The Frontstretch: Tech Talk: Slugger Labbe Talks Parity, Patience, And Pit Strategy As Talladega Keys by Mike Neff -- Thursday October 17, 2013

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Restrictor plate racing creates some polarizing opinions in this sport. But, whether you like it or hate it, there is no denying there are people better at making cars go fast with a restricted engine. Slugger Labbe, crew chief for Paul Menard in the Cup Series has been one of them for years. He was at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. when they were the dominant plate team in the sport and moved to Richard Childress Racing shortly before they took the reins in that category. This year, he has had his driver in position to have strong finishes, at both Daytona and Talladega before circumstances have conspired against them.

As the series heads to the final plate race of the year, where the championship could be decided or broken wide open, Labbe tells Frontstretch about ‘Dega tires, racing surfaces and the test that NASCAR used at Charlotte to try and make long-term competition better.

Mike Neff: We just finished the Cup race at Charlotte. How would you rate the No. 27 team’s weekend?

Paul Menard’s fought hard with top title contenders this year, but fallen victim to some bad luck – like at restrictor plate tracks Daytona and Talladega.

Slugger Labbe: It was OK. We had a good weekend and qualified well. We had good practices on Friday and leading into the race, we were feeling pretty confident. We made a couple of small adjustments. When the race started, we were in 13th and marched our way up to eighth within 20 laps. The caution came out on lap 22 and we took two right-side tires. As we were leaving the pits, we had contact with the No. 10. Our right front made contact with her left rear quarter panel.

We had to come back in, work on it and then restarted 39th. The race went green for two segments, we got lapped, stuck back there in dirty air and couldn’t go anywhere. We had damage, were in dirty air and just couldn’t overcome it. Night started off great and then got wrecked on pit road. It is one of those things. Pit lane is competitive and tight and we came out on the wrong end of it this week. It is just one of those things.

Neff: Speaking of dirty air, have you had any feedback from any of the people who were at the test Monday at Charlotte? Jeff Burton was there for Richard Childress. Curious to know if you heard of anything that was successful.

Labbe: We were there as well, hanging out with the guys and all of the engineers. They worked on a lot of different packages to see if they could make things change much in traffic. There were six cars there, so you have to take some of it with a grain of salt. NASCAR worked hard on four or five different packages to see what worked the best and what looked the best. Some of the aero stuff they did didn’t really reap much benefit.

There wasn’t much difference with how the cars drove in traffic or responded. The thing that looked the best to me was a tapered spacer, like they run in the Nationwide Series. It is just an opinion of mine. I thought the cars were running better in traffic and no one could really pull away from the pack. To me the tapered spacer looks like a positive direction for them to go, but I’m just a little peon crew chief and don’t have much say in it. It’s up to (John) Darby and (Mike) Helton and (Robin) Pemberton and Steve (O’Donnell) to figure out what they want to do.

Neff: Did they try anything to try and get the nose of the car off the ground to let air get under the car?

Labbe: That is how our cars currently are, like we raced at Charlotte. What they went back with on Monday was a package where the car was about .00002 of an inch off of the ground all of the way around the track, like an IndyCar or a funny car to where the whole car was stuck to the ground. They tried multiple things. There were some highs and lows out of everything. We’ll just have to wait and see what they come up with. We’ve had them up and had them down, we’ve had roof packages on them, bigger spoilers, smaller spoilers, a lot of different things. We’ll wait and see what they come up with and what direction they tell us they want to go in 2014.

Neff: So now, we’re headed off to Talladega for the big ol’ Wild Card, as they like to call it. You’ve been through three plate races with the new Gen-6 car. What kind of things have you figured out through those first three races that is going to help you this weekend?

Labbe: Well, at Daytona we wrecked on the last lap. The Coke 400, we were running third on lap 23, blew up and caught on fire. The Talladega race in the Spring, we were running fifth, came in for a green-flag pit stop and Paul slid through the pit box. We then ended up getting into a wreck because we ran into a car that slowed down to miss a wreck. We don’t really have a whole lot of promising results to base things off of. We ran really well at all of the tracks but didn’t come back with much to show for it.

Unfortunately, we blew up at Daytona in the 400 but fortunately, we didn’t end up with a destroyed race car so we were able to come back and work on it some more and made it better. We’ll be running the car that we’ve run the last two plate races. We feel like we’ve got a better piece, and the engine shop has given us an R&D piece for the weekend, so we’ll see how that works out for us. We’ll hopefully put it all together. Curious to see who’s going to go down there and run 100% and who isn’t going to run 100%. Strategy is definitely going to be interesting.

Neff: You were around DEI back when they were so dominant on plate tracks and I’m sure everything that you did is now throughout the garage on all of the plate cars. Is there anything left that could be discovered to put an organization that far ahead on the plate tracks?

Slugger Labbe was with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. back in the days where the Budweiser Chevrolet would simply dominate at Talladega and Daytona.

Labbe: With the rules of this Gen-6 car, they have tried to take away any advantage you ever had. All of the things people were doing back in the day have had rules written to try and prevent them from being done anymore. There are still some things you can do. Under body aero is important, over body aero is important, getting the right amount of air into your air cleaner through the cowl is very important, having a hell of an engine is very important. The biggest thing though is, once you get to the racetrack that is what you have. The next biggest thing is the relationship between the spotter and the driver. Once the race starts, it is up to the two of them to make the right decisions at the right time. Having them on the same page is the key to winning Talladega.

Neff: There were some issues in the last few years where they closed up the grill opening a little bit to try and limit the tandem racing and pushing, which caused the cars to run a little hot. We haven’t seen that as much with the Gen-6 car. Is that no longer a problem for the pusher thanks to the new car styling?

Labbe: Cooling is always an issue, but the thing NASCAR did this year was add a strip to the bottom of the back bumper that comes down about another three inches compared to where it used to come down to. There is virtually no air coming under the lead car to get to the grill opening of the pushing car. With the bumper rule they have for the rear of the car, it now basically blocks all of the air from getting to the grill opening.

The push draft thing you can do for a lap, maybe two before your car will get extremely hot. That little strip they added really did a lot to eliminate the push draft. Every time we come up with something, NASCAR will react. This was NASCAR’s way to react because they don’t want us push drafting. You can still do it in the Nationwide Series and the Truck Series and the ARCA Series but some of the best drivers in the world can’t do it.

It is rather disheartening because it was really fun to watch and it took an art form to do it well. It was very unique; some drivers could get it and do it really well while other drivers really sucked at it. I wish we could have it back. It makes no sense to me that the lesser series can have it but we can’t. It is NASCAR’s way, and we have to adhere to it, so we have to come up with other ways to make the cars faster. Hard work and preparation is what we do and we’ll continue to make our cars the best we can make them.

Neff: Talladega’s surface is beginning to age a little bit. Is it still a long time before we ever have to worry about tire management at Talladega?

Slugger Labbe: Yeah, it is. Tire management on pit road is the key to Talladega. One of the keys to Talladega. How much time you spend there, getting two tires, left sides, right sides, gas only. There will be a lot of strategies played out at Talladega. The thing that is neat about Talladega versus Daytona is that it is hard to run three-wide off the corners at Daytona, because of the way the track narrows off of Turns 2 and 4. Two-wide is tight; three-wide is tough.

When you get to Talladega, you can run four-wide all of the way around the track and have no problem thanks to how the corners transition. You can ride around and not give 100% and then make your push with 30 to go and get to the front very easily at Talladega, where it is not that easy at Daytona because it is so much harder to run even three-wide. I have a feeling there will be a few cars that will ride around at the back. There are three guys that I am pretty confident will do it for sure: the 20, the 48 and the 29. Those three guys will probably be back there not giving 100% until it is time to go and that may be the right strategy.

Neff: It could be… or it could bite them. We’ll have to see.

Labbe: You never know, you never know. It might get them all. That may be the mentality they have. If one gets it, they all get it.

Neff: One question back to Charlotte. The tires seemed to have an impact on how the race played out. Some of the people after the race said they thought it was a little softer and gave up a little bit more. Did you have that experience?

Labbe: I don’t know that it was softer. You have to trust Goodyear racing with what they do and I feel confident they brought back the same tire since they told us that is what they were going to do. The track has seasoned a little more, it was a night race and the temps were a little bit cooler. They had more grip, so it might have felt like the tires were softer. I find it very hard to believe that Goodyear would bring a softer tire without doing a test. I just think the cooler temperatures made people think they had more grip than they have had in the past.

Labbe is pretty confident that there will be some cars that will not be running in the pack until late in the race. That strategy has bitten drivers in the past; we’ll have to see how it plays out this weekend. At the same time, it will be interesting to watch the No. 27 car and see if they’ll make it to the end with their R&D engine. Will luck finally be on their side?

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