Photo Credit : Mike Neff

Tech Talk: Smooth Surface, Aero and Mechanical Grip All in Play with Trent Owens

Trent Owens and his No. 37 JTG Daugherty Racing team had a long weekend at New Hampshire. They are now packed up and heading to Indianapolis for another flat race track, although this one presents a whole new set of challenges. The sticky stuff threw Owens a challenge at Loudon but brake issues spoiled the day before the PJ1 could wear off of the track.

Getting ready for Indianapolis sees the team worrying about getting the car down to the ground without going too far, developing strategy to take advantage of the size of Indianapolis, and maximizing horsepower. The team also has to balance mechanical grip like a short track with aero from Intermediates and keep their eyes on RPMs in the corners to determine if shifting gears might be an advantage this weekend. Owens also gives a little insight into the shark fin which caused Kyle Larson heartburn last weekend and the flaring side skirts in this week’s edition of Tech Talk.

Mike Neff – We just got done at New Hampshire. I know you’d probably like to completely forget about it but the readers would like to know what went down. What does your rear view look like for the Magic Mile?

Trent Owens – We definitely have some work to do before we head back up there for the next race. We struggled with our brake package the most. It is hard to assess the setup when you’re struggling with your brakes. We certainly need to find a better balance for him when we go back up there. Our alliance car, the No. 3 had a decent race, so we’ll probably have a look at that car and start similarly to where they raced. They were somewhat competitive. Hopefully we can find the gremlins in our brake package and show up better next time.

Neff – The topic of the weekend was VHT, PJ1, Gooey Stuff, whatever people wanted to call it. What kind of a curveball does that throw to you, as the crew chief, as you look back at it and realize it didn’t stay down for the whole race?

Owens – It isn’t that bad when the PJ1 or whatever it is called stays, but when it goes away halfway through the race, the drivers have to adjust the line they’re running. Some cars are going to react better, as far as some change for the better, some change for the worse and some don’t change at all. It definitely makes it tough. I’m not going to say I disagree with anything they’re trying to do. I thought the race was excellent. I thought the restarts were good. At least from my perspective I thought it improved the racing for Loudon.

It would be nice if it lasted the whole race. I think the stuff they did at Bristol helped that race track as well. I have to say I agree with the efforts of doing it. The only thing I can say about Loudon is I don’t think they carried it far enough around the turn. I think it kind of went away before exit and might have caused some problems for guys. It definitely makes our job a lot tougher, knowing now that it might not last the whole race. I don’t really know what you can do, other than having your driver try different lines during practice sessions and make sure your car performs on each line.

Neff – In talking with Tony Gibson last week in preparation for the race at Loudon, he said loose in and loose off was what everyone would be fighting in order to get it to turn in the center. With the PJ1 on the track did that change that dynamic? It seemed like more guys were talking about being tight, especially off of the corner, rather than being loose.

Owens – The traction agent definitely fixed the exit problem. You had more of a tight condition past center and on exit than you did in the past. The loose in was still there, and that was probably one of our biggest problems, so it didn’t really fix that. That is one of the biggest components of that race track. You have to get your dynamic cross weight so low to get through the middle of the corner that it is hard to tune for the entry exit. It did help the exit, maybe if they would continue it forward in the corner and more on the exit side it would help that as well.

Neff – We are now headed to the world’s most famous race track. There are so many different angles of what is going on up there. They have said they will not be putting down PJ1. When you approach the Brickyard do you deal with it almost like a road course rather than an oval just because of the pure size of the place?

Owens – Yeah, it is tough because the mechanical end of it is like a short track and then the aerodynamic side of it is like an Intermediate track. It takes a special combination to run well there. The track itself, we all love going there for the historical part of it, but it is tough for our stock cars to race on it. Clean air is huge. You can call the strategy much like you do at road courses. Work your race backwards on the fuel. It will be interesting to see how that works out now with the stages. It can be a rewarding place but it can also be a tough place because it can be so hard to pass.

Neff – Paul Menard, a couple of years ago pulled the maneuver with Slugger Labbe on the box, and a couple of guys tried it last year too, when a restart happened guys pitted off of the back of the pack because they felt like they could get clean air and make up some time rather than being in the gaggle of cars. Is that something that is on your plate as you look at the stages this weekend and the ultimate run to the checkered flag?

Owens – Most definitely, we do that at Pocono as well. Sometimes when you don’t have the track position, you can hit pit road right when the restart happens, because that is the slowest full lap you’re going to get when it goes green. So get in your pit stall, make your stop and then when you are in clean air you can run seven to eight tenths faster than when you were racing around other competitors. If it falls inside your fuel window, and you know other guys are going to have to pit, possibly under green conditions, it definitely can play out in your favor in a huge way.

Neff – Indy is one of those places that, if not the smoothest, one of the two or three smoothest places we go to all season long. Does that let you be more aggressive on bump stops, springs and shocks to just drop it down on the earth and leave it there with how few bumps there are in that track?

Owens – You’d think the smooth track would be easier to get your car off of the race surface. You can actually get your car too low when the tracks are so smooth. It is difficult to get the right attitude. That is exactly what we’ll focus on when practice starts. Studying all of the measurements on the car, studying pictures, we can definitely get more aggressive on the shock travel. We can control the splitter up and down better on the smooth tracks. But it does present some challenges because we normally have to protect for the bumps and the rest of the track is what it is. This is two and a half miles of smoothness so we have to be about perfect.

Neff – We’ve seen it at Pocono and some people talked about doing it at Loudon. Is there any thought of shifting at Indianapolis since the two main straights are so long?

Owens – We don’t plan on shifting right now. If this aero package and the hotter temps lead to a situation where the RPMs in the corner drop down we may give it a shot. We’ve done the math on it and right now it doesn’t look like it is the smartest thing to do. We can’t run the ratio we run at Pocono. You never know with this aero package. Mid corner we are a lot slower than we were in the past when we had the aero on the car. They have to use a lot more brake. If the RPM presents itself I am sure someone will try it.

Neff – You said you run a different gear than you run at Pocono. Is that because the front straight at Pocono is so much longer than at Indy that they don’t let you run quite as tall of a gear?

Owens – Talking more about the third gear, when you talk about shifting. We don’t get to play around in the transmission as much at Indy as we do at Pocono. They look at Pocono as a track where we can shift and they know we’re going to shift so they open the ranges up for us a little bit.

Neff – One question that is more general than Indianapolis specific, we saw Kyle Larson get dinged for the shark fin last weekend being a little too low. Steve Letarte made the comment, during the broadcast, that the shark fin creates drag and slows the car down. In looking at it, you’d think that it is running the same direction as the air going over the car, it would not seem to obviously cause drag. How does having that fin up in the air, on the deck lid, cause drag?

Owens – My best guess is the shark fin topic would be more for side force. When we went to the shorter spoiler, some of the things we were doing with the taller spoiler to gain side force kind of changed the way you tried to get the air speed between the left and right sides of the car. It kind of affects speed and creates pressure on the right rear to get more side force on the car. The shenanigans were probably to get more side force. The cars do yaw out enough to where that shark fin does have a drag component. It might not see the drag decrease at all with the slip angles of the car but as the car skews out to the right you could see some of that.

Neff – We have seen Indy turn into fuel mileage races before. Is fuel mapping anything that you worry about going into that race or is it pretty much wind it out as hard as you can get it and worry about the fuel when we get to the end?

Owens – It is not a place where we can say we want to decrease power to get fuel mileage. Obviously you want both. It is a race track where we want to keep full power at all times. Some engine builders are a little better with fuel mileage than others. For the most part, this year, we’ve been pretty decent against the competition on fuel mileage. But we won’t do anything like we do at road courses. Sometimes we’ll give up a little horsepower on the top end to gain a little fuel savings. At Indy the majority of people are going to want to have maximum power.

Neff – At one point, a year or so ago, there were some issues with teams intentionally flairing the side skirts. NASCAR cracked down on it a little bit. It seems like the last ten or 12 races, that side skirts are starting to get flared out a good bit again. It came up Sunday when Kyle Busch’s car fell off of the jack it seemed to flare his out even more dramatically. Is that something that NASCAR is telling you not to flare out and, if they become too far outside the car that you’ll be called in on them?

Owens – Yes, it is more of the pit crew members pushing the car out or intentionally adjusting the side skirts. That kind of flaring, that you do physically with your hand. That is what they are trying to control. If you’re running a real soft suspension and drop it off of the jack, and that causes it to flare out, I don’t know how far a team can prevent that or how much NASCAR can do to police that.

Obviously we know it is an advantage or it wouldn’t be a topic of conversation. We try to get everything we can. If it catches the apron right or something like that and causes it to flare, that is going to happen. They have just told us about the crew members touching them and making body modifications. They really haven’t cracked down on the stuff you see during the race that just naturally happens. I don’t know that there is any way to police that other than taking them off of the car. I guess time will tell.

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What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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