Mike Neff · Wednesday February 13, 2013
Tony Gibson has been around the sport of stock car racing for a long time. He’s seen three or four generations of the race cars in the Cup Series and now, he prepares to climb aboard the pit box for one of the most well-known female drivers in the history of the sport, Danica Patrick. As he takes on that new role, he also has to take on the task of learning how the latest iteration of the Cup car will react to the subtle nuances that crew chiefs throw at it in an attempt to make it faster. Gibson took a break from all that complexity, plus preparing his team to head to Daytona to speak with Mike Neff about the challenges that teams are facing as they head to the World Center of Speed in this season’s first installment of Tech Talk.
Mike Neff: You went down to Daytona last month for the big test with the new car. How much did you learn and when you unloaded down there, were you in a 500 setup or were you testing specific things with the car?
Tony Gibson: We were pretty much in race mode. I know it sounds strange to say single-car runs, but we weren’t in any kind of qualifying mode. We were just trying to run and be as consistent as we could with our changes to just try and learn what this car wants to see to make single-car speed. What I mean by that is we leave the grills wide open; we don’t tape ‘em up, we don’t cool them down or do any of the things we’ll do for qualifying. We just try and keep the oil and water temps as consistent as we can from run to run while we’re down there so we can collect the data that we need. I felt like we learned a lot, although I’m sure everyone did with it being a brand new car and body, and we’ve got a lot more to learn for sure. A lot of things have changed since the Daytona test.
Obviously, with NASCAR the rules are changing as we go here. A lot of the body parts have changed from there to here. I felt like it was a very positive test and we learned a lot, but I know we’re not done learning for sure. Like I said, a lot of things have changed since the test. We’ll have to finish that up when we get down there, and run through a bunch more things. I’m sure, as the week and a half goes there will be more rule changes that will go on and we’ll just do our best to keep up with them.
Neff: You said some rules have changed since you were down there. What rules have changed since you were down there for the test?
Gibson: There has been some tweaking on some of the body parts. The deck lid, the waterfall that connects the spoiler to the deck lid has changed a little. There are a lot of rules that the average race fan won’t see, that are just mechanical parts and pieces and toes and cambers and things in the the rear end housing that NASCAR has given us that have opened some windows and closed some others. There is a laundry list of them. Most of them are small things but they add up to big things when you’re trying to get your cars buttoned up. I’d say most of it, probably 90%, is just changes that you can’t see, that are just differences in suspension parts and things like that.
Neff: They changed the grill opening last year to try and limit the amount of pushing and bump drafting. As we saw in the test, pushing is probably not going to be near as much of a factor as it was in the past. Is the grill opening going to be much of a factor this year?
Gibson: Well, the grill opening is always going to be a factor. We’re still limited on the opening and even though you aren’t pushing someone bumper-to-bumper, when you’re three and four-wide and in a pack of cars, unless you’re out in front, the air is really bad. The air around you is really hot and the air speed is slowed way down. There are pockets of air between the cars that are just stagnant. What air is there is really hot off of the exhaust and the cars that are around. You don’t have to be bump drafting for the grill opening to wreak havoc.
I think you’re still going to see the same deal of being very careful in these big packs in the middle with only half a car length off of a guy. You’ve still got that stagnant air that is going to make the cars overheat. You’ll still see some bumpdrafting… but it is going to be “bump” drafting. These new cars do not like to stay hooked together. The bumpers don’t line up like they did last year and with the new body configuration, these cars are like trucks. When you get close to the guy in front of you the pocket of air kind of pushes the car in front out almost like a slinky. It is really, really hard to stay attached with this new design of car.
You saw, from the test down there, the big pack deal is hairy. The bumpers don’t line up well and turning a guy around on the straightaway is not hard to do. You’re getting runs on guys that are extremely fast. You’re 10-15 car lengths behind a guy and you get a little bit of a shove and you’re suddenly running 10-15 mph faster than the guy in front of you and you don’t have anywhere to go because there is no hole. You end up bumping a guy or you try and squeeze into a hole in between some guys. That has changed a lot since last year. You’re going to see a lot more of that because the closing rate with these cars is a lot faster. It is going to create a little bit of havoc down there.
Neff: Last year, a couple of guys got dinged in tech because of a plug that had come out of a hose that allowed air to vacate out from under the car during qualifying. That was one of those rules that a lot of fans had never heard of. Are there many rules like that which only apply during qualifying at Daytona but are not enforced during the race?
Gibson: We have to run solid windows during qualifying. We can’t run any hoses or ducts going to any exterior window during qualifying. What happened to the 14 was just kind of a dumb mistake. Everyone was in race mode and then switched to qualifying. You have to take the hoses off of the windows and we put these plastic plugs in the hoses and tie-wrap them to the bars inside the car. That way, when qualifying is over, you cut the tie-wrap, stick it back to the window and you’re in race mode. What happened to them was they had the hoses tied up and when they went through the templates, they had to have someone get inside to push the rear window up to meet a template and when he did he laid on the hose and that caused the hose to distort. When they went out on the track, the plug popped out. It was going to a gear cooler, so it wasn’t going to anything working so it wasn’t doing anything anyway. It was just one of those deals but it is the rule, and it was not allowed, it was just a mistake that no one meant to happen. It was just a bad situation. That is the rule for qualifying. When you go to qualifying, all of the windows have to be solid with no hoses hooked to them. That is one of the biggest changes we have from race trim to qualifying trim.
Neff: We’re heading into the Sprint Unlimited this weekend. You guys aren’t in it, but I know everyone was down there testing different things, and since handling is making a comeback at Daytona, did anyone learn anything that will make a car faster or handle better in the short run that you wouldn’t want to use in the 500?
Gibson: I think some of the stuff is mechanical. The cambers are more open now, which might help short run stuff. NASCAR has changed the camber rules and opened the window some for our camber settings on the front end and the rear end housing. That will give the car some more grip so, I think, in a short race like that, you might see some guys pushing the limits on some camber stuff to maximize grip within the rules, but you won’t see them run it for 500 miles because of tire wear and tear on axles and drive plates. A lot of the suspension parts that we can run now are not proven.
We can’t say for sure that they’ll live for 500 miles because we don’t have enough testing on them yet. I think a lot of guys are going to back off on the max settings just to get their feet wet to see what will last and what won’t. For the Unlimited, I think you’ll see some of the guys push the limits on some of these pieces and parts. It is a big race to win, but you’re trying to learn for the 500, too. If you have some parts and pieces that you want to run for the 500, this is a prime opportunity to test them out and see if they’ll live. There will be a lot of guys who’ll max out the mechanical side of the rulebook that we’ve been dealt.
Neff: Do you know if the tires they used at the test will be used in the 500 or have they changed the compound?
Gibson: As far as I know, they are the same. In talking to Goodyear I have not heard of anything being tweaked or changed for the 500. So, as far as I know, that is the tire we’re running.
Neff: One last question. Your pit crew this year that will be pitting Danica Patrick in the No. 10, is it your old crew from the No. 39, a whole new crew or a combination of old and new guys?
Gibson: Actually, it is all guys that were working at Stewart-Haas last year that were pitting the No. 78 at the end of last year. That whole group of guys has moved over to the No. 10 team to pit Danica. The reason for that is that at least five of those guys work on the cars in the shop for our team. It makes more sense to take guys who work on the cars every day to be more connected to the cars when they get to the track. A lot of those guys I have worked with since the DEI days in the past. It pretty much just made sense to have those guys on the pit crew.
Tony Gibson will be in the spotlight this season, whether he wants to or not, just because of the shoe behind the wheel of his car. Some people think he’s under a lot of pressure while other people think he can’t succeed thanks to his driver. In reality, just like every other crew chief in the garage, they’re only as good as every single member on the team and it is making every cog in the machine work together that will determine how successful Gibson and Co. will be in 2013.
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