Tony Gibson started the year off with Regan Smith behind the wheel while NASCAR had Kurt Busch on suspension but he was still working with Busch during that time, so when his usual driver came back last week they hit the track fast. Last week at Auto Club Speedway, they were three-quarters of a lap from victory until Brad Keselowski passed Busch in turns 1 and 2 to snag the win.
Gibson is pragmatic about the loss that would be devastating to some, partly because he’s been around this sport for so long.
This week the team heads to Martinsville, where Busch won a race last season. Gibson is preparing to attack the oldest course on the circuit with a new rules package that is going to bring in a whole new set of challenges that the drivers aren’t used to. Getting through the center of the corner is going to be a premium along with keep the nose inside on exit to be able to root the other cars out of the way. He will also be faced with making a tough pit stall selection and making the car comfortable for Busch.
Read about these challenges and more in this week’s Tech Talk.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – California didn’t end quite the way you wanted it to but the rest of the weekend was really strong. How do you feel your weekend went?
Tony Gibson – We were coming off of a great run at Phoenix. We were running first and second with Harvick all day and it came down to a few laps left, something like 15 to go, and I knew if we came down pit road running P2 at least half of them behind us would come because they weren’t going to out run us the way they were running. I knew some of them would at least try and take two to out run us. I decided to pit and put tires on and 11 of them stayed on the track. We drove back up to fifth but we thought that was our chance to win it. It just didn’t pan out but it was a great finish and a great run all day.
California we unloaded on Friday and that thing was really fast. It was fast all day Friday and sat on the pole. Both practices on Saturday that thing was wicked fast again and we had a great 10-lap average and had good up front speed and end of the run speed. We were really pumped going into the race. We had a car that could win the race if things went right and it started off really good. We led a bunch of laps and ended up leading the most laps. It was pretty much us and Harvick again. The [No.] 20 car had one run there where he was pretty stout and the [No.] 11 had a run where he was pretty good and we were a little bit off because we were too tight and fell back to second or third. We got our car better from the second stop on and it was pretty much between us and Harvick to race it out to the end. At the end we all came and got tires, whether it was two or four. We knew we had to get at least two tires. 13 or 14 behind us took two tires and two guys stayed out so I thought we were in really good shape with the right call at the right time.
We were looking good after the green and stretched the lead out and we were heading into [turn] 3 and coming to take the white when the caution came out. It bunched everybody back up and Keselowski got around four or five of them and then we restarted again. That time it was a legitimate caution there because the back bumper got knocked off of the [No.] 42 and there was a big piece of debris there. So the yellow flew going into [turn] 3 again coming to get the white and that let Keselowski close up to sixth or so and I knew we were going to be in trouble unless traffic held him up. We did the best we could and I made the call that I thought was the right call at the time.
Hindsight is 20/20 and Monday crew chiefing I would have done it different knowing how it played out but at the time I think we made the right decision. The way I look at it we won the race three times. It just didn’t work out for the final deal but we had a strong run and we’ll take that and the momentum heading into Martinsville. I told my guys and Kurt when we went to lunch yesterday, if we keep running like we are our win will come. We are excited and pumped up to head to the next one.
Neff – When you make a two-tire call like that at the end of a race, in order to get the car to feel the same as it did before the pit stop, do you just adjust the air pressure or do you have to adjust the wedge or track bar as well?
Gibson – We made an air-pressure adjustment on the right sides we put on to get them pumped up because the left sides were up on pressure since they had been run so they’d match. Your left to right splits will be off when you do that so we tried to help with that. It took off fine, we were in good shape for the next two restarts but we couldn’t survive that last deal. Two isn’t going to beat four, especially at a place like that where it is so wide and you can get around guys. Kurt kicked himself for not raising his track bar. He saw Keselowski coming and was looking in the mirror paying attention to him instead of adjusting the track bar. He felt like he could have helped his balance a little bit by raising the track bar but I still don’t think we could have held him off. We may have lasted into three but four over two is going to win every time when you’re that close. Especially on a track where it loses grip like that. You can make a chassis adjustment but with this track bar deal the driver can adjust that stuff, which is really cool. Circumstances put us in a bad spot there and we didn’t need to be in that spot but it is what it is.
Neff – We’re headed to Martinsville and it is obviously a lot different than any of the other tracks we’ve been on this year. Drivers have different feels that they like in the car. On a little half-mile track like that, can you make that much of a difference between tight and loose to fit a driver’s style?
Gibson – You can; what everyone fights there is loose in. You’re driving into the corner so hard and you are still turning while you’re breaking. Then you have the drop off from asphalt to concrete. You’re applying brake while you’re decelerating and the rear of the car is really light. We work with the braking balance more than anything to reduce the wheel hop so that you can minimize that loose in. On the other side of the corner, where we call it the 5/8 point, just past center where the curb starts going away from the racing groove, the car kind of gives up right there and it doesn’t want to turn or rotate. At that time you’re back in the gas hard and the rear tires are driving the front tires. The front pops up and the back squats down and the load comes off of the front tires so now it wants to push the front tires. It is a balancing act, managing the entry under breaking and then being able to accelerate straight off of the corner. If the car has any wheel in it and it is rolled to the right it isn’t going to do anything but push the nose and you’ll just lose your exit speed.
Neff – Speaking of the drive off of the corner, we’re going there for the first time with the tapered spacer reducing the horsepower. How is that going to have an impact on the cars getting up and out of the corner?
Gibson – It is going to be big. RPMs in the middle of the corner are going to be way lower. It is 30 points of gear different than what we’re used to. It is going to be a huge deal to overcome there. Keeping the cars loose enough to roll through the center so that you don’t have to use a bunch of brake to overslow it because you aren’t going to have the power to run off of the corner. When you get underneath somebody, especially on the restarts, it is going to be beating and banging and pushing and shoving because you don’t have the acceleration to pull away from a guy or finish a pass up off of the corner. It is going to be a matter of, if you can get a guy pushed up high and keep your nose right on his left rear corner where he can’t get back down then you’ll take the spot. I see it being very difficult to pass there with the motor package the way it is, it is just going to make it worse.
Neff – You mentioned the rear gear, are we going with a smaller rear gear so that you have less rpms coming off of the corner?
Gibson – Yes, it is a lot taller gear. It is just like a bicycle sprocket. We are going to a tall gear so it takes a long time for the top of the chain to get back around to the 360 mark. The smaller the pulley the less teeth are on it so the top of the chain gets around quicker. It is going to be less rpm on the bottom end so, as the car is getting up to speed it isn’t going to have that initial throttle response like we used to have. That is where that rolling through the corner and being really free and being able to roll with speed through the corner without using a ton of brake is going to pay off.
Neff – On pit road at Martinsville, there are only four or five choice spots where the in and out is easy. If you don’t get one of those prime spots, would you rather be at the beginning of pit road in turn 3 or all of the way around toward the exit in turns 1 and 2?
Gibson – On that deal, stalls one and two are really good. I think stalls 11 and 10 are really good, which is the last opening getting into turn 1, and then there is another one at the exit of turn 4. The problem with that one is that it is kind of one a bank so it slopes off. It is an opening but the car doesn’t sit flat. If I can’t get one of the first four then I want to pit on the flat on the front straight on a good flat pit stall. The thing is now, you have to control these tires that guys are taking off. If you have a slanted pit box the tire can roll in or roll off very easily. You have to keep that in the back of your mind when you are picking these stalls now based on the pit stuff that is going on now. If I can’t get one of the first four or five there than I’ll probably just stay on the front straight there towards the middle and roll the dice that we get around someone who ends up down a lap early. That is about the best you can do.
Neff – Talking about the tires getting away from people, we’ve seen a rash of those this year. Is it at least part of it that the new electronic officiating system is spotting it more and it was always going on or is there something more going on this year?
Gibson – Kind of, before guys could take the tire off of the right rear and the jack man would sit the tire next to the right rear corner of the bumper cover and the tire would sit there, and he’d go back to the jack. Now the tire has to be in control all of the way to the mid-line of the pit stall. You saw that this weekend, the tire didn’t go outside of the stall. They rolled the tire toward the wall but they weren’t halfway back when they did it so that is what they are calling an uncontrolled tire now. It can be in the pit box but if NASCAR feels like you don’t have control of that tire then they will bust you for it.
Neff – We have a new aero package. Martinsville is a short track without a lot of speed so aero isn’t a big deal but it still comes into play. What do you feel like you’re going to battle with the smaller spoiler and lower downforce on the front?
Gibson – It will be like it is anywhere else. It is less of a concern there but it is still a concern. Anywhere that you run over 100 mph it makes a difference. It isn’t quite as crucial there. You spend so much of your time with the car in pitch and heave there it is really hard to control the aero platform there. It may be a one out of five on the scale of do we need to worry about it. The big thing is to keep the fenders off of the tires and not really worry so much about the shape of them.
Neff – There was a lot said about the fact that Kurt was running Kevin’s set up the last couple of weeks. How helpful is it that you have two full teams working off of one platform when you get to the track?
Gibson – We’ve always been pretty close. Even when Danica [Patrick] drove, the [Nos.] 4 and the 10 were always close. Our setups at Phoenix and California were maybe 75% the same, they weren’t the exact same. We do have a core geometry setup that we use between the two teams but our shocks and springs and sway bars and wedge vary. We were quite a bit different this past weekend with those, further apart than we were at Phoenix. It isn’t so much a 4 setup or a 10 setup or a 14 setup. It is what we call the Stewart-Haas core geometry setup. You take it from there and adjust on it according to what your driver feels. [Tony] Stewart has tried many times to plug this setup in. He’s plugged in ours and has plugged in Kevin Harvick‘s exact setup in and he hates it. When you say the same setup it isn’t 100% throw all of this in there and it will be fast. No driver drives the same. There are things you have to do to make your driver comfortable. That is what we do. What we call a Stewart-Haas core setup is the geometry that we run and then each team does their own tweaks and things for driver preference.