NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Mike Neff)

Tech Talk: Ambient Temperatures, Drive Off & Plenty of Tire Talk with Justin Alexander

Justin Alexander was in the same boat as everyone else on the pit boxes Sunday at Kansas Speedway. The tires were giving up quickly and the drivers, including Alexander’s in Austin Dillon, were screaming that they wanted them replaced quickly. NASCAR also limited the tire inventory, so it made for some calculator exercises for everyone on pit lane. In the end the teams made their tires last although some had to reuse some sets.

In Tech Talk this week, besides talking about Kansas and an extensive discussion about tires, Alexander also touches base on getting the car to turn in the center of the corner. That is the key to make time on the opposition at Martinsville. Alexander also delves into the track changes that he might see when the race transitions from day to night. The air temperature will be the big topic of the weekend and the impact of that temperature on the cars and the rubber buildup on the track will most likely dominate the event on Sunday.

Mike Neff – We got to spend a little time in Kansas. It seems like the track is starting to get a little character and tires are really starting to make a difference. Is that how you saw things this weekend?

Justin Alexander – Yeah, tires have always been somewhat of a deal at Kansas. NASCAR has taken some of our tire allotment away this year, We only had so many sets. The tires fell off just enough that, once you put on six to eight laps, you really wanted to come get new ones. You have that little bit of falloff there for 15-20 laps and then it would level out.Tires were definitely a premium. We had a couple scenarios where we had to contemplate staying out. Other drivers did stay out but we ended up coming in for tires most of those times. Tires were definitely an issue there and how we managed them was critical.

Neff – You used to be able to go out on the track and scuff a set of tires. As they went through a heat cycle they would get a little bit harder and the ‘goody’ would last a little bit longer. It doesn’t seem like that is the case anymore. Does Goodyear have it now where it doesn’t make a difference for tire life if you scuff them or not?

Alexander – That is very tire specific and track specific. There are tracks where scuff tires can actually be faster than stickers. A lot of those places tend to be newly paved places and a lot of it has to do with the tire compound Goodyear brings. Ultimately scuff tires, at most of the places we go to, are not as good as stickers. We do have those few tracks where scuffs could be as good or better than stickers.

Neff – One more on tires, just because it seems like we’re a little focused on that right now, when you get to that situation where you have done 10-15 laps and you bring him in for new tires. If you realize you’re going through tires pretty quickly and you decide to glue some back up, do you mix and match tire at that point or do you generally keep a set together for their life at the track?

Alexander – We actually ran into that scenario on Sunday. We had a set that had nine or ten laps on it. As soon as it came off of the car I told the guys to glue it back up because you never know when you’re going to need that set and if you’ll need it late in the race. We actually ended up gluing two sets back up. I think one was a ten lap set and another was a 15 lap set. Typically you try to keep the same tire set together. You normally don’t want to mix and match tires if you don’t have to. If you can keep the same tire set together you want to keep the set with the lowest number of laps on them together. That way, if you put the set of scuffs back on, they have the lowest amount of laps on them. Unless you are at a track where you take two tires a couple of times. If you have a set of sticker lefts that you haven’t used you may pair them up with some scuffed right side tires. That is always an option. At Kansas there wasn’t any two tire stuff to speak of, it was mainly four tires. So we had our lowest number of lap scuffs and had it ready in case we needed it.

Neff – Some of us remember the story of Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin during the battle for the 1990 championship. They went to Atlanta to test and Earnhardt put some left side tires on the right side of the car. He went out and ripped off a lap half of a second faster than Martin had all day. Then sat back eating ice cream watching Martin’s team thrashing like crazy to try and catch up to them. Is it policed in the pits that you can’t put left sides on the right side of the car or is it just not a benefit anymore?

Alexander – I can tell you it is definitely not a benefit with the radial tires that we run now. The stagger difference between the left and right hand sides is such that you definitely do not realize a benefit by putting lefts on the right or rights on the left. I have seen that in my career where a team did that accidentally, put lefts on the right or vice versa. They were about two seconds a lap slower. It is definitely not something you want to do or is advantageous with the tires we run today. Maybe, with what they ran back then since I’m not sure what they were running back then, if you did that today your car would be complete junk.

Neff – We head now to Martinsville and what an interesting weekend it is going to be for you. We get to go from day into night. The race will start at 3:00 p.m. ET so we’ll be racing from day into night. We’ve never dealt with that at Martinsville before. Facing the changing track conditions that you are most likely going to have to deal with, what do think of as you prepare to run a race on this half mile from day into night?

Alexander – A place like Martinsville, and we actually tested there a couple of weeks ago, the way it is the surface doesn’t take rubber until the air temperature gets to a certain point and then the track will tighten up. Obviously we’ve never raced there at night before. No one really has an idea of how the track will change at night. In my experience that track is almost solely affected by the ambient temperature. Sometimes we go there and it is nice, like 70 to 80 degrees and sometimes it is close to snowing at 30 to 40 degrees. This weekend is going to be one of those weekends where it is going to be really cold. Not sure what the high is supposed to be but I believe it is in the 50s while the low is going to be in the low 30s. You’re not going to see much change from day to night because it is going to be so cold out during the day that I really don’t believe the transition day to night is going to be that much of a difference. I am hoping that the track gets to a point where it takes enough rubber like we typically see there. It is definitely going to be something different that no one has experienced on the Cup side yet. We’ll see but I don’t foresee there being big, huge changes in balance going from day to night. I think it is going to be more track dependent or ambient temperature dependent on how cold it is. And I am not looking forward to that.

Neff – With the ambient temperature being that cool, and aero coming into play even at Martinsville, is that going to give you the opportunity to tape up a little more for your radiator and your brakes because of how cold it is going to be?

Alexander – It will definitely allow you to tape up the radiator opening a little bit more. Your engine temperatures will run a lot cooler when the ambient temperature is 30-40 degrees as opposed to when it is 80-90 degrees outside. We’ll definitely be able to run more tape on the grill. For the brakes, you can tape them up a tiny bit more. Ambient temperature does have an effect on them. We run the brakes so hot nowadays, we run them 1,200 – 1,500 degrees. Changes in ambient temperature of 30-40 degrees aren’t going to make that much of a difference in brake temperature. Probably will run the brake duct tape relatively wide open just as you would in 80-90 degree heat. Certainly you’ll be able to run more grill tape. Even at a place like Martinsville, with the slower speeds, there is still downforce on the car. Even if it is only a couple hundred pounds. The more tape you can run on the front of the grill the more downforce you will have and the faster you’ll be. It may only be a few thousandths of a second but the entire field up there is always separated by thousandths. It is certainly something we’ll be looking out for and doing for sure.

Neff – Getting off of the corner there and down the straigtaways as fast as possible sets up your passes into the next turn. What do you feel is the most critical piece to your equation when it comes to getting off of the corner the best?

Alexander – To have good drive off you have to have a car that turns well in the center. If you have a car that is really tight in the center, he will typically end up snapping loose off, or at least it makes the car looser off because he has so much wheel into it in the center. He then, inherrently, has more wheel in it coming off of the corner. That makes him break loose and almost sideways off of the corner. It starts by having a car that is really balanced in the center of the corner, which allows the driver to get turned and get pointed coming up low and straight off of the corner. He will have the best forward drive among his competitors if he can do that. We start with working on the balance in the center of the corner. Martinsville is a place where you run soft springs and it is all mechanical. We look at our shocks and springs and everything. Inherently our truck arm positions are typically low there. Everything to give him the best forward drive off of the corner but it certainly starts there with the balance in the center of the corner.

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About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
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.