Eight races into the season and Tony Gibson has already learned quite a bit about both his race cars and his driver, Danica Patrick. Gibson is not only dealing with a different chassis but also one of the most well-known rookies to hit the series in the last ten years. It’s an extra pound of pressure on an already stressful job; there is no doubt that being a crew chief in a championship-winning organization comes with sky high expectations. Add in a rookie driver who is a lightning rod for criticism, the current struggles of Stewart-Haas Racing and there are a lot of other places that most people would rather be. Gibson, though, doesn’t shy away from the spotlight and is embracing the challenge unlike anyone else.
The longtime SHR employee sat down with Frontstretch to discuss some of the current mechanical storylines on the Sprint Cup circuit. Between the tires that don’t wear out, brakes that do and the struggles facing Danica and Company this season, there was plenty to get to. He also speaks about his feelings for the new race car at this point in the season.
Mike Neff: A quick recap on Kansas. How do you think the day went?
Tony Gibson: I thought it went really well. We made a lot of improvements on a mile-and-a-half track for her. Qualified the best we have qualified in 25th. We ran good and got up to about 18th or 19th, in the top 20, doing really well and the car was doing great all day; then, we got a big bag on the front of the car. The water temp got up to near 300. We tried to get in behind the [No.] 24 to get it to come off, but it wouldn’t blow off, so we ended up having to pit there. We lost a couple of laps getting the grill cleaned off and getting the water temp back down. We went back out and we got one of our laps back and we were doing pretty good. We got back up to 22nd and were in the Lucky Dog spot when Marcos Ambrose got loose underneath us, knocked the fender in on the tire and cost us the Lucky Dog with that deal. Performance-wise, I thought our day was really good. I thought the whole weekend went really well. We showed huge improvements in qualifying and the race. We were really competitive and, other than the few hiccups that were out of our control, I thought it went really well.
Neff: One more Kansas question. Kenseth ran the entire race on four left-side tires. Is that OK with you, or is it frustrating that the tires don’t wear out any more than that?
Gibson: It is a little frustrating if you’re toward the back of the pack and you can’t really gain anything on the guys up front because they are able to use the tires to their advantage. They can do two-tire stops, so you can’t gain anything in the pits and it is hard to do anything strategy-wise, on our side, to make up ground when the tire is like that. However, there are days when you are on the good side of that and you get the bonus from it.
I would rather have a tire that wears out so that everyone has to be on the same tires, or where handling will come into it, where a guy can have a better handling race car but the tire wear is not going to make up for it and keep guys on top of the track. Like Stewart said in our debrief on Monday, “You can have guys with really fast cars, on new tires but the really good drivers shine when the tires wear out and the track gets slick. That’s when the racing is in the driver’s hands.” I think the tire, the way they brought it to Kansas, kind of just takes the driving out of the drivers’ hands and makes it all about pit strategy and being able to stay out on left-side tires. We kind of saw that at Darlington after they repaved the track there. The first race after the repave, with Newman there, we finished third, but we led 100 and some laps of it. We ran 300 laps on our left-side tires. It is crazy but it is one of those things, if you’re on the good side of it you take advantage of it and if it works you’re happy about it. I think, for all intents and purposes, most drivers would rather have a tire that wears out, letting it play into the handling of the race car and into the drivers’ hands.
Neff: I’m with you. I don’t want to see tires blowing out, but to at least have the tire wear down to where it loses its grip so that drivers have to slow down and drive rather than hammering it the whole time.
Gibson: When your speed is that fast, on a run that long… don’t get me wrong, it was a pretty good race. But I feel like, if the tires wore out and the pace slowed down a little bit, you’d see more passing and racing because it would mix them up. Some of the guys would lose some of the early speed they had while, when the pace slowed down and the tires gave up, your good drivers are going to get into the mix with them. I think the racing would be better, if the tire gave up, just because the speed would come down. That’s just my opinion but I think that is what would happen.
Neff: We’re eight races into the season with the new car. What is your opinion of it from Daytona to now?
Gibson: I love it. I think it is a really good race car. You can tune on it and make some progress. I feel like the aero side of this car is better in traffic. It isn’t 100% better, but it is definitely better. You can move out a little more and get some downforce on the nose and help yourself out where the other car didn’t seem to benefit from it. I really like it. It looks really good. It is fun to work on. I think the drivers like to drive it. You’re seeing more track records set in qualifying because of the new car. I like it, and I think it was a great move on NASCAR’s part. Chevrolet has also done a great job of making sure that the car we have is competitive.
Neff: We’re headed off to Richmond. There are six races at tracks that are less than a mile in length on the schedule and this is the first of those that is held at night. Does having a short track race at night throw any additional challenges your way?
Gibson: At Richmond, it does. We start that race kind of in the daytime, it is right at dusk. It transitions when the sun goes down. With these tires, the track gets a little slicker and the cars get a little freer. It is a bit of a challenge that you want to make sure, when the track makes that slip, that you adjust at the right time so that you’re a little closer. If you miss it, it can be big. If you miss that one run, where the track takes that hit, you could be in real trouble. It is challenging trying to make the right decision on when, during this next run, the track is going to take a hit and we have to make sure we overachieve, whichever way the balance is, to make sure we end up closer to where we want to be. It is a challenging little racetrack. It is fun. I love that place. I think the fans love it because of the characteristics of the racing. There are two grooves there, so you can move around. The cars are always in traffic, so there is always good racing going on. It is a challenge to keep the balance all night long. It tends to free up as the night goes on. Free in and free off and snug in the middle. It is cool, though because you can work on the handling of the race car and make a change and make a difference. That is one thing about Richmond that has always been great and makes for great racing.
Neff: From a comparative standpoint, you use brakes extensively at Martinsville but don’t you also use them quite a bit at Richmond, due to the high speeds and the need to slow down so much to make the corners?
Gibson: Yes, the difference between Martinsville and Richmond is the amount of time you’re on the brakes. At Richmond, you’re carrying so much speed, particularly into Turn 1 because the front straight is D-shaped and arced. You’re actually trail braking a little bit down into the corner, to get the car to settle down and you’re on the brakes longer. At Martinsville, it is just like a drag strip. You run down the straight and you get on the brakes hard, you straight line brake. Then you get off and let the car roll. You’re on the brake, but you’re not on the brake for a sustained period of time like you are at Richmond. That’s why you see the glowing rotors and more guys having problems with the tires and beads and brakes at Richmond over Martinsville because of that reason. You see it a lot at Phoenix, too because you are on the brakes longer and you’re carrying so much more speed. It is a catch-22; you think of Martinsville and you wonder how you could use more brake than there. Again, at Martinsville you straight line brake, you get on them, you slow the car down, you get off of them and let the car roll through the corner. That’s the difference; so it is certainly challenging on the brake side at Richmond.
Neff: You guys haven’t won a race this year, any of the Stewart-Haas Racing teams. Has the new car been difficult for Tony, Ryan and Danica to get a feel for or is just a matter of bad luck? Can you put your finger on why SHR hasn’t been closer to the front so far this year?
Gibson: We’re not really sure. On the 10 side of things, we’re going through some growing pains with Danica being a rookie. She ran last year’s car a little bit but didn’t really run it enough to get settled into any habits with that car from last year. I think Stewart-Haas is struggling a little bit to find the balance between the aero balance and mechanical balance with this new car to make the drivers happy and run up front. It is really hard for me to say, as far as the [No.] 10 car, because we are learning and Danica is a rookie, so she’s learning a lot more than just the car. It is hard for us to evaluate that but the other two guys are definitely struggling with it a little bit. Ryan isn’t struggling quite as much as Stewart is. He’s been a 10th to 15th-place car every week and has felt, at times, that he could run top 5, but they haven’t had the car that has felt like it could contend for a win yet. Stewart seems to be a little worse than that. We’ve been working hard at it. We’ve been testing a lot, trying to get a handle on it, trying to get a package that these guys and girl will like. We’re just struggling. We do lean on our teammates at Hendrick. There are times they struggle, too. They’ll have two who really like it and two who don’t on a given weekend.
It is a handful right now, but we’re working really hard to try and figure it out. We can’t put our finger on it to say, if we change that one thing, it’ll fix it. It could be several little things that we’re not doing right. We’re working hard. We’re changing things as we go along here. We’re trying to figure something out quickly because we’ve got to get going. Every race we go without winning with those other guys it is hard to make up. It is kind of like if you make an F at the beginning of the school year, it takes you all year to make it up. It is kind of how it is with this Chase. If you have some issue early, it will take you a long time and a lot of hard work to make that ground up. Hopefully, we can hit on something here really soon, get everyone running up front and start winning some races this year.
Gibson’s driver will have one advantage that very few others will have this weekend; she has driven Richmond before in an open-wheel car. The IndyCar series doesn’t run down in Virginia anymore, but they did when Patrick competed in the series, where she was moderately successful. That experience could prove valuable as Gibson and the No. 10 team take to the ¾-mile racing surface this weekend.
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