After six months of learning how to run with the new aerodynamic package in 2016, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams had one final weekend off. They now begin a 14-week run to the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Some teams used the off-week to regroup, others used it to fine tune their cars for the stretch run, and some seized the opportunity to re-energize. As they head back to the track they will run the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Trent Owens, crew chief of Aric Almirola‘s No. 43, discusses his free weekend with us this week, but he then looks ahead to the high-banked concrete oval of Bristol Motor Speedway. Owens also covers the shock package challenge for the concrete surface, rubber buildup, fuel strategy and the impact of aero even on a half-mile track.
Mike Neff – Did you have to opportunity to go anywhere and really enjoy a week off, or were you just catching up on stuff that needed to get done and had some extra days to accomplish that?
Trent Owens – It was more of a few days off. Most of us took Thursday and Friday and made it a long weekend. I took some time to reset from the schedule. It is still what we call the summer stretch before the off-weekend. We reset from all of the travelling, got to play some golf and see some family and just kind of reset.
Neff – Did you get a chance to watch the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race Wednesday night, and if so, what was your take away from that?
Owens – I watched the first practice and noticed that everyone was staying away from the bottom groove. I watched the second practice and noticed that they were all running the bottom groove. Then I watched some of the Truck race, and I was impressed that the bottom groove worked so well. It is a hard gauge. I definitely wanted to see that cars or trucks could run through that new area.
The word I got from the XFINITY practice today … was that cars were running both grooves. That is encouraging. With the Cup cars and the level of competition, it is sometimes a hard comparison. The horsepower difference to the Trucks is also a challenge. It was encouraging to see Trucks run on the bottom and to see it hold up pretty good.
I think it is worth trying. Everyone always wants to get negative in the beginning, but I commend NASCAR or the track or whoever made that decision to do that. It seemed like a big effort to make it multi-groove. Bristol has really been pretty painful if you have to restart on the bottom, especially late in the race. You can give up five or six spots very easily getting stuck on the bottom, so I applaud their efforts.
Neff – At the end of the Truck race, similar to what we’ve seen at Dover and Martinsville, the rubber built up pretty extensively in the groove. It is to the point where you have to straddle it, move above it or move below it. Is that something you anticipate having to deal with late in the runs on Saturday night?
Owens – When we get late into the green-flag runs, the track takes a lot of rubber, and the groove can very well move up more and more off of the bottom. … Sometimes you get a late caution and the rubber actually picks up on these concrete race tracks. As they ride around real slow under caution they pick the rubber off of the race track with their hot tires, and the groove will change when you go back to green. When you run the long green-flag runs, that is when you really see the top lane and the middle lane especially rubber up quite a bit.
Neff – The track was repaved, which is what brought about this effort to make a top and bottom groove. The track does still seem to be relatively smooth compared to older Bristol. Does that afford you an opportunity to be a little more aggressive with your shock package, or do you have to build in some extra rebound just because of the transitions from corner to straight?
Owens – Yeah, they really did help the rebound transition off of the exit of the corners onto the straightaway. We can get a lot more aggressive with ride height stuff and getting the car lower on the racetrack than we could in the past. … However, to say it is easier or more difficult to tune the shocks is probably not accurate. Bristol has always been a real mechanical-effort track, and it still is, so the level of difficulty for tuning the shocks is pretty much the same. However, with the new package we are starting to focus a little more on the aero side, even at Bristol, than we did in the past.
Neff – During the Truck race’s post-race interview with Brett Moffitt, he said that, even at Bristol, aero was significant. With the new package, do you feel like the mechanical side may be even more important because, while it is a half mile, there is still aerodynamic downforce on the cars?
Owens – We’re going to have less downforce than we had in the past most everywhere we go. If you’ve got the most downforce it is going to pay off. It is either going to pay off in a way where it is easier to set the car up thanks to the advantage from the downforce. Bristol is a track where if you can get a little bit of an unusual mechanical setup, you’re always going to give up some aero behind someone. Just like Moffitt said, in traffic or trying to pass people it is surprising that, at a track like Bristol, that the aero still matters. It looks like this season is the first wave of lower downforce. It looks like 2017 will be even more of that. As we start to take downforce off of the cars, finding the proper mechanical balance is a little more difficult.
Neff – There has been a lot of discussion about pit road speeds, especially thanks to the penalties levied against Martin Truex, Jr. These things showed up a couple of years ago when Brad Keselowski took advantage of the timing loops. Since they put in the extra loops, are there advantages to some pit stalls over others besides the obvious four that are at the beginning and end of the two pit lanes?
Owens – Yeah, with the additional timing loops there are less stalls that are an advantage. That is why they put in the new loops. It also prevents them from having to police a situation like the No. 78, which is definitely in the rule book but was never really policed. You had to be at the front for someone to see you do it. There are the four obvious good pit stalls. When it comes to the time to choose your pit, you hope you qualify well first off. Then you try and pick around some cars you won’t be racing with so you can have a clean in and out of the pit stall.
I personally like pitting on the backstretch just because you can take advantage of the radius between the two pit roads, backstretch vs. frontstretch. If it is clear under the caution, going around the corner, you can make up a little time if you have clear track rather than being bunched up as everyone is coming down pit road. … If a pitstall I like doesn’t present itself, I certainly don’t like being in the middle of either pit road, I might go to the frontstretch.
Neff – Is this a similar tire to what you ran in the past, is it something from earlier this year or something completely new?
Owens – No change on the tire. The tires seemed to work fine last time. So luckily there was no tweaking of the tire. I’m generally glad to hear that. The biggest thing they did different this time is they tried to do some prepping of the racetrack itself. They did not change the tire, they tried to get the track surface to help out more so than changing the tire.
Neff – Fuel has come into play at this race before. Is the possibility there for fuel to be an avenue, or are the tires going to give up so much that you will not be able to stretch fuel to where it is an advantage?
Owens – Track position is very important, unless there is a green-flag cycle where you end up with 10 cars on the lead lap. That makes it easier for the guys on the lead lap to make whatever strategy they want. Fuel definitely can come into play at a place like Bristol. The biggest thing when you start talking about fuel you can gain so much per caution lap. You can not only gamble on making it to the end on tires with a full tank of fuel, you can also gamble on getting a certain amount of caution laps. If you’re 20th to 25th and you decide to pit off cycle, I think the tires are good enough to stay out, especially when the track is rubbered up, like we talked. It seems to prolong the tire fall-off.
You can stay out after a green-flag run is what I’m trying to say. If we are put into a situation where we need track position we’re willing to pit off sequence to try and make it work. I’ve seen races there in the past where fuel has been most definitely a factor.
Neff – Weather can be a factor at this time of the year at Bristol. It has impacted the night race several times in recent years, and it even paid off for Chris Buescher a couple of weeks ago. When you unload off of the truck, are you going to be in qualifying trim to lay down a couple of fast laps just to make sure you know what you’ve got in case practice is cut short before qualifying happens?
Owens – Since they did away with that rule where we start by points no matter what, we don’t have to worry about putting a fast lap up. We’ll be in race trim when practice starts and don’t plan on going to qualifying trim until the end of the second practice. For us, I think our best effort is to do the best we can to get the car competitive in race trim so that Aric can race well. If we can pull some strategy during the race, as far as the Chase front we’re out where points are concerned, so we have to get a win some way so if we have to try and steal one that is what we’ll do.
Neff – You will have to watch the radar a little bit if weather might be an issue. Is that something where you will roll the dice a little bit earlier to where it is a bigger gamble than you would normally take so that you can have track position when the weather moves in versus the odds that it will go the distance and you want to set yourself up to make it to the finish to win it at full distance?
Owens – Most definitely. We have our own weather program that we’ll stay tuned to during the race. If the race is going and it looks like weather might have an impact we will definitely gamble on the weather. With the situation we are in in the points we’ll look at the weather, and if it doesn’t come and we have to pit under green and lose two laps, so be it, that is the gamble we took. I think you’ll definitely see us try and do exactly what the No. 34 did in Pocono. We will do something different, especially if weather is approaching. With it being a night race they aren’t going to go until 4 or 5 in the morning to get the race started. With that timeframe we know they are limited.
Neff – Almirola’s best finish at Bristol was a couple of years ago when he finished third in the spring race. Do the notes from that race still have an impact with the current setup that you are going to be running?
Owens – No. We went back with that exact setup back in 2015 when they took the horsepower away and had a different downforce balance and it just made the car completely different. Historically Aric has always been really, really fast at Bristol. He really enjoys racing there and we just tend to find a lot of bad luck there in the race at Bristol, but we’ve always been fast. The setup has been quite different, even from 2015 to this year, the stuff we ran last year and we raced competitively with just has not applied to this year. Every time we do these downforce changes, at least for us, the setups are changing drastically. I wish I could look back at 2014 and say that is a great setup to use but it just isn’t the case. The car had more horsepower then, the car had more downforce and more rear downforce balance, everything has changed now.
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