The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway, where the crew chief has the least amount of input into the speed of the cars of any race weekend all season.
Kevin “Bono” Manion, crew chief for Sam Hornish Jr.‘s No. 9, is this week’s crew chief for Tech Talk. He talks about the difficulty of not being able to get any speed or comfort out of the car at Kansas Speedway last weekend, the importance of tires last week and new body changes adding to the 2016 rule changes.
As for this weekend’s race, he touches on air flow and driver comfort and the balance that NASCAR tries to maintain between the two. He also provides some insight into the strategy with a single green-white-checkered finish and the lack of impact of tech inspection infraction penalties this week vs. other race weekends.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – Kansas looked like one of those frustrating mile-and-a-half days for you; started 31st and came home in 28th and were pretty much in that area most of the day. Was it really that tough to pass?
Kevin “Bono” Manion – It was tough to pass but, on top of that, we just had an ill-handling car all weekend… never really had a lot of speed. We were really unsecure feeling in the back end and, any time we got that fixed, it was just too tight in the middle. We had a pretty good race there in the spring. We felt like we could go back and try a few things and nothing really worked out. Like you said, it was just a frustrating mile-and-a-half weekend for us.
Neff – With that fresher pavement out there, NASCAR brought a pretty hard tire. It seemed like tires were even a little more important there than they were at Charlotte. Was that your experience?
Manion – Yeah, they were, but still, the race played out at the end with people staying out. The No. 48 stayed out that one time. As soon as you could make it on gas, even two stops back, people stayed out. I think next year, this new rules package and the softer tires are going to open up a totally different way of calling the races. A lot of different strategies are going to play out. It should be fun, based on what we have seen from the package so far this year.
Neff – We now know what the rules package looks like for 2016. Did you have some development underway on the cars for next year or, now that you have the rules, are you getting full bore into getting your cars ready for next season?
Manion – Being a Ford team, we do have somewhat of a body modification coming out for next year. As parts are just now starting to roll in, we’ve been to the tunnel a couple of times. As far as on-track stuff about the new package, we just have the information that we gained from the two races, Kentucky and Darlington, that I feel like we got a pretty good handle on. I thought we were pretty racy at both of those tracks. Hopefully this new body, once we get working on it, will get it improved over this year and we’ll see what we have for next year.
Neff – The rules package for restrictor plate tracks has been the same since 2013, which gives you 11 races under your belts with it. Have all of the major things that will be discovered about these cars have been discovered or is there still room for improvement?
Manion – With the limited amount of testing that we have on speedways leaves some things that we can do in the wind tunnel. It has been fairly nice that the rules have been left alone at superspeedways. With everything else we’ve got going on, it is mostly fine tuning and putting another coat of wax on them. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still working on them and so on and so forth, but I think that this package works really well right now. Fords have a new body so we’ll definitely have to get to work. The cars that have been strong all year are going to be strong. Leading up to Daytona we do a lot of wind tunnel testing but, once we get through the [Daytona] 500 and it is kind of an impound race for the other superspeedway races, you definitely spend more time on your downforce stuff than you do on your speedway stuff. We are already working on our 500 car for next year, even before we come to Talladega for this weekend. Looking forward to a fresh start with a new body and moving forward.
Neff – Slugger Labbe tweeted this week that said the turnaround on a new car is about six weeks from raw materials to a new car. Is that a similar experience for you guys?
Manion – Our situation is a little bit different from some of the other teams. We rely on our partnership and alliance with Roush Fenway Racing. As for the lead time on the chassis, I’m not 100% sure. If he said six weeks, that is probably good. From the time you hit enter on the computer you have a week or more of building the chassis and another week or so of hanging the body. You have a couple of days in finish fab and another few in paint shop, that is a pretty good number, for sure. With that said, with those teams who have the resources to do all of that in house, if they wanted to cut that in half they could do it with no problem. However, probably the way their scheduling works, six weeks out for a new car is probably fairly feasible, I believe.
Neff – There will be pack racing at Talladega, like it or not. When you are back in the pack, getting air into these cars to cool them down is a challenge. Is there any air that gets into these cars through the wheel wells or around the splitter that helps drop the temperature on these engines or does it all come through the radiator opening?
Manion – For the engine, everything comes through the radiator opening. This weekend, temperatures should be down thanks to it being fall, so everyone should be fairly safe on engine temperatures. On driver comfort and cooling, the aero package we run puts the front splitter down on the ground. With that, we saw it at Michigan with the high drag package, with the sustained RPMs the headers get extremely hot and the driver gets hot, especially his foot. His foot gets hot because it is constantly on the gas pedal holding it down. We are allowed to open as many NACA ducts as we like to allow more air in to cool the driver. These cars have a lot of cooling/aero panels underneath. There is a fine line with what NASCAR will allow and not allow as far as insulation under the driver’s feet on the underbody that is an aero deflection or a heat shield. We’ve been doing this long enough that we know the rules and regulations but they always seem to get somebody and say, “we don’t like that.” There is definitely ways we can cool the car just by opening NACA ducts but we all know there is a line between speed and cooling. Driver safety and keeping him cool with a sharp mind is fairly important.
Neff – There is a lot of design effort that goes into the cowl openings where the air goes into the engine. Can the shape and configuration of those have a dramatic impact on the efficiency of the engine?
Manion – There has been a lot of time spent on cowl and air boxes over the years. Definitely with the EFI system, it has made the air box more forgiving. You used to spend a lot of time on those, matching your cowl and air cleaner and base and everything and it was very, very important. With the new EFI package that was brought out a couple of years ago, the computer corrects for a lot of imperfections. It is still important, but not as important as it was a few years ago.
Neff – Is it not as big of a penalty for a team to be docked pit selection at Talladega due to the lack of urgency of getting off of pit road out front?
Manion – Yes, we aren’t in that boat with the penalty. If I was to have a 15-minute penalty for practice it wouldn’t bother me in the least bit. It might even be a blessing in disguise because you might miss that first big pack and miss the wreck. If we have to qualify on practice speeds, it would be a detriment. You want to get out there in that first big pack, right away, where that biggest draft and the most speed is going to be. The only thing that first practice does is set the qualifying order, so that is relatively important as well. Most teams, if they had a penalty at Talladega I don’t think it would be the end of the world.
Looking back at last week though, I don’t think anybody says it is only Talladega coming up so let’s try and cheat the body a little bit or try and manipulate the rear toe on the laser machines. If we have to go around, it is only Talladega. I don’t believe anyone would think that but there are some people who are sneaky.
Neff – You have two cars on your team; some organizations have three or four. Is there any real feasibility in planning to try and work with your teammate or is it just an organic thing that evolves as the race goes along?
Manion – You know, it would be nice if it went that way, but it is every man for himself. Towards the end of the race, if your teammate is behind you and it is a green-white-checkered, you would hope that they would say, “I’m just the guy pushing today.” Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug and just get behind and push. Then when you come to the checkered flag, you maybe stick your nose out there. I think it is every man for themselves. With the Chase format this year there will be a select group of cars that try to be safe and a handful of cars that try to go for the win because they have to. Our theory with this race is to treat it like any other race. Try to lead laps and be the leader, try to be in the lead pack. That is our thought process going in. Sometimes you draft better with a different car behind you or in front of you so you may stick with them even if it is a different manufacturer and not your teammate.
Neff – One green-white-checkered instead of three for this race. How does that change your strategy?
Manion – I don’t think it really does. Before you might have said, in case there is a green-white-checkered. Very seldom would I say we don’t have enough gas in case there are three green-white-checkered finishes. Sometimes you say we’re good to the end, save me a little in case we get a green-white-checkered. It is never three. I don’t think it is really going to change the strategy. If and when it comes down to the only green-white-checkered, it may be more crazy because they know this is it, this is the last lap and we have to make something happen here.
I think it is a good idea that they’ve knocked it down from three to one. I’ve been at these races, not too long ago here at Talladega, where we used all three of them. It was basically you finishing with a process of elimination. You drug your car down pit lane on flats or sparking or leaking oil. I’m glad they left it at one for the fans but all in all I think it is a good move.