of NASCAR.”

“They’re asking, ‘Are you going get all the lug nuts on this time?'” Harrell jokes.

The truth is, deep down, Rowdy loves it. He once worried about filling the void left by no longer stepping onto the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Now he wonders what it will be like in 2018, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no longer behind the wheel.

“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,” he 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.”

Because, the walk-on-turned-grease monkey is quick to remind, it’s never going to be Nick Saban’s fault or Dale Jr.’s fault.

“No, it’s the grunts’ fault,” he replied, laughing. “And we’ll take it. We love it.”

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