Mike Neff · Wednesday February 20, 2013
The Daytona 500 will start off the NASCAR points race season this Sunday, and the cars from the Richard Childress Racing stable are heading into the event feeling rather confident after one of their own, Kevin Harvick, scored the first win of the season in the Sprint Unlimited. Sitting on the pit box for Paul Menard this Sunday will be Slugger Labbe. The veteran crew chief from Saco, Maine has been in Daytona’s Victory Lane before as a crew chief with Michael Waltrip; now, he’s looking to repeat the feat and bring his driver a maiden plate race triumph. Tuesday morning, he gave Frontstretch his views on how things have unfolded so far in Speedweeks, along with a little insight into the Battle at the Beach.
Mike Neff: Let’s start out with lessons learned from the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night. Your teammate won the race. While you weren’t in it, what did the organization learn about the car in its first official race?
Slugger Labbe: It was great for us to come out of the box with a victory in the Unlimited race. It gives us something to look at for notes and a place to start off for Wednesday’s practice. The biggest thing is the Sprint Unlimited is a night race and the 150s and the 500 are day races, so not a lot will apply but some will. Definitely we’ll be looking at it and analyzing it and make up a good plan on where to start Wednesday’s practice, so we’re looking forward to that. There were a couple of unknowns and questions that we had. We wondered how the car would drive and if they’d be really loose in traffic like they were at the test. We made some changes in anticipation of coming back to Daytona and it looks like we might have gone the wrong direction. We’ll just build on the notes that we got from Saturday night’s race and move forward.
Neff: In conjunction with that and the practice that you’ve had since we’ve been down here, I know they were mostly single-car runs in anticipation of qualifying, but have you seen anything with the tires and wear to tell us that tires are beginning to become a factor again at Daytona?
Labbe: I think they are. Daytona has been paved for a couple of years and I think it has begun to get its character back. In the Sprint Unlimited race, it seemed like after 15 laps, the cars weren’t making many aggressive moves like they were on fresher tires. I don’t know if that was tire related or the drivers just being patient, but it seems to me that tires are going to be important again where, in the last couple of races, we’ve been able to take two tires or gas only and I think we’re going to see people going back to getting four tires now just try to keep the best tires on the race car so that drivers can make the moves from the top to the bottom and the slingshot move. We haven’t seen that for a few years at Daytona and Talladega, but looking forward now, I think you’ll see the slingshot again where the driver goes from the top to the bottom and then gets back in front of the car they just passed. With that said, you need to have good tires on your car to pull that off so I think it will come into play again.
Neff: We have a new car with more downforce on the front and there are different characteristics with the body aerodynamics for the different manufacturers. Since you’ve been down here for the test, have you seen an increase or decrease in fuel mileage with the new Gen-6 car?
Labbe: Not really, to be honest with you. It is very similar to what we saw with past trends. I don’t see it being an advantage or disadvantage for anyone. If you had good mileage before you’ll get about the same and if you didn’t, you won’t.
Neff: It has been a little chilly since we came down for the Unlimited and qualifying. It is looking like it is going to be downright toasty by the time the Duels and especially the 500 roll around. Guys from the Unlimited were saying the air being warmer on race day will make them a bit tougher to handle. Do you think you have to expect to see the cars being more twitchy when you get to the big race with the higher temperatures?
Labbe: I believe it will. There were teams putting tape on the grills during the Unlimited because it was so cold out. That’s something we haven’t done in four or five years on a speedway race. We haven’t been able to get enough opening in the past and now we’re putting tape on them. Push drafting is no longer in play, so the cars don’t need as much emphasis on grill cooling as we have in the past. It is going to be in the high 70s this week here at Daytona, starting with Wednesday’s practice and handling is definitely going to come into play. When the sun is out downforce is down and when the sun is in, the downforce and grip levels are through the roof. It will definitely come into play.
Neff: You mentioned the grill openings and people adding tape to the grills Saturday night. Have you had the car out in any kind of a pack situation yet with the temperature up into the 70s to see what it is going to be like?
Labbe: At the test a couple of weeks ago, it was sort of hot but not in the 70s for sure. Wednesday is going to tell us a lot of different things and give us a lot of different scenarios to look at. Temperatures will be up and downforce and grip levels will be lower than we’ve ever seen with this new car.
Neff: You’re going into the Duels on Thursday with 45 cars that are attempting to make the 500. You know only two cars are going home. Will that allow you to be more aggressive in the Duel or do you still have to be conservative because if you wreck out you could be the first car and end up going home?
Labbe: I think most everyone feels comfortable about making the 500 but I think everyone will try their level best to try and do well in the Duels to get a good spot on pit road. The pit stalls at Daytona are really, really tiny. The better you finish in your 150, the better pit selection you’ll have. It is important to do really well in the 150 just to make your pitting easier during the 500.
Neff: One final question. I know you’re working with Gary Putnam and “Bono” Manion on the Modified that Kyle Larson is running at the Battle at the Beach Tuesday night. How easy is it to work with a driver who has so much God-given talent?
Labbe: It has been cool. Hopefully, he’ll get to showcase those talents here [Tuesday night] some more. If you’re a racecar driver, you have no fear and you just get in and go. He’d never been in a Modified before and unloaded fast here at Daytona. It seems weird to say that at Daytona with a Modified, but it is great to see all of these young kids here and the amount of talent in this garage. There are no Cup or Nationwide drivers here, it is just the young kids of our sport and it is great to look down and see the future racing tonight. It is going to be a great race and I’m looking forward to it.
Tuesday’s racing showcased more of Larson’s talent but ended up less successful than Labbe had hoped. Larson won his heat race and started on the outside of the front row for the feature. With the race winding down, he missed a shift on a restart and was run over by Woody Pitkat. The result was a flat tire late in the event which led to Manion and Putnam parking the car rather than risking further damage. Larson then grabbed a top-10 finish in the K&N feature which put a wrap on his Battle at the Beach.
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