Mike Neff · Thursday June 13, 2013
Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion has been on the top of a Cup box since 2003 and full-time since 2006. During his 261 races at the helm of race teams, he’s seen quite a few changes. This year he is seeing the realization of the shake-up of the competition department at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates that took place at the end of 2011. It has taken some time but the two cars in the stable are both showing signs of getting back to winning form and Manion’s decisions on the No. 1 pit box are a significant part of that.
The two races leading into Pocono were not good for Manion’s squad, having a loose oil line at Charlotte and losing all of the water at Dover. This past weekend was hardly a potential win but it was a small victory for the team as they finished the race on the lead lap and they were moving forward when the checkered flag flew. This week Manion spent a little time with Frontstretch to talk about tires, paint schemes and old school spoiler dropping.
Mike Neff: Let’s start by talking Pocono. It seemed like y’all were kind of stuck at the beginning of the race but were making ground when you got to the end of the race. What was your take on your Pocono weekend?
Kevin “Bono” Manion: Yeah, we loaded up the truck pretty happy. It seemed like a few cars got quite a bit faster while we never really found the total true speed we needed for the weekend, but we did think we had a pretty good balance. Throughout the race we started — with the weather change — just a little bit too free and couldn’t make up any ground, so we just kind of rode there for a while. We were getting good mileage and we were on schedule there, because it always turns into a fuel mileage race, and we were looking good towards the end because we were one of the few cars who could make it. We finally got the car tightened up enough to where he could hold his own, make a few passes early on and be pretty aggressive, but the weekend was just okay.
We’ve definitely had better weekends for sure. To come home 13th, we’re by no means happy, but it is the first time we’ve finished on the lead lap in three weeks so we’re taking that as a victory this week. We’ve had some unfortunate last couple of races with losing an oil line at Charlotte running in the top 10 and then losing all the water at Dover running in the top 10. That was a couple of tough weeks so just to get a decent finish and get back on our feet again was a good solid day but the finish was off for sure a little bit.
Neff: True, you have to take whatever little victories you can because small steps lead to big gains. We’ve heard from many readers on our site in recent weeks and months, and especially this week, that they’re tired of tires that don’t wear out. I don’t think anyone would have had anything for Jimmie Johnson at Pocono but do you think, had we had tires that would have given up some grip, we’d have had a better race than we did?
Manion: That is always a debate for sure. I think you’re spot on with Jimmie Johnson. I think the 5 car might have had something for him but he had some sort of driveline issue early on and had to go behind the wall. That 48 car was just ridiculously fast. They obviously had a package they unloaded with that was just really fast. The tires, had they worn out there for sure, I think, there were a lot of cautions at the end of the race and y’know what, we never came in because tires didn’t mean anything. Sure, if tires meant something like they have, I keep thinking back to California and what a good race it was when tires meant something, if they could get these new paves, and I think Michigan is in the same boat, to weather a little bit, so that they can ease off of the tire — they’re stuck.
Safety is number one and we don’t need to be hurting drivers, fans and people by making a tire that is too soft and can potentially fail. We do need to pave these tracks because promoters have to keep up with the pavement, drainage, and soft walls, so you’re always going to have that product. But once the track becomes seasoned and gets its bumps back and that character comes back, it will be the unique Pocono again.
Neff: One more question that I’ve thought of for a while. It came to mind when I thought about you guys running at Pocono. EGR has a variety of sponsors so you end up with different paint schemes quite frequently. How much does that mess with your team as you’re preparing for the week? Do you have to remind your team what paint scheme to look for coming down the pit lane?
Manion: It is definitely a spotter’s nightmare, a crew chief’s nightmare and a pit crew’s nightmare, but one of the biggest challenges we face is coordination between the paint shop and the decal shop. Only one time that I can recall in the last three years we actually painted the car the wrong color. It came out and I was like ‘Uh-oh’. The paint shop is the one that really has to burn the midnight oil to get the cars turned around and painted. Just from where I am sitting right now I see black, red, white and the orange car from last week. It is kind of unique with sponsorship these days but we have a lot of great partners and that is what pays the bills so that is one thing we don’t mind doing. We paint them every week because money’s green.
Neff: OK, we’re heading to Michigan which was recently repaved and we know the groove is most likely going to be around the bottom. With this new car, are you trying to get the spoiler out of the air just because there is so much downforce on the car, and on the front of the car in particular?
Manion: That is a great question. That is a big ass spoiler on the back of these cars. This car definitely likes to be traveled. Michigan is definitely a track that is really fast so you need a big motor. You need a good combination of a low drag, high downforce car. I think, like Pocono, you’ll see a Michigan car that is really low in the back. I think it is cool when they squat down because it reminds me of the old Daytona and Talladega cars when there was no spring rule. You do everything you can to get the back down but you still have to handle. When the back goes down the front wants to come up. There is a fair trade off for sure on the car attitude. I can’t speak for the other manufacturers but I can speak for our team and what our driver likes to feel. There is a certain attitude that we shoot for and that is what we go with.
Neff: Michigan, like Pocono, tends to lend itself to fuel mileage races. Before you leave your shop do you know what kind of fuel mileage you’re going to get or do you have to make a run early in practice and calculate it from there?
Manion: We definitely know. The folks at Hendrick send out a fairly elaborate sheet with weather and different specs and past mileage. What comes in the most handy is we’ve already raced a handful of times this year of those types of tracks so we know the average kind of fuel mileage we get. We have a good idea going in what our mileage will be and then that particular weekend we’ll make our fuel mileage runs, while the weather might make a small difference in the hand you play, but we have a really close guesstimation on what we’re really going to have.
That is all well and good but when that caution comes out, are you remotely close to your window and that is what seems to play out the most? You need to have your windows circled and how early can you come.
Neff: Are we getting the same tire that we had the last time we were at Michigan?
Manion: We are getting the Fall tire back that we ran at Michigan last year so the answer to your question is yes. In the Spring we ran a different tire in practice and qualifying and then ran a different tire in the race as you may recall they changed it. So the Fall race for 2012 and the Spring of 2013 will be the same tire.
Neff: I think I know the answer to this already but I’ll ask it anyway. Due to the fact that we have a groove, maybe a groove and a half, is this going to be a track position race vs. a new tire race?
Manion: I don’t know. I heard you say groove, groove and a half. This track has a full season on it now and we have a new car so I don’t know what we’re going to expect. Michigan has always been known for its wide racing. I agree with you that the groove will potentially be on the low side, but these races do get wide and when you get the different support series running and different guys move up an inch here and an inch there you never know. We’ll wait and see what we have when we get there.
Track position is key at every track we go to, fuel mileage is key at every track we go to, strategy is key at every track we go to. Qualifying well is going to be important. I looked at the weather and it looks like we have a slim to no chance of rain so that will be good. We’ll get qualified well and, what I would say about Michigan, to answer your question in a roundabout way, Michigan’s race is somewhat predictable because of the tires not falling off so you pit basically when you need gas and when you get in your window you can pit without losing a lap so yeah, track position will be key.
Neff: There are a lot of different job descriptions that go into the whole team at the track. Do you have someone on the pit box whose job duties include being focused on the weather so that you know when foul weather is coming?
Manion: Absolutely, we have Lauren, our eyes in the sky, our spotter who can sometimes spot weather coming. We have Brad Wilson, our assistant race engineer, who’ll always have the radar on and if there is rain in the area he’ll keep it up. If there’s not rain but we’re getting to halfway and there are some dark skies then we will keep an eye on it. I also track it throughout the week to keep an eye on temperatures so I have an idea of what the split will be between practice day and qualifying day and race day and we also get a weather report on race day.
The series first visit to Michigan with the new car is a slight unknown for the teams. The repaved surface last year did not see the typical top to bottom racing that fans were accustomed to from the 2.5 mile oval in the Irish Hills of Michigan. When the green flag falls on Sunday, we’ll see what unfolds during the race.
If Bono Manion and his No. 1 EGR team make the right pit calls, get the proper balance between the nose and the tail and have the right track position, they very well could end up in Victory Lane for the first time in 2013.
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