After two races in the playoffs, the No. 3 of Austin Dillon is in a tie with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the final spot to transfer into the second round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Making the playoffs is a big deal for an organization, but advancing is what it is all about. There are certainly financial advantages to making a second or third round, but there are also bragging rights. Doing what it takes to advance in the playoffs is a big deal and gets increasingly more difficult each round.
Dillon’s crew chief Justin Alexander chats this week with Tech Talk about the PJ1 compound that was utilized at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, aerodynamics at the high vertical load track in Dover International Speedway and the size of the brake package to be utilized at the concrete oval — among more topics.
Mike Neff – How do you feel your day played out in New Hampshire?
Justin Alexander – We didn’t end on the best note. We started the race off really well. One of our biggest problems was short-run speed. We just didn’t have it. We couldn’t take off very well, but after about 20 laps our car would come to life. We would really start passing guys back. We’d lose two or three spots on the restart and we would end up passing all of those guys back and more.
The first two segments went green, and we drove our way up through the field to 14th or 13th or whatever. The car was handling really well. We weren’t really making any changes to it; he was happy with it. Then, at the end of the second segment, when [Kevin] Harvick spun, they brought out the red flag and we all sat on the racetrack for however long it was, [and] we think that maybe the brakes got hot and some things got heat soaked. We had a little right-front damage from that accident. It wasn’t bad, but it might have been just enough to mess the aero balance up just a little bit.
From there on out, our car just never was the same as it was in the first half of the race. He just never had the grip he wanted, and the car was just too loose. We kind of played catch up for the rest of the race. We weren’t terrible, we just weren’t able to drive up through there like we could early in the race. From there on, we maintained where we were and just fought hard to get to the end of the race.
We ended up where we ended up. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot either. We weren’t happy with it, but it could have been a lot worse.
Neff – NASCAR had the PJ1 down again this weekend. The first race in Loudon, it seemed as though it stayed in place for the entire race. This time around, it seemed like it stayed on the track the entire time. Is that how it appeared to you; do you think it gave you grip all day long?
Alexander – Yes, I think so, although once our car got worse during that second half of the race, it was hard to judge our speed during the first half of the race. At one time we started to think the traction compound was starting to give up some and we were losing some grip, but relative to the field, the field still seemed to stay the same speed. I think relative to the field we just got a little bit worse. I don’t think it gave up. Guys still ran it it and used it. As to how much it gave up, I don’t really know, not being out there. I think it did stay around for most of the race.
Neff – We head to another mile-long racetrack this weekend, although this one couldn’t be any more different than where we are coming from. You’re going to be handling the dropping off into the corners at Dover. We’ve been dealing with the lower downforce package all year, but the way you fall into the corners and it throws you into the corners, aero is always going to come into play, but does it play much of a role in cornering at Dover?
Alexander – Oh yeah, Dover and Loudon are both 1-mile racetracks, but their behavior is totally different, like you said. Dover is much higher speed, high-banked, basically an oversized Bristol [Motor Speedway]. We’re going so fast there that aero does play a huge role. You really want to bring your fast speed intermediate-style bodies and setups to Dover, and that is what you end up racing. It is a short track, but really it acts like an intermediate.
Neff – Last weekend at Loudon you used a ton of brake to get the car slowed up at the end of the straights. At Dover the track throws you into that banking to where you don’t rely on the brakes nearly as much to slow you down. However, we’ve been seeing brake issues all year with the lower downforce package. Are we still going to have a big brake package at Dover ,or can you cut back a little bit and redistribute the weight from the brakes elsewhere in the car?
Alexander – Dover, being the way it is with the corners banked as much as they are and the way you get into the corner, you don’t use near as much brake there as we did at Loudon. We are able to cut back on some of the braking capability. We don’t have to use as heavy of a rotor, we don’t have to run as much of a grill opening to cool the brakes because they aren’t getting as hot.
We do try to maximize the downforce there. We want to run as much tape on the nose as we can. You’ll see some guys there not run any opening in the tape at all, and others will run a small opening. Rotors and brake packages in general will be toned down from Loudon.
Neff – The weather was rather warm for the first weekend of fall. There were definitely hot engines at New Hampshire that threw some guys for a loop. It was hot at Martinsville Speedway for the Late Model race, too. When you go to Dover, it should be pretty warm up there, too. How aggressive do you get considering the fact that the track is concrete, the rubber sits on top and can clog up radiator openings pretty easily?
Alexander – The good news is that it isn’t supposed to be nearly as hot at Dover as it was at Loudon. Sunday at Loudon it was 89 or 90 degrees. That is unseasonably warm for there in the beginning of fall. Dover is supposed to have a high of 69 or 70 on Sunday, so that will be a lot cooler. That said, going back to aero, we always try to maximize the grill tape on the car and run as much as we can on the front of the car. We have an operating range where we try and keep the car where we optimize performance and yet we try to run the most tape we can on the front of the car for drag and downforce as we can. Definitely you’ll see guys pushing the envelope with tape just like we do most everywhere we go. With the temperatures being so much cooler this weekend, you’ll see guys running a lot more tape than they did at Loudon, for sure.
Neff – Do you have to build more play and pliability into the geometry on both ends of the racecar just because you do experience so much load in the corners while the track has so much character?
Alexander – You do, the setups are so much different at these two tracks. … There is so much more vertical load at Dover, and the bumps at Dover, especially getting into three. The drops into [Turns] 1 and 3 are pretty harsh, and then dealing with the bumps in [Turn] 3 you have to deal with from a suspension aspect. Our springs and shocks and the packages that we run at Dover are quite a bit different than Loudon. You’ll be softer in some places trying to get through the bumps and you’ll be stiffer in other places trying to keep an aero platform.
It is kind of a different way of thinking about how you approach Dover setup-wise compared to Loudon. Totally different, the concrete surface is completely different. It is something we work on a lot. We use all of our simulation tools, including the seven post rig, to predict what we need, in conjunction with our past notes and history. You work on all of that, load it into the truck, then get to the track and work on it some more.
Neff – Can you get to a point where you get too stiff, and when you drop off into the corner the car gets too light and almost loses contact with the racing surface because the shocks don’t rebound quickly enough to keep the tires in touch with the racing surface?
Alexander – In just racing in general, you want to run as soft as you possibly can from a mechanical grip standpoint. That gives the tire the most grip to the surface of the ractrack. The problem with running so soft is you don’t have much body control. Your body is just floating around all over the place. It is bouncing up and down. That is good from a ride standpoint; it is riding like a Cadillac. As it bounces up and down, it is absorbing the bumps. The problem with that is your platform of the racecar is going all over the place. So your aero balance and your downforce and your drag and all of the things that go along with aero side of the racecar are moving all over the place, and they are changing your balance.
There is a really fine line between riding soft enough to be able to handle the bumps to give the driver the ride quality that he wants and the feel he needs while being stiff enough to hold the body at an attitude that you want to keep it at. There is certainly a balance between the two, and you can definitely get too stiff there, for sure. If you put really stiff springs in there you can keep the body where you want it to be, but when he goes into the corner you’re going to give up a lot of mechanical grip, and he’s going to slip and slide all over the place. Then the driver is going to complain and tell you to change something because he can’t drive it, it is too bumpy.
Neff – It is the cutoff race for this round of the playoffs, and you’re right there at that line. With stage racing this year, you can grab points during the race. Do you have someone on the team that you have assigned to keep track of the people around you at the cutoff line so that you can make a strategy call and grab extra points should the opportunity present itself?
Alexander – Between myself and the engineers we have a lot of data that we’re looking [at] on the pit box. We have timing and scoring. I have several monitors in front of me. One of those monitors will monitor all of the guys that we’re racing for the cutoff. The four or five guys that we’re racing to make it into the next round and then another with everyone else. We’ll be listening and scanning the guys that we’re racing to kind of see what they’re doing.
From our perspective, we need to run our race. We have to keep an eye on what the other guys are doing and what strategies they are looking at, but we have to make sure we maximize and optimize our own strategy. Let them chase us, if you will. We’re going to go out and try and qualify as far to the front as we can. Then get as many stage points as we can and then maximize our finish. If we do that, we’ll maximize our points for the day. Hopefully we’ll get to a position where we can grab a win and transfer automatically.
We’re going to do our deal, focus on ourselves and our racecar when it comes down to it, at the end of the race, and if we get to a point during the race where strategy does become a big option we’ll definitely be listening to those guys and paying attention to what everyone is doing and who is around us.