Tony Gibson has been around this sport for a very long time; as such, he’s seen quite a few changes since he was a member of the 1992 NASCAR Cup Series championship team of Alan Kulwicki. Things are now coming full circle and the sport is getting back to the lower downforce cars that he came in with in the ’80s and ’90s. While the car is turning back the clock the technology is advancing, at Darlington, the No. 41 team with Kurt Busch tested the new digital dashboard that we will see in 2016.
This week in Tech Talk, Gibson discusses the tires of the future, driving the car off the corner at Richmond, multiple grooves and teamwork on pit lane. He also touches base on rolling the center of the corner, returning to the scene of a win and part of being a championship team.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – At the Southern 500 last weekend, you were in the mix all of the way to the end, even when you had to rebound over the last 60 or so laps. How did you feel like your weekend played out?
Tony Gibson – Obviously we felt like we had a car we could win with. We ran first, second and third all night long. It came down to us being on the inside or the outside of [Brad] Keselowski for the first half of the race on who was going to lead. Speed-wise, we definitely had a car to contend for the win but when we got spun out there, by the [No.] 78 car, that put us behind with not too many laps to go. At that point it is about making the best you can out of a bad situation. We had two sets of tires left, and everybody else did, too, but when we spun we only had four laps on them, so we had to put another set of tires on, so that left us with one set for the end.
Luckily it went green for a long time there on that run. We were able to drive from 29th I think, the last car on the lead lap, up to seventh before the caution fell with 10 or 11 to go, whatever it was. Everybody came down pit road and put stickers on and we came out sixth, we gained a spot in the pits, which we’d done all night night long. Everything was really good in the pits. We wanted to line up fifth or seventh because the outside lane was terrible on restarts. The outside lane up against the wall is terrible because that is where everybody runs. The inside lane on restarts has more grip and you can accelerate better. We got kind of hung on the outside there with eight to go and ended up salvaging P6 out of it.
At the end of the day it was disheartening because we felt like we had a car to win. At the end of the day, with 50 to go or whatever we were P29, so we looked at it the other way. We had a great racecar, fast pit stops, in contention to win and led laps. We were able to come back and salvage a decent finish. That’s what, in a championship, is going to make a difference. In these final 10 it is going to be who can salvage the most points in the shortest amount of time. It was a boost in the arm to know that we could keep our heads and stay cool and come back through there and get a top 10 out of it.
Neff – This was the second run with the low downforce package. This time NASCAR had tires that were a little more suitable for it. What did you feel like the pros and cons were for the low-downforce package?
Gibson – I thought it was really good. I felt like the cars could definitely race around each other better. You could get to the back bumpers, run side by side, make moves like you saw at Kentucky a little bit. Obviously that left-side tire was really hard and misbalanced, chassis-wise. I think everyone adapted to it as best they could and made a good race out of that. We headed to Darlington with a better matched-up tire and made the racing even better. I look forward to next year, taking that package and tuning on it some more and having some great races next year. I think next year will probably be one of our best years in a long time of racing.
Neff – There were quite a few people who were struggling with the left-side tires wearing out, especially the left rear. Do you feel like we need to put in a little more work to get the right tire for that package?
Gibson – I think the tire wear is what it needed to be. I think they could probably make the right sides wear a little more so that they are a little more even and all four wear out at the same time. It is like having a bad leg; if you have one leg that is bad you’ll wear the other one out eventually. What happens is, when you have a right side tire that is harder than the left and doesn’t wear as much, it puts all of the load on the left-side tire and makes them wear out because they are doing all of the work. I think if NASCAR can quickly lock in on a package, then Goodyear can go to work and really fine tune the tires for that package for next year. That way all four tires will wear out and you won’t have a big balance shift from left to right.
Neff – You experimented with the digital dash that they’re going to use next year. On Fanvision we heard Busch say it was different not seeing the needles moving up and down. He felt like it was a little more difficult to understand the information he was seeing. How did you feel about the dashboard that we’re going to be using next season?
Gibson – We tested with it some. It wasn’t legal to run until after Watkins Glen so we had a plan to run it as quickly as we could without having to do it in the Chase. Darlington was the perfect weekend to do it; it is a lot different. The lighting of it, the clarity of it, is so much different than regular gauges. It is extremely accurate so it takes a little bit of getting used to by the drivers. Looking at it the display and the colors are something they will have to get used to. We’ve worked on that quite a bit with McLaren over the past few months, and we continued to work with them at the race track in Darlington. We made some big gains with it and there are some things that still need to be worked on to make it better and to define it for each driver.
I feel like, as a company we did the right thing, getting our feet wet and getting a race in with it. It is different testing it than racing it. When you race it you have the pit road stuff going on, the restart stuff, the heat and the vibration that you see in the car throughout a race. I think getting it truly tested under live conditions was the biggest thing that I wanted to get done, going into next year, so if we had problems that we could work on it and have it ironed out going into Daytona.
Neff – We are headed off to Richmond, where you scored your first of two wins this season. Are you bringing back the exact same car you did in the spring?
Gibson – We have the same car, 89 is the same car going back. We’ll start with the same setup. The right-side tire is a little different than it was and the racetrack will be in different condition. Obviously it will be a night race instead of a day race so the balance will change a little bit more than it did last time. We feel like we obviously have a good starting spot to start with and we’ll work from there based on the track conditions and what the right side tire wants.
Neff – The track at Richmond seems to be getting back to a two-groove racetrack, or a little more, like it used to run. Hopefully this tire will make a difference. Does it present a challenge to you to set the car up so that it can handle both grooves or do you focus on getting around the bottom and worry about the top groove when it comes in?
Gibson – The top groove doesn’t really come in until the Xfinity cars run Friday night. We aren’t going to see that top line in practice, and we never do, because it never gets cleaned off and rubber laid down. You don’t have 43 cars on a restart keeping that outside cleaned off and the pace slowing down because of the tires wearing out and guys going up there to try and make time. That will be something during the race that we will have to work on and adjust for as the race unfolds.
Neff – Getting around people there is a challenge and that is part of what makes the racing there so good, you have to work to get around folks. What do you think the key is to getting your car to pass cars?
Gibson – The biggest thing is getting it to roll through the center of the corner. That is always the key to getting around that place. If you aren’t rolling the center really well then the forward drive gets worse because you have so much wheel in it as you are trying to apply the throttle. With the wheel turned so hard to try and make it turn will cause it to just burn the back tires off of it. The tighter you are in the center the worse your drive off will be. Getting the car to roll through the center freely with the least amount of wheel in it is going to benefit all three parts of the corner: entry, center and exit. Rolling the center is crucial there.
Neff – Generally, a softer rear end will make that work better because the rear end stays lower and allows the power to get to the tires. With the ride-height rule that has the car set down as low as it can go all of the time, where do you work to get that drive off to come from?
Gibson – A lot of it is mechanical, but some of it is aero, even though we aren’t running that fast there. You can move the cars around a little bit, as far as chassis rake and things like that, to help forward drive. The biggest thing is to keep the softest springs you can in the back. That will help ease the load on the tire and help it live longer. You can achieve some of that forward drive just by dropping the back of the car, flattening it out, getting the center of gravity lower. What happens is, especially off of turn 4 because you car carrying so much speed through there, versus turn 2 it turns into a lateral, swinging motion, that breaks the car loose. It isn’t so much the straight line of spinning both rear tires. Sometimes just dropping the back of the car and getting the CG lower will help out that situation.
Neff – At the end of the race at Darlington we saw how important pit crews can be. Obviously everyone on the pit lane is doing everything they can to be as fast as they can. How much are you focused on your pit crew as we get ready to make this 10-race run to the finish?
Gibson – We focus really hard on it. The guys on pit road, all of the guys on the [No.] 41, take it very personally. They are all racers and most of us have been together for a very long time. They know that we expect the best out of one another and they work really hard. They take that stuff seriously. That is their gig and they feel like, when it comes to race time, it is their part of the bargain that they have to uphold. They work really hard during the week, watching films and working out to learn techniques that they can do better. They also work on staying fit and being able to perform. We all work hard every day.
When we get to the shop everybody is reviewing film and the driver is part of that, too. The driver has to hit his marks getting in and out of the pits and doing the right thing to make it all happen. It isn’t all of the time the pit crew. Sometimes it is pit selection, sometimes it is the driver. It all comes together as one big happy deal to make it work. The pit stops is that group of guys that work the best together and function together to make it happen.
Neff – Some people may have forgotten that Busch has not run the full season. In the 22 races that you’ve run, you have finished every race. There are only four guys in the top 16 that can claim that. How important is it, just from a competitive or mental standpoint, that you have no DNFs in 2015?
Gibson – It is big. There are times when we probably should have gone behind the wall and taken it but we feel like that is a big deal. You want to run as many laps as you can because you never know when that one or two points, at the end of the deal, could stack up and determine if you make it in or get booted out.
Nobody wants a DNF. Sometimes you can’t control it, it is just what it is is what it is. We’ve been very fortunate, as a team, that when we’ve had bad things happen to us we’ve been able to complete the laps and close it out. It is something to be proud of.