Warren-native Munksgard pit crew coach for Sprint Cup champ

Lance Munksgard had a chance to reflect on the plane ride home to Mooresville, N.C., from Homestead, Fla., where Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team had won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

It was Johnson’s sixth Chase championship in eight years Sunday, to stake his claim as one of the most dominant competitors in sports history.

As Hendrick Motorsports pit crew coach for both Johnson’s No. 48 and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s No. 88 teams, it was the first time Munksgard was part of a Sprint Cup title.

He couldn’t help but think about his dirt track days, with Warren’s Dutch Davies, at Stateline Speedway.

“I think of Warren all the time,” said Munksgard. “Obviously I miss the Munksgard family. There’s no better place to grow up than Warren, Pa.”

“I see Lance on TV! I see Lance on TV! Well done, my man… making Warren proud! CONGRATS! Live it up and soak it in…,” was a Facebook post in which Lance responded with: “Proud to say I’m from Warren where the hard work started!”

Munksgard’s team celebrated at a crowded Miami night club Sunday night.

After 38 weekends of travel led to the Sprint Cup title, “I would have been happy with a couple of beers at the Moose (Club, in Warren),” said Munksgard.

He might get that chance, as Lance is coming home for the holidays with his wife, Haley, and two boys, Colton and Ledger. Warren was where the dream began, then Lance followed his twin brother Scott to Mooresville, N.C., for pit crew training at Pit Crew U.

“He’s the one that helped get me here,” said Lance of Scott, who no longer works in NASCAR. Lance said Scott still does some shock work on the side for NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek, but “he really wanted to get off the road” for his family.

“There are a lot of guys good at what they do, but don’t have the opportunity (to win a Sprint Cup title),” said Lance. “I wish he had that opportunity, but I’m glad he had the courage to step out of the series. Unfortunately, there’s never a good time to do it. He worked really hard for 12 years (in NASCAR) and has all the ability to be one of the top guys. Take Mark Martin (a five time runner-up for a NASCAR championship), it doesn’t change how well he’s done it (because he hasn’t won a title) and how professional he’s been, and I think that’s the same with my brother.”

It wasn’t long ago that Lance was considering spending less time traveling.

Red Bull Racing had announced in 2011 it was leaving the sport, and Munksgard was facing an uncertain future.

“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 over 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?”

In his first nine years in Sprint Cup racing (formerly Winston and Nextel), Munksgard was part of three Sprint Cup race victories. Now he’s part of a Sprint Cup series championship.

“It really hasn’t set in as much as it will,” said Munksgard, who combines his athletic training/sports medicine schooling with his mechanical aptitude he gets from his brother and the Munksgard family.

“I’ve also been in it long enough to be confident in what I could do for (Hendrick Motorsport’s),” he said. “Just about everything I’ve wanted so far in my career, I’ve gotten. Everything has flowed really well, and I’ve been blessed to be in the right place at the right time.”

Munksgard said, like probably everyone else, the first time he watched a pit crew work, “you’re just in awe of it.”

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, and speed.

“No matter how good the driver, we can take things out of the driver’s hands pretty quickly,” he said.

Two years ago, Munksgard said the No. 48 pit crew had inconsistencies. And when you work for the New York Yankees of NASCAR in Hendrick Motorsports, and an intense crew chief like Chad Knaus, inconsistency as bad a word as there is.

“A lot of the guys played pretty scared,” said Munksgard. “We had to find guys that were able to not be worried about that, and (Chad Knaus), he even yells at me.

“We found some good guys, young and talented, and worked through a lot of stuff last year,” said Munksgard. “We added a couple backups that pushed our starters. Last year to this year, we’ve improved our consistency and we’ve got more speed.

“You always want to think what you are doing, you are doing well,” said Lance. “Chad and (No. 88 crew chief) Stevie (Letarte) are really happy with what we were able to do. The philosophy we had going in was to try to simplify things… everything, media-wise, camera-wise, with the crew chiefs…

“Coming from a mechanical background and sports medicine background, it’s not only about the focus on physical abilities, but so much pit crew coaching is not human-based. (Scenarios with the track and car) change from week-to-week.”

On Monday of last week, according to an article at ESPN.com, No. 48 pit crew coaches Greg Morin and Munksgard went through video of each of the pit stops from the previous race at Phoenix. They broke down each stop by position and time. Every fraction of a second lost or gained was recorded and shared with the crew. Then each stop was projected onto a screen on one end of the room. There were angles shot from a small camera mounted on a pole that hangs directly over the pit stall, and there were shots from lipstick cameras mounted on the crewmen’s helmets.

Hendrick goes over and over scenarios that have happened, and scenarios that could happen.

The fact Hendrick doesn’t settle for anything but a Sprint Cup championship, “it absolutely pushed me to be better,” said Munksgard. “It trickles down from the very top.”

As proud as Munksgard is of the Sprint Cup championship for the No. 48 team, his No 88 pit crew was named “Pit Crew of the Year” in a vote of crew chiefs.

“I kind of think of (Hendrick Motorsports) like the Yankees,” said Munksgard. “They go into this for one thing – to win races and to win championships. Obviously, it’s a great place to be a part of. A lot of other teams in the past, you were happy to finish (top whatever). 48 and 88, they expect to win every week. It was definitely a place I wanted to go.”

“Congratulations Lance and Team 48! Next year let’s make it Team 88!!,” former Warren Area High School classmate Cathy Shanshala Stout said to Munksgard on Facebook.

Another awesome post:

“Just watched Lance Munksgard on SportsCenter. Nice!”