A week off is a very rare gem for NASCAR crew chiefs. This past week, Danica Patrick head wrench Tony Gibson took full advantage of the hole in the schedule to get away and get dirty. He spent time with family and friends riding off-road vehicles in Georgia, time off the grid which helped him recharge the batteries. He’s now ready to take on the next three months with no break until before Indianapolis in July.
This week in Tech Talk, Gibson comes back to the fold with great enthusiasm. With time to think, he gives us a full evaluation of NASCAR’s new rules, just how much stress has been put on the cars with the increased downforce this season. He also touches base on tires, part failures that have gripped his organization and then gets us ready for the ups and downs of setting up a car for the Richmond night race. Through it all, as always Gibson gives us a very intimate look at how the work from on top of the pit box unfolds.
Tony Gibson, shown here with Hendrick’s Kenny Francis, had a great deal of success at Richmond during the “old days” with Ryan Newman’s No. 39. Can he pull the same step up with Danica Patrick’s No. 10?
Mike Neff: What did you do during your off-week vacation?
Tony Gibson: We did what every good American redneck would do. We took our 4-wheelers, Razrs, and Arctic Cats and went to a place called Dove Town Plantation in Georgia. It is a big ATV park and we went camping and took our toys down there and played for a week. We got down there Sunday night and stayed until Sunday afternoon, so we spent a week down there. It was really nice. There are a bunch of us from the shop that go and some guys from other teams. We bring our families and we do it like three times a year. It is a lot of fun and relaxing. We have fires at night and play cards and ride hard during the day. We really don’t talk about racing at all so it is a nice little getaway. My daughter was off from college that week, so she got down there on Tuesday after class and stayed the rest of the week. Got to spend some time with family and friends so it was a good time.
Neff: Before the week off, we had a race at Darlington. Walking through the garage after the race, there were six cars that didn’t have a stripe down the right side and yours was one of them. Tell us about your night.
Gibson: It went fairly well. We didn’t qualify as well as we wanted to. It is a tough racetrack and we knew it would be a place we’d struggle because we struggled with her there last year a little bit. It is tough when you go to that place without a lot of experience. But we took everything in stride, stayed within our little box and we worked on making the car drive good for her. We may not have had the speed that other guys had but our car drove good. We worked on it all night long and we never got in the fence, we had good pit stops and everything ended up good. We ended up 22nd and on the lead lap. The car was in one piece and we learned a lot and had great stops all night. Danica, for her second time there, I thought she did a hell of a job. For a driver who hasn’t been going there for years, it is hard to get a hold of that place and figure it out.
Neff: Looking through the statistics so far this season, you’re starting better but your average finish is about the same. Do you feel like you’re improving?
Gibson: I think we have. A couple of the bad finishes have been due to having incidents. We had a really good car at Phoenix and were running really well before we got caught up in a wreck. At Daytona, we got caught in a wreck, too. We’ve been a more consistently top 20 car this year so I think we’re better than we were last year by far. The overall average finish doesn’t show that, but we ran well at Vegas and finished 21st, we went to California and finished 14th and traveled to Bristol and finished 18th. I feel like we’ve made some huge gains in our performance. I think we’re racing better; statistically, it isn’t showing because of some incidents. But I think she’s better and I think we’re better as a team.
Neff: With the new ride height rules, do you have to build the chassis differently than in the past or is it just the suspension and those parts?
Gibson: We have not changed anything in the chassis. It doesn’t require anything different in the chassis. Now, if some of the guys are doing something different I don’t know, but all of our chassis come from Hendrick Motorsports and none of that has changed. It has stayed just like it was last year. It is just a matter of taking the cars and statically lowering them down. Taking rounds out and changing the spring configuration a little bit to get the cars down. Before this year, the cars had to be at six and eight all of the time and it was a struggle to get them down on the racetrack when you were racing. You had to do a lot of crazy stuff. Tons of rebound and crazy springs to get the car down and get the downforce in them. You had a huge transition from six and eight to get the splitter to seal off. Now, we are allowed to start lower so you don’t have that huge transition on the splitter and the whole car. You’re talking about a 3,400-pound car and you’re trying to drop it two-and-a-half to three inches from the straightaway to the corner. That is a pretty big transition. It is hard to drive them. You’re going through a lot of different camber thrusts, the toe is changing, the bump steer is changing. There are a lot of things that change as you’re going through that transition. Now, we don’t have that, it is cut in half. It has made that a lot easier for the teams, especially for us with Danica. She never liked that transition and roll in the car. Coming from IndyCar, being flat and rigid, that is what she wanted to feel so this has kind of helped us. The car is nice and flat. It doesn’t have that roll and transition in it. It is fairly easy to accomplish. NASCAR has given us the tools that we need to accomplish this and make it as easy as possible on the teams. It has made it a fairly smooth process for us.
Sadly for Gibson, when dealing with an inexperienced driver there’s a lot of wrecked race cars to repair over the course of a full Cup season.
Neff: How long do you keep chassis around?
Gibson: We base everything off of the center section of the car, which is around the driver. The rollcage, the greenhouse area. We try to keep that under 5,000 miles. Before it reaches that limit, we’ll take a car and put a front clip or rear clip on it if it needs it, or other minor things. If it has been heavily wrecked and it needs a frame rail or something, we’ll junk it. We’ve had brand new cars with one race on them get wrecked and the cost of the repair does not warrant fixing it. Sometimes, it is better to just buy a new one instead of putting a bunch of money into a car that has been wrecked bad. If a car isn’t wrecked badly and we can put a clip on it after three or four races, before it has reached 5,000 miles then we’ll do it, as long as the center section of the cage hasn’t reached that limit. That is what we base it off of.
Neff: With the new rules putting even more downforce on the cars, are the bigger loads putting more stress on the chassis and especially the suspension components than we’ve seen in the past?
Gibson: It does, with the G-forces we’re pulling thanks to the downforce, that is why we’re running so fast. With the downforce on these cars now, they’re pretty comfortable to drive. They’re almost like slot cars now. The more downforce you put on them, the faster you’re going to go. That puts more load on the tire, the load goes through the tire into the chassis, the chassis flexes and starts to bend and tweak around. We keep an eye on that. If we see stress cracks in a clip or a part, we’ll cut it off and replace it. For suspension components, we’ve backed off on the mileage on those to almost half of what we used to do on ball joints and tie rods and things like that. Just to get our feet wet with these rules until we get to the halfway point of the year to see what we’re wearing out that we weren’t wearing out before.
Neff: It seems like this year, and it may be because we’ve run on tracks that have aged asphalt, but it feels like the tires are giving up more and wearing out a bit more than they used to. Almost back to the “old days” of NASCAR, right? Does that throw you a curve that forces you to work harder on your race strategy than you have had to over the last few years?
Gibson: Yes, and I think that is a good thing. I think it helps to be able to put some strategy back into these things. Do you short pit, do you not short pit because of your tires? I like it when your tires mean something. I think all of the drivers like it also. It also puts some drama in it for the fans and makes it more interesting. Can a driver pit ten or twelve laps early, get fresh tires, and be running a second quicker but then you have to hold your breath on whether the caution will come out or not. That is the kind of stuff that builds the drama we need in our sport and puts it back in the drivers’ hands and the crews. Get teams to develop a car that can go through that transition of tires and maybe [have one that’s] not that good on stickers but better on older tires. These tracks are getting worn a little bit and it is heading back in that direction — that is a good thing.
Neff: With your alliance with Hendrick Motorsports do you ever actually go over to their compound in Concord and work on things?
Gibson: We go over there every once in a while. We used to go over there and use their pull down units from time to time. We communicate with them a lot. We have a big meeting with all of the crew chiefs and Greg Zipadelli goes over there and we have representatives that communicate with them on a day-to-day basis. At the racetrack, they can come in our trucks and talk with us at any time, and we can do the same, so it is an open book deal between the two companies. If we’re working on something over here that is lighter and better, then we share it with them and the same from them. It is a really good relationship. We’re still racing those guys and they are racing us and there are certain things that you want to keep for yourself, and they do the same thing, but it is pretty nice the way it works. If you call up over there and ask them a question, they will give you an answer and that is the way it works over here too. It is a great relationship and we are lucky and proud to be associated with them. Obviously, their company is probably the best in Sprint Cup racing, so there is no better company to be paired up with and have an affiliation with than Hendrick Motorsports.
Broken parts have been an issue for Stewart-Haas Racing cars this season. Can Tony Gibson and Danica Patrick stay above the fray?
Neff: Kevin Harvick has two wins but has had some spectacular failures, too. Kurt Busch has also had some impressive failures. Is there a group at Stewart-Haas or at Hendrick that specifically analyzes part failures or is that something that everyone pours over on a Monday and then moves on to the next race?
Gibson: We have a group of guys on our engineering staff with Matt Borland and Lawrence Birks who work hand-in-hand in that. If we have a problem, they are on it and we communicate with them. If they aren’t at the racetrack, we’ll call them and say, “We’re having this problem in practice and you might want to look at it.” If we have a failure during a race, it is addressed right away. Those guys get on it and bring us an answer for it. It is a really good procedure that we have here at Stewart-Haas and it works the same way at Hendrick. I’m sure most race teams operate that way, that they have a group of people sitting there waiting for something like this to happen. They jump on it and fix it and bring you an answer. As quickly as our sport evolves, you have to have that. You’re going to have failures, you’re going to have things happen. Parts are changing all of the time and rules are changing. You have to have that group of people that are always thinking of what can happen and try to be proactive. Then, you have that same group waiting on the 911 when something happens [focused] on, “How are we going to fix it so we can apply it next week?”
Neff: How are you feeling about Richmond?
Gibson: I love Richmond. I love that racetrack. I have had a lot of success there. It is a great racetrack for the fans. There is a lot of racing with multiple grooves there. We didn’t fare too well there last year with Danica, though. I don’t think it is one of her favorite racetracks. It is a difficult racetrack. The corners are very different. We went up there and tested last year, in the middle of the year, and made some gains on it. We went back and ran better the second time than we did the first. I’m hoping, with what we’ve learned this year and having some more teammates in here to help her and help us, I feel like we can go there and be better each time we go back. I think this new ride height rule is going to help some of the problems we were fighting there last time with the transitions in and out of the corners. I’m hoping it will help a lot with that as it has so far at other tracks this year. We are going there with everything we’ve got. We took this car and tested it at New Smyrna and had a really good test there. Harvick is extremely good there, Stewart is good there, Busch is good there, so we have three drivers for her to feed off of on the driving side of it. We have, between Hendrick and our group here, we have some good data to look at to help us with the chassis stuff.
Gibson sounds very confident about the fortunes of the No. 10 team this season. While their average finish doesn’t show it, he feels like they have been more competitive this year and that they are making strides as a team and with their driver. With three championship teammates to learn from and quiz, Danica Patrick and the entire No. 10 squad still has great potential to grow with each race left on the schedule.
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