Mike Neff · Wednesday February 27, 2013
Phoenix International Raceway has been a challenging place for Jeff Gordon during his 20-year career. It was where he was able to break through and end a winless drought nearly two years in the making, back in 2011 and where he scored win No. 76, tying Dale Earnhardt in career victories in 2007. Now, the track will pose a different type of challenge for Gordon and others, hosting the first race for the new Generation-6 Cup car with an unrestricted engine. The series heads to the desert Southwest with so many unanswered questions surrounding how the new chassis will handle on those types of speedways. Frontstretch got a few minutes with Alan Gustafson, Gordon’s crew chief to talk about the challenges faced by teams heading into the race, along with a quick look back at Daytona.
Mike Neff: Jeff had an issue with debris on his grill which caused him to get a little hot and push out some water. We never saw you add water to the car during the race. Did you spend any extra time on the pit lane to add water?
Alan Gustafson: No, we never lost enough water to where we were extremely concerned that we had an issue. We chose not to stop and put any water in it. I don’t think we had any negative effects on motor performance. The motor ran great all day. The trash wasn’t optimal but I don’t think it really cost us too much.
Neff: You’re in some very tight boxes with the rules. Is it possible to configure a fan to blow forward, out of the grill, to alleviate a problem like that instead of having to try and get behind someone?
Gustafson: We’ve looked at things like that but it is just so tough to overcome the force that is generated by the car going 200 mph. You get behind another car and the force is reduced but it is still difficult to get the debris off. To blow through the radiators, by the time you blow through it, the radiators are so thick that by the time you blow air through there it won’t have enough velocity to knock anything off. We’ve looked at it but we have not been able to do anything successfully. Getting behind someone, as you saw on TV, we got behind the pace car and BOOM, it was gone. That is really a negative for the leader. It has become quite a negative over the last five or six years at a lot of tracks, the leader acts like a snow plow and picks up all of the trash.
Neff: On to Phoenix, they repaved the track last year and altered the layout a little bit. Has that made it easier to set up the car because you have that little bit of extra space in the dog leg?
Gustafson: I don’t think so. It has changed the track and when you repave any track like that, the change in configuration isn’t extremely different. It is kind of dramatic with the dogleg like that but it doesn’t really affect the handling. It has opened up the exit off of two a little bit which makes that a little less difficult from where that used to be. I don’t think the change has done as much as just the repave and the tire it has necessitated us to be on. Goodyear is going to change the tire and soften it back up a little bit which I am excited about. The old Phoenix was abrasive and wore your tires out so you had to set up for the long run and you had to be good for a number of laps which made tires important. The new Phoenix just hasn’t been like that since the repave. Tires haven’t been that important and the tires haven’t fallen off nearly as much as they used to. I’m hoping the softer tire and the Phoenix weather has aged the track a little bit so that tire wear will be a little more significant a factor than it has been.
Neff: You tested at Phoenix with the new car. Did you get a substantial set of notes? They have tweaked the rules some since you were out there but do you feel like you have a good setup to work with when you get to the track?
Gustafson: There are a lot of unknowns heading out to Phoenix. Probably the most that I can ever remember. Not only is it the new car but NASCAR has implemented a lot of new rules and we’ll have a new tire. It is going to be difficult, to say the least (laughs). It is one of those deals. I’m not sure what to expect and we’re trying to prepare for everything possible so that we’re able to adapt. That is the key; no one has a great feel for what target we’re shooting for yet. We’ve got to get there and get the cars on the track and I think the key will be able to adapt to whatever characteristics we are dealing with.
Neff: They’ve said there is more downforce on the front of this car and that it has more mechanical grip in the front than it used to. With Phoenix being so flat, will that be more pronounced and have an even more profound effect on the cars than even at a mile-and-a-half track with more banking?
Gustafson: I think it is going to be a fairly significant impact at Phoenix and most every track that we go to. Phoenix was pretty fast with the repave. We have the aerodynamic gains and then the gains from the reduction in weight and the increase in rear camber. I expect the lap times to be significantly faster than they have been in the past. I expect qualifying to be a track record and I think you are going to see that, if we continue with this rules package, I think we’ll see that quite often.
Neff: You mentioned the rear end geometry, that was where my next question is going. I know it didn’t really come into play at Daytona because it is such a big, wide, sweeping track. When we get to Phoenix and turning is so important, especially in turns one and two, are guys going to be pushing that rear end geometry to the limits or are they still going to wait and feel that out more gradually to see how that works?
Gustafson: I think NASCAR upping the rear camber to 3.5 inches from 2.0 inches has us all knowing that it is available grip and we want to try and exploit it. The thing that is the unknown is that hasn’t been run at a lot of these tracks. We don’t know what the handling implications of that are. It is not going to be consistent from wall-to-wall through the whole corner. It is going to vary with different loadings, banking and acceleration. We all want to use that camber as much as we can but everyone is going to have to work on balancing it out. That is going to be one of the key things that you’ll see everyone starting to work on at Phoenix.
Neff: You’ve done some testing in addition to the races at Daytona, is it more or less sensitive to minor changes than the fifth generation car was?
Gustafson: It is hard to say. I wouldn’t say there is a significant difference there. When you get your car just about perfect and you’re right on that fine line, then cars become extremely sensitive to adjustments. If you’re off a little bit and you’re suffering from extreme tight or extreme loose or some variation throughout the corner, it seems like you can adjust the car 10 rounds or do whatever you want to do and it doesn’t seem to make much of difference (laughs). I think it will be the same. When you get the car really good and the balance is really neutral, small adjustments will make significant differences.
Neff: Jeff made no bones about the fact that the CoT was not his favorite car. Since you’ve worked on this new car with him and have gone testing a few places, does he feel like this car will fit his style a little better than the last generation of car?
Gustafson: I think it is tough to say. Jeff is extremely good at adapting and has won in every configuration of car that he’s been in since he came into the sport and I think he’s going to be able to do that. I think if we can get this car to drive to his liking then I think he’ll be able to exploit it and we’ll be able to win some races. It is hard to say, I don’t really have enough information to make a determination as to where we are with this car as a team or where Jeff is with it as a driver right now. It is just such a small sample set right now that it is just too difficult to draw any conclusions.
Gordon has won at Phoenix twice in his career. Last season, he left the track with a torn up race car and a good dose of anger for Clint Bowyer. With all of the new factors that will come into play this weekend, his performance remains unpredictable; he could be one of the cars to beat or he could be out to lunch. Gustafson is hoping that they have a good canvas to start with and plans on making another run towards a win in the desert.
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