*Tires? Who Needs ‘em?*
In years past at Daytona, the key to winning was a well handling race car and four fresh tires strapped on the ride. Now, thanks to the repaving job done this winter, both handling and tire wear has given way to cooling the engine and finding the right two-car tandem.
Talking with various tire specialists during Saturday’s final practice for the Daytona 500, many were smiling at the ease of their jobs this weekend. One described this year’s Daytona Speedweeks as the easiest he has ever had in his career.
A Michael Waltrip Racing employee told me last year in Daytona they bought 10 sets of tires for the first week, 10 sets for the second week and two for the Daytona 500. This year, however, he only bought a total of 10 sets for the entire two week period – this seemed to be the trend throughout the garage, regardless of team.
Prior to racing his way into the Daytona 500 in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel, J.J. Yeley brought his No. 46 onto pit road for four fresh tires and fuel. Yeley described the decision to pit after receiving the Lucky Dog as a “no brainer” but said it was more to add a fuel load than fresh tires.
“Before, tires were far more crucial than track position,” Yeley said. He went on to say having a freer car is better and whenever you add a fuel load you tend to help balance the nose weight, therefore it was not so much the fresher tires that helped as it was the additional fuel.
Speaking with various tire specialists and crew chiefs in the garage, it became clear tires will not be the determining factor in Sunday’s race. Much like Yeley indicated, their charge into the 500 during Thursday’s Duel had more to do with the fuel adding weight to the car than the tires did. Many teams believe Sunday’s 500-mile race will require only three to four sets of Goodyear tires.
One team ran as many as 100 laps on a set of tires in last month’s test, saying Lap 98 and 99 were no slower than any of the previous. Another ran the full 150-mile Gatorade Duel on one set of tires and planned on using the right sides for a two-tire stop Sunday.
“Tires won’t be a big deal,” Greg Zipadelli explained, saying a finding a drafting partner you could stay with all day and track position would be the keys to Sunday’s race.
*New Daytona Means New Role for Crew Chiefs*
When Daytona was repaved, nearly every role on the team was changed – the driver, spotter, tire specialist, engine builder and especially the crew chief.
As mentioned above, for decades handling and tire management were the keys to victory on the high banks of Daytona, but now tire wear is nearly non-existent and handling has become something of an afterthought. Those two things had been primary the concern for crew chiefs for decades, yet this year the men calling the shots in the garage and in the pits have had to alter their roles in Daytona.
In the days leading up to the 500, historically crew chiefs would be working on the proper chassis adjustments needed to get the car handling right for 500 miles of racing on Sunday. Yet, this year the majority of crew chiefs in the garage have moved to working on finding the right drafting partner and developing the proper pit strategy to put your team in position at the end of the race.
“Anything in the crew chief’s hands they get creative with, [NASCAR] takes it away,” Joe Gibbs Racing’s Mike Ford explained. “We had a good handle on the Shootout, but then they changed it and regulated things more.”
“Last year we had to handle and we worked on that at the tire test, but we had to throw all that out this year,” said crew chief Brian Pattie. “It has changed the way you race and changed how you develop your pit strategy as well.”
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Darian Grubb echoed Pattie’s thoughts, saying that developing the right pit strategy was the overarching role of the crew chief this year.
“Things are regulated so tightly with the pop-off valve and cooling system, it’s more in the hands of the driving style than anything the crew chief can do,” he said.
“The car’s got to be fast, you’ve got to have your partner – you’re really betting on your crew chief, in a way you’re counting on him more on race day,” said Matt Kenseth. “It used to be you could get behind the pack and catch back up where now if you’re not pushing someone of being pushed you’re going to lose the draft like I did [in the Bud Shootout]. It’s important for him to coordinate with someone to pit with, who your drafting partner is going to be, to figure out whether you’re going to get tires or fuel so you don’t lose that draft. It’s just different than what it used to be, but certainly chassis adjustments and things like that aren’t going to be as important as normal.”
One of the most veteran crew chiefs in the garage, Jimmy Fennig – Kenseth’s crew chief – said it is all about finding the right partner.
“You’ve got to make sure the car runs, but it’s really about finding a partner,” he said. “Really it’s all about the same.”
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