The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has come down to the final race and Richard Petty has made it clear that Sam Hornish Jr. is most likely not coming back in 2016. But crew chief Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion is keeping his No. 9 race team focused on the prize and trying to finish off the year on a strong note. He knows that a win would be great, but he also knows that there is a title race taking place and he wants to make sure that his team respects the four drivers running for the championship.
This week in Tech Talk, Manion talks about prior knowledge of the tires and how that could help with setup for this weekend. He also discusses dealing with the setting sun in Florida, weekend strategy when there is excessive rain in the forecast and the challenges that the symmetrical track at Homestead presents. He even shines a little light on the technical inspection warnings that have been impacting pit stall selection throughout the second half of the season.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – Phoenix was a long day, a long night, and in the end you finished a couple of laps off of the lead lap. Looking back, how did you feel like the weekend unfolded?
Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion – It was just a long weekend for us, adding insult to injury, with all of the rain and the shortened race. We just struggled all weekend, from the time we unloaded until the time we loaded it back into the trailer soaking wet. We just never got a handle on the handling in the turns. We really fought tight in the middle. Any time we fixed that it was just too loose in and too loose off. It was just a real struggle for us the whole weekend.
Neff – The surface in Phoenix is relatively new, although the sand out there is aging it a bit. Were tires much of an issue? It seemed like quite a few people took two on the competition caution.
Manion – Y’know, there definitely was some falloff in the first 10 to 15 or 20 laps but then they kind of stabilized. It seemed like a lot of people ran the same lap times after that. Many of the faster guys ran the same speeds for a long time. There was the initial loss and then kind of a stabilized tire. I don’t think anyone had any tire problems that I’m aware of.
Neff – Homestead-Miami Speedway does not have a dogleg on a straightaway. Does that make much of a difference when you go into the weekend, for how you set up your car, not having to deal with any kind of arcing curve on the front straight?
Manion – No, there is very little that any dogleg at any mile-and-a-half track plays into car setup. As far as this being a true, symmetrical race track, what is unique about it is that it is a worn out surface. There are multiple grooves and, truth be told, the fast way around is where the grip is. The grip is up against the wall. Your guys that feel good high and against the wall will do well here.
Neff – If your most important thing to get it to turn in the center, or is it your entry since you’re running up against the wall?
Manion – It is a tight-off condition here. As you load into the corner and around the corner, it just increases the load the further around you go. It seems like the exit of turn 4 always gets extremely tight. With so many people running different grooves, the low lane will work good for a few people. It still gets tight off of [turn] 4 even if you’re running low.
Another thing that is tricky about Homestead is the start time. The sun sets in the west and, with the positioning of the track, it gets treacherous coming down the front straight.
Neff – Last week you had to deal with that in qualifying, not so much in the race. Is that something that, try as you might with tinted visors and tear-offs, in the end it is the driver just having to deal with it?
Manion – NASCAR allows us to add some tape, or a darker film on the windshield. It almost looks like a material that you will find on production cars. It will have small little holes in it. The drivers can also put pull offs or tear-offs on their visor. They can use tinted ones that can be pulled off as the race goes into the night. They can go clear or amber, whichever they choose.
Neff – You just got out of a rain weekend and it looks like this weekend could be another. When you look at a weekend that is filled with rain predictions, do you worry more about track position and getting the starting position or do you focus on race setup and let qualifying fall where it may?
Manion – We went into Texas with the thought of starting in qualifying trim and working on race setup on Saturday, because Saturday looked good from a weather standpoint. We planned to do race trim on Saturday and, lo and behold, it came and went and we never got onto the racetrack. Coming down to South Florida [Thursday], it was a 60% chance of showers and I never saw a drop of rain. We opted to come in race trim. We’re going to pay attention to the weather. We like to start in qualifying trim but we want to, for sure, get some race practice in here. We’re going to play it safe and run race practice first but, keeping in mind that the field is set per the rulebook, based on first practice speeds if qualifying is rained out. At some point, in that practice, if it looks like qualifying could be rained out we will tape up and try and make a quick run.
Neff – Looking at the Goodyear tire notes for the weekend, the tires we are running here are the same ones you ran last year. They are also the tires you ran at Chicago and Texas. Are you able to use anything from your notebooks at those tracks, going into this weekend even though every track is different?
Manion – Absolutely. This has been a good tire for Goodyear. It had some decent speed at Chicago and at Texas. The tracks are somewhat similar. The basic setup is the same. You can look at some toe and Ackerman settings, along with camber and some air pressure trends for those tracks. You can work through past notes, since we ran this tire last fall, and have a good jumpstart on it for sure.
Neff – You’re going into championship weekend and there are four guys with a shot at the title. Are there any edicts that come down from NASCAR about giving them extra space, or is it just common courtesy that you know they are running for the title so you’ll give them a little wider berth, knowing you are running for a win while they are running for the big trophy?
Manion – NASCAR gives the ol’ pep talk to you. Just a reminder of what is at stake. It is just a friendly reminder. Me being a crew chief it does affect the way I pick pits and who I pick pits around. It also affects the way I potentially call the race and I do make sure the spotter knows for sure. You wouldn’t want to be that guy. The one who ruins one of the four chances at the title, whether it is blocking them in the pits or getting in the way on the race track if it is not your day. It is just a little bit of common courtesy, letting them race and have at it. At the same time keeping in mind we are here to do a job. We’re playing in the championship game and we’re there to win.
Neff – Do the top four guys go through tech first or is it just the way it is normally done?
Manion – It is standard operating procedure. Tech will happen the same way it always does pre-tech up until the race. Maybe post-race tech will be a little something different for the Chase guys. Obviously the champion and the runner-up will be impounded for sure. I would imagine they’ll impound all four of them and wait for clearance of the rules. They may very well take all four of them back to the R&D center.
Neff – We continue to hear about warnings and how it impacts pit stall selections. When you are going through technical inspection, there are minor adjustments that can be made to make sure you pass tech. How bad does it have to be for them to pull you out of tech or make you go back around?
Manion – Most of the warnings are either being late for qualifying or race inspection or the LIS (Laser Inspection System) machine. The LIS is pretty cut and dried. There are tolerances. If you don’t pass the tolerances you go around. I don’t know if I can answer the question fairly or true. There are numbers and red and green lights. If it is green you pass if it is red you go around. As for template issues, those can generally be fixed after one failed attempt. They shouldn’t be hard to fix quickly. That warning system, they had to put some process in place and changed it midway through the year. It is a work in progress for sure.