Over the past month of Sprint Cup Racing, Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) has been on quite a roll.
Jimmie Johnson delivered the company's 200th Sprint Cup win in Darlington on May 12, won the $1 million Sprint All-Star Challenge on May 19 and pulled into victory lane at Dover this past weekend. In between, HMS driver No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Sprint Showdown and driver No. 5 Kasey Kahne piloted his Chevy to victory in May 27's Coca Cola 600.
In the middle of it all was Warren-native Lance Munksgard.
Photo submitted to the Times Observer
Warren-native Lance Munksgard, pit crew coach for Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., holds the winner’s trophy after the No. 48 team won the annual Sprint All-Star Weekend Pit Crew Competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.
Munksgard is the pit crew coach for both the No. 48 of Johnson and the No. 88 of Earnhardt Jr. Together with HMS employee Greg Morin, Munksgard controls the pit crews of two of the top five drivers in the current Sprint Cup standings.
"Together, with Greg, we oversee every aspect of the no. 48 and no. 88 pit crews," said Munksgard. "We practice pit stops during the week in order to be at our absolute best on race day. Together with the road mechanics, we try to be prepared as possible for anything we may encounter on race day."
In Sprint Cup, the driver doesn't solely determine whether races are won or lost. In order to end the day in Victory Lane, the driver as well as all members of the team - including the pit crew - must perform with pinpoint precision.
Munksgard doesn't shy away from offering just how important the pit crew is to a driver's overall success.
"No matter how good the driver, we can take things out of the driver's hands pretty quickly," he said with a laugh.
While the average person may think the life of a NASCAR team member involves days, weeks or even months away from home, Munksgard says that an average week only calls for him to spend one or two days "out of town."
"Basically, my week starts on Sunday with race day," he said. "We fly out to the track between 3:30 and 4 a.m. and arrive there around 7 or 8 a.m. depending on where the race is being held. In the case of a night race or a West Coast event, we will often fly out on Saturday. We do our normal deal at the track and get home anywhere between 9 p.m. and midnight the day of the race.
"Monday morning we're back in the shop breaking down film and getting the team back in the swing of things. We spend Tuesday through Thursday working on the ins and outs of our pit stops and getting every detail nailed down to perfection. Friday and Saturday are typically our off days and we get back at it on race day."
The on-track - and in-pit- success seen by Munksgard's teams over the past month doesn't come along everyday. It's the type of "dream run" nobody can ever expect.
If you had told Munksgard a year ago, he'd be at HMS - or even still involved in racing - he may have not believed you.
Just nine short months ago - while working at Red Bull Racing with drivers Brian Vickers and Kahne - Munksgard was contemplating leaving the sport all together.
"Red Bull Racing announced fairly early in 2011 that they were closing up shop and leaving the sport," said Munksgard. "From the business side that could've been a bad move, but we had so many quality people at the organization that we wanted to stay onboard and show potential investors what we could do. Winning (with Kahne) at Phoenix in November of 2011 may be the most gratifying win of my career."
With Red Bull leaving NASCAR, Munksgard was facing an uncertain future in the sport. More than once, the fact of leaving NASCAR and falling back on his Sports Medicine and Athletic Training degrees crossed his mind.
"I was truly at a crossroads," said Munksgard who has also worked for Ultra Motorsports, MB2 Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing in a career that spans nearly a decade. "It came down to the simple decision - did I want to stay in racing or say 'that was fun' and leave it all behind?"
Munksgard chose the former.
"I had been doing this for about nine or 10 years and during that time, I had made a ton of contacts along pit road," he said. "During my last year at Red Bull, Hendrick was trying to recruit a lot of our top talent. I think they got to thinking they'd like to have a look at the guy who was helping to produce these talents. That got me through the door and I've been running with it ever since."
Not only has he been running with it - he's been running up front.
In his first nine years in Sprint (formerly Winston and Nextel) Cup, Munksgard was part of three Sprint Cup victories. In the past four weeks, the Warren-native has doubled that total.
"The win at Darlington was a huge accomplishment for Mr. Hendrick and the company," said Munksgard. "To get that 200th win was just a huge sigh of relief. We got that off our backs and you can see how dangerous we can be when the pressure is off a little bit. It's been an incredible run."
A run that Munksgard hopes to see continue this weekend on the resurfaced venue at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.
The victories haven't been confined to sanctioned Sprint Cup races. During all-star week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Munksgard and his No. 48 crew won the annual Pit Crew Challenge. The victory gives the Lowe's team garage area bragging rights for the next year, but also holds a special place in Munksgard's heart.
"I've been in the competition every year since its inception and had never been able to win. We finished third a couple of times, but always fell just short. This year we were able to break through for the win and it's an extremely special thing.
"This is the best team I've ever had the chance to be a part of. Just coaching these guys and watching how far they've come in a short period of time is very rewarding. They've become a very tight knit group and it was fun to see them win because they've worked so hard - together."
It's something that will stick with Munksgard for the long haul.
"We won it," he said. "They can never take that away from us."
With the recent performances of HMS and the long-term success of its drivers Johnson, Kahne, Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon (together they've won 173 Sprint Cup races and nine Sprint Cup championships), the future is looking brighter than ever for Munksgard.
Not bad for a guy who's future was cloudier than ever less than a season ago.
"Working for (HMS) has been a dream come true," said Munksgard. "I know from watching them from the outside the last several years how strong they are. They are the best and what everybody strives to be. It's been a great challenge and I've really enjoyed the opportunity.
"The type of things that have happened this season are the type of things you can only dream of in racing. These are memories that can never be taken away."