Fontana last Sunday was a challenge for most Cup teams, as soft tires had to be managed in order for them to successfully compete. It was very reminiscent of the late 1990s, when drivers had to baby the cars to make them last for full fuel runs and keep their equipment in one piece until the end. Tony Gibson was there in the ’90s, as a fast-rising mechanic and he knows the difference between quality wear and simply a high quantity of blowouts.
For this week’s Tech Talk, we discuss the tire issues at Fontana from this crew chief’s perspective, and how his strategy unfolded from the pit box of Danica Patrick’s No. 10 machine. Gibson also talks about the track being ground, camber in the rear end, and minimum air pressures that contributed to handling changes. Also, heading into Martinsville, Gibson discusses the new ride height rule, how it will impact front tires and cornering along with the new qualifying procedures.
Mike Neff: You had a top-15 run at California last weekend. How would you categorize your overall day out there?
Tony Gibson: It was a good day. We started a little further back than we wanted to after our qualifying effort. Our car was pretty good to start out with, we drove up to 22nd or 21st fairly reasonably early. We were never in jeopardy of going a lap down, our car was pretty fast and we were pretty happy with it. Just past halfway we raced up to 17th or 18th, and kind of just hovered around right in there.
We were pleased with how things were going and then, all of a sudden, we had a left front flat. Luckily, the caution came out and kept us from going a lap down, but we restarted 32nd. She battled her way back to 18th. We were 17th when the caution came out at the end so we came in and got four. She was able to get a really good restart for the green-white-checkered and finished 14th. There was a lot of drama going on with everybody and I didn’t think we were going to be part of that, but it turned out we were. We were fortunate enough, with how things panned out, to come back and get a great finish. We’re pleased with that. We’ve had three really good weekends in a row. We’re happy with our performances and we’re definitely showing improvement from last year, so now it is on to Martinsville.
Neff: On the tire front, there are going to be several tire questions since that was one of the big stories from Fontana. Goodyear has recommended minimum pressures and the officials on pit road at least used to carry tire pressure gauges. Does NASCAR enforce a minimum pressure or is it just a recommendation?
Gibson: Goodyear gives us a recommendation and they check the right front as far as the minimum. Whatever they say the minimum is, they hold us to that on the right front. The thing with this tire, and we see this a lot with these tires, the best grip when they do their testing and gather their data, the best grip in the tire is always better when the pressure is lower than what they recommend; I don’t care if we’re running at Daytona or Martinsville. It may be two pounds, it may be six pounds, it just depends on the tire and the racetrack.
The pressures that we ran, across the board with everybody at Stewart-Haas, were higher than we ran at Fontana last time. The grip level showed it needed to be lower but there were guys having trouble in practice with pressures lower than ours, so we decided to not go lower and stuck with the pressures that we ran the previous time and didn’t go any lower than that. The problem is, when they build a tire like that and the lowest pressure tested is six or eight pounds lower than recommended, then to get the peak grip out of the tire you need to be low.
That is usually fine, but Auto Club Speedway is so rough and so abrasive that the sidewalls get beat to death going down the straightaways because of the bumps. It is no different than being on the highway and hitting a pothole. What will happen is it starts separating the belts and that is what happened there. It is so rough on the race track that it just beats the sidewalls out of them. The next thing you know, it tears the sidewall and then the belt comes loose and the tire comes apart. I don’t know where you lay the blame or if you can. It is a product of the tire wants to be low on pressure for grip and it is up to the teams to manage how low they want to go for that and push that issue.
The track is extremely rough and I don’t know that any tire is going to stand up to that. We didn’t show any tire issues all weekend. We ran over a lead spacer during practice and cut the center of one tire but showed no issues with wear or shoulder issues or anything in the whole race until that one left-front tire. Even after that, which was a 12-lap run, the next run was 32 laps and the tires came off and looked perfect with no issues; we didn’t change anything after the left front went down.
To me it looks like, if you get 40 tires for the race, you may get three that maybe the sidewall is a little softer than the rest, or perhaps there is a slight delamination in the tire and, whatever corner that tire is on it is going to go bad, I’m not really sure. The 48 and 24 didn’t have a tire problem all day until the very end. That set of tires they put on, they had an issue.
You would think, if it was an air pressure issue or something like that, you’d have that go on with every tire and continue to go on and there wasn’t anything like that. That is what is confusing everybody. At least for us, on our side, we were higher than most on left side air pressures just to make sure we didn’t have a problem. Lo and behold, we still did. It is an unanswered question and I don’t know if you can blame anything or anyone, it was a perfect storm between the track and the tire and the air pressure and the speeds. Our speeds are up and we have more downforce in these cars than we’ve ever had before. Corner speeds are up so you are asking for trouble.
Hopefully, they’ll look at a tire that is a little more durable. You’ll probably give up a little grip but I think everyone will take that to make sure the tires don’t fail.
Neff: You talk about the sidewalls being beaten to death. Is there added stress on the tires with the new ride height rule with the car being down on the earth the whole time, instead of the spring on the front trying to push the nose up, absorbing some of that bumpiness?
Gibson: No, I don’t think so. These cars were violent like this last time. Every time we go there, these cars get beat up so bad we have to replace just about everything on them because it is so violent. So no, I don’t think that. The car has just as much absorption in it in the suspension parts and pieces as it ever had.
If anything, it has even more compliance in it now because we’re lower so we can take all of the bleed out of the shocks and do a lot of things to make the car even more compliant and make the car even more forgiving. I think that would take load out of the tire actually. That is just my opinion and knowing the direction that everyone is going with this package, we don’t have to be as aggressive with our shock packages anymore so I think it is actually a help.
Neff: There was also discussion after California of the additional camber that teams were putting into the rear of the car. In watching the race broadcast, it looked like some teams had as much camber in the rear as they did in the front. Does that put additional stress on the sidewalls since the tire is leaned over and it is running just on the shoulder on the straights?
Gibson: It does. Anytime you put more load on the sidewall, whether it is in the front or the rear, you’re leaning that tire out so that when it goes into the corner, it flattens out and has more contact patch on the ground. Going down the straightaways, you have more load on that shoulder and it has more heat in it.
You aren’t talking about a whole lot though. The rule is 3.5 degrees. If you go across the platform and it reads 3.3, you’re going to add .2 to get it up to the 3.5. Is .2 of a degree enough to cause that tire to fail? I don’t know the answer. We do it everywhere else and don’t have a problem so I don’t think you can say that. We have that every weekend, depending on what the platform reads. If it says we can put more into it, then we do it. We were doing it last year, we’ve done it this year and we didn’t have a rear problem. A lot of guys did have rear problems here but I think it was just a perfect storm.
Neff: If somebody figured out during the race that their rear camber is causing a problem, is there something you can adjust in the pits to make a change to it or is it a greater effort than that?
Gibson: No, you can’t change that during the race. There’s nothing you can do during the race to change that. You’ve got what you’ve got when the green flag flies.
Neff: There was a lot of discussion about teams possibly running out of tires. A fan asked during the race if teams could go to their backup car in the hauler to grab the tires off of it. Assuming those are the grooved rollers, that wouldn’t work but just wanted to ask…
Gibson: No, NASCAR gives us 10 or 11 sets or whatever they do depending on which racetrack we are at. That is all we can have unless NASCAR comes out and gives us another set. They did that on Friday. When we got there, NASCAR gave us an extra set of tires because the racetrack had been ground to try and smooth out some of the bumps. They weren’t sure if the tire wear would be excessive, so NASCAR gave us an extra set of tires to practice with. Once you have what you have, during the race, you can’t borrow or buy or steal anything, to add to your inventory, unless NASCAR says you can.
Neff: You said they ground on the racetrack. Is that why there was a discoloration on the backstretch?
Gibson: Yes, that is why there was discoloration on the backstretch. That is where they went and ground the track to try and smooth it out. Who knows, that might have been part of the tire problem too. We don’t know, nobody really knows. It was just the perfect storm. I hate it all happened like it did. We were fortunate enough to overcome that one issue we had and have a good day.
Neff: You’ve been around this gig for a couple of years. This race reminded me a lot of the 1990s, when tires would wear out and it was up to the driver to make his tires last; they wouldn’t last a full fuel run if you pushed your car hard. Would you rather see it more like it was Sunday, outside of the random unpredictability, to where the driver has to conserve their tires and can’t just run as hard as they want to the entire race?
Gibson: I think so. I think the racing was extremely good at Fontana because of that reason. There are multiple lanes, the tire gives up, they start sliding around and drivers move around to make their car work. I think places like Atlanta are a prime example. It is an awesome track to go to and race because the tires give up, it is slick and it puts the racing in the drivers’ hands. I would like it to be like that every week. I think it is really neat and mixes it up. You may see a guy who is really fast at the start of a run but he’s about to get lapped after 20 laps. I think that is part of the excitement and it brings strategy into it. Your team has to decide how to set up their cars and go with either a more aggressive setup to be fast on the short run or one that’s more forgiving, to make the car strong for the entire run.
Neff: You are now headed off to Martinsville and, in Danica’s brief history in Cup racing, it is by far her best track. Are you feeling positive about heading to the paperclip this weekend?
Gibson: We are. We’ve always run really good there and it is one of my favorite tracks. I love racing there. It does surprise me that she has adapted so well to that track. I’m not really sure why and I don’t think she knows why. So far, it has been a good track for her and our team. We’re excited. We really wish we could qualify better there because we end up having to fight like hell all day to get where we need to be.
It is an exciting place to go. I love going there, I love racing there. She’s excited and has confidence going in there. That helps a lot, having a driver who likes to go to a track and has had success there. On our side of it, for her, being her third time there, I think she’s excited about it. She keeps talking about it and I hope that plays in our hands. I think we can come out of there with another solid run. Our goals at the beginning of the year were to be consistently inside the top 20, have better finishes and be more competitive. I think, so far this year, we’ve done that. I feel like we’ve made gains and I’m proud of everybody. Hopefully, this weekend will be another solid top-15 finish for us.
Neff: Again, ride height is the topic of the year — is the new rule going to impact the cooling of the brakes? That is obviously a key at Martinsville. With the old rule, the car used to raise up when it was coming down the straight and then slam to the ground when it got to the corner. On the straightaways, you were getting air under the car that would help with cooling the brakes. With the new rule putting the cars down on the earth so much more, is that going to keep the air from getting to the brakes and cooling them so that the emphasis on the fans is even greater?
Gibson: I think it will have more of an impact on the tires than anything at Martinsville. The cars used to raise up so much off of the corner that it let the air get to the tires and cool them down. If teams decide to run the low package there, the tires will show the temperature more than the brakes. All of the air that gets to the brakes comes through the front end; that will still all be open and have fans pulling air in. The temperature difference you will see will be the front tires more than anything else.
Neff: Is the outside line ever going to work for an extended time at Martinsville? Will you ever be able to set your car up to make a living out there?
Gibson: I think you can. It will take getting a lot of rubber laid down to do that. Typically, if we don’t get a lot of rubber laid down, the outside doesn’t come in. If the rubber gets laid down, that outside groove can come in and be pretty productive. More so on the restarts than any other time, but we’ve seen it come in, in the past and be pretty productive. You can hold a guy down, kill his momentum and pin him to the bottom to where he can’t accelerate and get off the corner.
There are times when you can do that and pass guys out there. Sometimes, that bottom lane gets boxed in with guys beating and banging down there and sometimes, you can get to the outside and make some gains out there. It will depend on how much rubber gets laid down and what the temperature is. If it is cold and the rubber doesn’t lay down, then it won’t work. If it warms up and the rubber lays down, then I think you’ll see the outside come in more.
Neff: Mandatory qualifying question of the week. It is a short track, so they will only have two sessions – cut it to 12, then run for the pole. At Martinsville, will you be able to go out multiple times and try and better your time or will the Goodyear be off of the tires after your first shot?
Gibson: No, I think it is one of the exception tracks where we will be able to make multiple runs and multiple laps. It won’t just be a two or three-lap run. Some guys will make four or five laps. The tire at Martinsville likes heat. So as it builds heat, it builds grip so you may see multiple lap runs for qualifying.
The multiple run deal can be tough. You don’t want to put 20 laps on them, as newer and fresher is better. If we could have sticker tires with heat in them, it would be ideal but we can’t do that. You could see guys make multiple runs and be faster. It is a place where your car can have six or eight laps on the tires but you can tweak on your car a little bit and make it faster on a little bit older tires. Whoever sits on the pole will most likely do it on their first or second run out in that final session. You don’t want to build up so much air pressure in your tires that they are oversaturated with air, volume-wise, because that will hurt you too.
The guy who can run the fastest, with the least amount of laps on his tires will have the best shot that second round of sitting on the pole. However, for different guys, it may take multiple runs, with adjustments, to make it into the top 12. You’re going to do whatever it takes to get into the top 12 or run as much as you can to get as high up as possible to start near the front. You may not be fighting for the top 12, but I’ll start 13th over starting further back. We’re going to do whatever we have to do to help her. If I have to run four or five runs, I don’t care, I want to get her comfortable because she’ll run faster if she is. I hope it will play into my hands a little bit.
Neff: One final question. In the old days, before cars had the spare reservoir on the side of the engine compartment to hold the extra water, you never poured cold water directly into a radiator or you would crack the block. They now have you running cold water into the engines on pit lane to cool them down. Isn’t there a danger of cracking the block when you put cold water into a hot engine?
Gibson: There is, but we don’t pour ice water directly into them right away. The water in the tank initially is at ambient temperature, so we don’t shock the motor right away. We will pump the ambient water in initially to try and cool it down more slowly, until we get to 150-160 and then we put the ice into it. If you put ice water into an engine that was 240-250, you would have a good chance of busting it. We try not to do that. We put the ambient water through it first before we put the ice to it.
Tony Gibson and the No. 10 team have had solid runs the first two times they’ve gone to Martinsville. After a 12th and 17th place, to start Danica Patrick’s Cup career, respectively they are looking to break into the top 10 this weekend. As they, and the other teams in the garage, get their arms around the new ride height rules Stewart-Haas Racing just might get the car to the point it is working perfectly for Danica.
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What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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