Crew chiefs make the big money because they have to make the calls that can win or lose a race on pit road. Last weekend we saw the race settled in the last quarter-mile of the event thanks to fuel strategy. As the series prepares to head to Michigan International Speedway for the second time this season, the crew chiefs know that it is going to be another race where the right call on pit lane can win the race, and the wrong call will certainly lose it.
Tony Gibson was one of the head wrenches who made the correct call on Sunday which translated into his driver, Kurt Busch, crossing the line under the checkered flag in fifth place. This coming weekend is another race loaded with unknowns as the series returns the high drag aerodynamic package to the track at Michigan.
In this edition of Tech Talk, Gibson touches base on grinding off splitters, getting air to the drivers, what he thinks this aero package is going to do and much more.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – Watkins Glen was an interesting race that ultimately saw three or four different fuel strategies play out at the end. When the checkered flag flew you were in fifth. Explain how you ultimately ended up on the strategy you ran and when you found yourself committed to that strategy.
Tony Gibson – We had a pit-road penalty when we were running eighth early in the race. We were over the wall too soon so we had to start at the tail end of the longest line. That kind of put us in a bad spot, so we had to jump on a different strategy. So we jumped onto a deal where I was going to try and catch the leaders when they had to take four tires where I could just take few. I came in, right before the last stop, right around lap 44 or 45. There was a caution and I took on four tires and fuel and went back out. Then the caution came out around lap 50 so it was still too early for the leaders to come to make it to the end. So, as soon as we went back green and lap 57 hit, we had, like, four green-flag laps on our tires, and all of the leaders pitted for four tires and fuel. I came in and just took on fuel. We took on about 2.5 seconds of fuel, which gained a lot of our track position back.
The No. 4 did not pit when I did. They pitted two laps later and found themselves in like 34th or 35th with nobody else having to pit. If they would have pitted with us as the leaders they would have been 30th or so. Their hand kind of was played to them where they just had to risk it and see if they could make it or they would have never gotten back to the front. My strategy was to do the opposite of whatever the leaders did to try and get my track position back. That got us to like 12th and then we were able to drive back up to the top five. We had a fast car, the pit-road penalty just killed us in the beginning. Then it was just a matter of changing strategies and doing things differently to try and put myself in a different position and get a good finish out of it.
At the end of the day, me, the No. 18 and the No. 22 were on the same fuel mileage. It would have put us good to lap 92.5. If a green-white-checkered had come out, the other guys definitely wouldn’t have made it, but we felt like we could have saved enough to try and make it. That is how all of it played out.
Neff – We saw quite a few pit road penalties on Sunday but most of them seemed to be on the crews rather than on the drivers. Does pitting in the opposite direction result in anxiety that ultimately translates into crew errors?
Gibson – It does. Everything is backwards, obviously, and it can be confusing. We pitted with the No. 78 when everybody pitted. We were two stalls in front of him. We were on his left side as he was getting into his box. Kurt was coming around him and had to slow down for just a second. The guys were anticipating his timing being in the box quicker than that and it just caught them off guard. Things happen; the guys are trying to do everything they can in the least amount of time. A split second in the pits makes up for a bunch of distance on the track. They try and get all they can, and with things being backwards you’ll have those things.
Neff – After the race they started tearing up the racetrack to start a repaving project. There is talk circulating that NASCAR may start running the boot in 2017. Are you in favor of that or would you rather see them stick with the classic course?
Gibson – I wish we would kind of stay with what we’ve got. It is tradition to run that part of the racetrack. You can get more laps in for the fans that can see. I don’t know that the boot is going to make for any exciting racing. It is all tight corners and I just don’t think it is going to make good racing for us because it is so slow and tight. That is just my opinion but I think we’d be better off staying where we are at, keeping things quicker and running more laps in front of the race fans.
Neff – We are headed off to Michigan this weekend for our second run with the high drag aerodynamic package. There are mixed feelings about what we are going to see. What are you looking to see when we get to the Irish Hills?
Gibson – I don’t know. We’ve tossed a lot of things around. I feel like you may see more three-wide and four-wide pack-style racing, but it is hard to say. Indy was such a different racetrack for that package that I don’t think it really showed its potential. Michigan is one of those places where you could see some of that pack racing, maybe, if the cars are stable enough. It isn’t like restrictor-plate racing. There is a lot more stuff going on at Daytona and Talladega. You may see cars closer together and more pack-style racing.
It will all be based on how the cars are driving and we don’t know what that is going to be until we get there. If the cars are locked down and their handling is good then I think you’ll see big packs. If they aren’t and they are really unstable then the guys are going to separate and get as far away from each other as they can.
Neff – Did you at least learn how the car responds and what kind of downforce numbers you were getting out of that package around cars?
Gibson – A little bit. I think we learned a little bit of what to do behind one another and in front of one another. And the answer there was they were quite unstable. Again, it was a flat, one-groove racetrack with no banking. All lateral loads, no vertical loads, so that is why I’m a little bit nervous about this package going up there. Are they going to be that unstable again around each other? If they are then it isn’t going to be a very pretty show. Hopefully it is not, hopefully the banking will make up for it and, with the racetrack being wider, they can probably move the grooves up and run a little bit wider and that will make for a great race like California.
Neff – Side-force plays a big role at the intermediate and 2-mile tracks. With that big spoiler on the back of the car, is side-force as important since that big blade is on the back of the car?
Gibson – Yes it is. Side-force is more important now. They are putting all of this drag into the car but they are also taking total force off of the racecar. Sideforce is what keeps the car stable in yaw when they go into the corner and the car kind of shifts sideways. The car forms that flat, billboard side area that catches it and holds the car stable in the corner. Side-force is really critical but that is every week too.
Neff – Trying to get that big spoiler out of the air is important. Does NASCAR dictate to your the rates on the rear springs and shocks or will you see them squatting the back of the car down like they used to years ago at Daytona and Talladega?
Gibson – You’ll see guys get it as low as they can, they did that at Indy. They’ll try and get the whole car as low as they can out of the wind. You can’t change the relationship between the roof and the top of the spoiler; that is built into the car build. The perfect situation would be to get that blade down lower than the trailing edge of that roof. The next best thing is to try and get the whole car as low as you can to get the air to try and separate out of the bottom and slow the air speed off the top. You’re only going to be able to get so low with these things because you’ll start dragging track bar mounts and things like that. I think you’ll see cars that are extremely low, probably the lowest you’ve seen in a long time.
Neff – On the front of the car, the splitter is sticking out pretty far on the front of the package. It is also somewhat thick. When these cars go out the splitters drag on the ground and we see them shaved down a little bit. Is there a benefit to intentionally having that drag and make it thinner?
Gibson – Not really. In order to get the average splitter lower, one part of it is going to have to drag. You try to limit the whole splitter from dragging all of the way around the race track and shutting the air speed off through the center of the car. In order to get the center and the right side the correct distance off of the ground, the left side will end up dragging a lot more. You have rake in the car side to side, left to right. The left side is lower than the right side. In order to get the right side gap of the splitter to the ground the left side is going to end up dragging. That is just a product of the chassis rake in the car and trying to get the center and right side of the splitter a certain distance off of the ground.
Neff – At Indianapolis we saw the inside of the cars getting extremely hot primarily because of the limited amount of air being vacated from under the car. At Michigan, getting the air to flow around the car will probably be even more important than at Indy. What concerns are there for this weekend to keep the driver comfortable and what will you give up in order to make sure that happens?
Gibson – NASCAR released a bulletin this weekend that during race conditions, we have to have two hoses going through the right side window going to the driver. It is mandatory that they are open all of the time, except during qualifying. All of the time during the race those hoses have to be active and they have to be pointed to the driver. They implemented that rule into it so there wasn’t anyone sacrificing their driver for the sake of aerodynamics. So they just went across the board and made it a rule. All of the drivers are going to have air going to them this week.
Neff – There isn’t a lugnut rule this year. Some readers have noticed that it seems like some teams are intentionally only tightening four lugnuts during stops. Is that something that you are seeing across the board by teams to pick up pit road speed?
Gibson – Yes, that is just it. There is no rule on that anymore. You can hit four lugnuts, get them tight and be fine. We’ve run on three before and been fine. It is just a matter of hitting one less nut. It picks the speed up quite a bit. Everybody is doing it across the board. They’ve all figured that out so everyone is pretty much the same.
Neff – Michigan is notorious for coming down to fuel mileage, as most of these big tracks are. We’ve had two fuel-mileage races in a row. How long ago did you start thinking about your fuel mileage for this coming weekend?
Gibson – We think about it all of the time. All of that will change with this new aero package. We’ll have to get to the race track and get some practice time in and look at our mileage throughout the weekend up until race time. Again, it will probably come down to fuel mileage like it always does. It is what it is and you have to do the best you can at being one of the ones who take the most advantage of it, but that’s what it is going to be again.