The final race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season was not what Trent Owens wanted when his driver, Chris Buescher, had to win to make the playoffs. Brake issues relegated the No. 37 to a long night with no shot to shock the world.
Owens and his team are now left to race for 17th in the final standings. The challenge starts at Chicagoland Speedway, where the flatter intermediate track with the curved back straight throws a few different difficulties at the crew chiefs.
In this week’s edition of Tech Talk, Owens touches base on changing strategies for the teams in the playoffs along with the teams not running for the title. He acknowledges that the racetrack is aged with a large amount of character. As a result, the cars have to be run softer to account for the track fluctuations while still trying to keep the side skirts and splitter in the sweet spot.
Mike Neff – The last race of the regular season saw you unable to put Chris Buescher in the playoffs two years in a row. How did the race unfold from on top of the No. 37 pit box?
Trent Owens – For the [No.] 37 car we had some issues that made for a long night. The brakes just weren’t performing like they should have. It made for a long race for us. If you turn your attention to the race itself, there were some guys up there racing hard. The whole twist with the rescue vehicle causing [Matt] Kenseth‘s problem threw some drama into the race, along with the late caution on top of that. It added some interesting twists to it for sure. As always, the ¾-mile tracks and 1-mile tracks produce great racing, especially when you are at the track watching in person. Richmond was the same as always, although it didn’t take rubber as good as it usually does and that might have actually hurt it a little. However, I always enjoy watching the races there, and it was pretty good up front.
Neff – That wasn’t the first time this year you had brake issues, was it?
Owens – No, it’s not. We’re trying to get to the bottom of it. It isn’t the components or the brakes going away. I don’t think it is the parts and pieces we use, it is finding the proper pad that works for Buescher. We’re struggling to find a package at some tracks. I think Loudon was the last time we spoke, and we had trouble there. It will be a different mindset going back to Loudon after Chicago. Hopefully it will be better.
Neff – You’re battling for 17th in points at this juncture. Chicago is one of the flatter intermediate tracks. What difference is there in setting up for Chicago vs. the higher-banked mile-and-a-half tracks?
Owens – Yeah, Chicago is a track I like as a crew chief. When the race starts, guys can run the bottom and the top. You have tire falloff because the track is worn. Knowing when to put tires on based on cautions will be a challenge. You’re right, it has character. It has some bumps. It isn’t smooth by any means. The backstretch is a little different from other mile-and-a-half tracks because of the shape. It is really hard to compare it to another racetrack. Our setups and air pressures tend to lean toward a flatter-style-setup track.
Neff – The timing of putting on tires was a huge deal at Darlington Speedway and again at Richmond. Do you know what kind of allotment you have for Chicago?
Owens – I haven’t counted them up yet. I know at the start of the season, most every track was short of the amount of tires that we had last year. When you are stage racing you are guaranteed cautions at least twice during the race. You’re going to have two cautions where you’ll change tires, and you want to get the qualifying tires off of the car since we have to start with them on the car now. You’re basically guaranteed three changes, without doing any strategy, no matter how many cautions you get after that. A lot of the races, we’ve been around 30 to 40 laps per set, which makes us kind of tight sometimes.
Neff – We’re getting into fall, so the weather is starting to cool off. Cooler generally relates to higher horsepower. Does that change anything about your approach from a suspension standpoint?
Owens – The only thing it really challenges us with is you get a lot higher speeds on the sticker tires. You have to protect your travels for a high-speed lap, knowing it is going to fall off a second and a half. How do you generate a setup that is still going to comply with the bumps in the track and still isn’t going to change the ride height as much when the pace slows up? Any time you get cooler weather and the speed picks up, you’re still going to have falloff, as much or more when it is sunny, but the lap time you get on stickers can present challenges with keeping the car off of the racetrack.
Neff – Do you have to set up a softer ride because of the tire falloff, or do you need to set up a stiffer ride?
Owens – It is a balance. When the track is bumpy, our cars make the best aero downforce, not scrubbing the ground, but there is a sweet spot just off of it. You see all of the cars riding around, especially at smooth tracks, and how low they are, as far as the front end, and the sides are sealed off almost perfectly. When you go to bumpy tracks, you get those spike loads, and the car wants to travel. You think you could just stiffen up the suspension to keep that from happening, but then it doesn’t ride the best.
The biggest challenge is trying to find a mechanically softer setup that will allow you to run the speed of a mechanically stiffer setup. It comes down to how much not only the driver can take, but [also] the car, and not lose contact with the racetrack as far as the car through the bumps. Any time we go to bumpy tracks it is a tough challenge. You can get the car too soft and make it ride nice, but you won’t find the speed that you need to be competitive. You have to try a little bit of both and see how far in each direction you can go.
Neff – Early on this year or late last year we had an issue with teams manipulating the side skirts. It got to a point where NASCAR issued a rule that told teams they were no longer allowed to touch them during the race. However, every race we see the side skirts still looking like they are flared out. Everyone says it is done by the impact of the car on the track when it first goes onto the track. Is it something that the engineers have figured out that if they put the skirts on at a specific length, they will flare out to the length they want them to be?
Owens – They definitely stopped the over-the-wall guys from manipulating the skirts, which we were definitely doing. They’ve gotten a good handle on that. Now it is a matter of putting the skirts on the car at the right length. We have a four-inch height, that is as low as we can have our skirts when we block it up and go through tech. We have a specific tech height that we must maintain, between the frame and the skirt height. It is a four-inch skirt height that must be maintained as we go through tech.
You put them at the four inches. You set your car up to travel just enough to hit the ground on that first lap. When they hit they flare in the direction that they need to. Unless they take the skirts away from us, I don’t know how you control that. We hope they flare in the right direction and don’t fold under. That is our challenge. As they make more and more rules, I’m not going to say there is always a way, but we’re almost always going to find a way to work around them.
Neff – Stage racing is most likely going to change with the playoffs’ start. Do you think that with the playoffs going on, there will be an even bigger effort to win stage points, or do you feel like teams will be more conservative?
Owens – I guess, now that we’re in the playoffs, I think the guys that are in can’t afford to completely gamble away a race like they could in the regular season when they were already in. It will be interesting to see how their strategy changes. Probably going to race hard for those stage points, maybe harder than they did in the regular season. You see how it helped the No. 78 [Martin Truex Jr.] especially. It has given them a pretty good advantage throughout the playoffs. I think it might present a little harder racing, and it might change some of the gamble strategies you’ve seen at some of the races, as far as short pitting and stuff like that. They can’t afford to go a lap or two laps down now. In the regular season, if they already had a win, they could take that gamble and hope that it worked out best for them.
Neff – At Darlington Speedway, Denny Hamlin had two encumbered wins. You always have to push for every thousandth you can get because that is where the speed is. Do the crew chiefs and teams know that when they bolt a piece onto the car, they are putting something on that will probably wear too much and fail post-race, or are they thinking that it will end up within tolerances?
Owens – They don’t present to the teams what they have found when they have something illegal in post-race tech inspection. There isn’t a lot of information available. You hear the team side and just a little bit from NASCAR’s side, which is pretty black-and-white. So we don’t really know. It is the same old thing. NASCAR will make a rule and we’ll go to work and try and understand what the rule is and how we can maximize the tolerance and be as close as we can to the number but be legal in post-race. I don’t know the ins and outs of it. It is hard to put much faith in anything that you hear rumor-wise from the team side. It is a tough topic.
I think NASCAR is good about, when they find something that they think it is an advantage, they make a statement about it. From time to time I think they find a lot of stuff we never hear about that they deem isn’t an advantage. I trust they are doing the right thing on their side, and then we have to monitor our parts as well. There are things you can do in the rear suspension that will wear and move once the car has been raced. We have tolerances pre-race and we have a different tolerance post-race that accounts for that movement. If it moved outside of that, that is why you saw the big fine.
The toughest thing for me, being a crew chief, it isn’t like it was 15-20 years ago, where the crew chief was the top of the food chain. We seem to be taking the hits of the penalties and suspensions, but there is a lot of work and decisions being made that aren’t always just the crew chief. In the future I think NASCAR is going to have to change. I don’t think upping the fines is going to do enough. I think they’re going to have to start hitting the teams a little more broadly to make a statement.