(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Tech Talk: Sun, Sand & Spring Rates with Trent Owens

As the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season winds down, there are eight teams that still have a chance to win the title. Other teams, meanwhile, have different priorities, whether it is trying to finish fifth, 17th or 25th in points.

As a result, some teams are already experimenting to try and gain advantages for next season. Trent Owens and the No. 37 team, driven by Chris Buescher, are one of those that are looking to gain an edge for 2018 while working to secure the 25th spot in points. Texas Motor Speedway was a race where their experiments didn’t go well, but they still scratched out a 22nd-place finish last weekend.

Heading to Phoenix International Raceway there are a large number of different challenges from what they faced in Texas. The recently reconfigured racetrack is smooth and faster than it was in the past. The result is minimal chassis travel that takes advantage of stiffer tire spring rates. The teams will also be dealing with the afternoon sun during practice and qualifying, and to a lesser extent during the race. Owens talks about these challenges and looks ahead to spec pit guns and a common aero platform in 2018 in this week’s edition of Tech Talk.

Mike Neff – Things were certainly a challenge for you at Texas, an intermediate track with different banking at one end of the track vs. the other. How much of a curveball was that for you to deal with?

Trent Owens – We have a couple tracks like that now; Kentucky [Speedway] is also like that. Any time you go to a track that has different banking on one end vs. the other means that you’ll have loads that are less on one end in relation to the other. So you struggle with how close to the racetrack we can get on the one end without the car hitting the racetrack. You know you’re going to be high on the other end, so stability becomes an issue, especially on entry.

It is a tough balance. We ran really good there the first time around at Texas with Chris. I think that is a really good track for him. We’re in that time of the season, for a team like ours that isn’t in the playoffs, where we’re experimenting with some things and trying to get a direction for next season. We took an experimental car to Texas and didn’t really get the performance we’d hoped for. Nonetheless, it was a salvaged finish with 22nd, for the most part, so we’ll work off of that and move to Homestead[-Miami Speedway] and see what happens.

Neff – As the race evolved, turns 3 and 4 seemed to develop a bit of a second groove while turns 1 and 2 were pinned down to the white line or you were in trouble. Was it a matter of the tire interacting with the track, or was it the tire debris accumulating in that second lane that prevented it from widening out?

Owens – I think it is a product of the asphalt being new. Any time we have that, the speeds are really fast, as we saw in qualifying with Kurt [Busch]‘s lap. When we have that Goodyear has to bring a very safe tire, which is a hard tire. So I’m going to say it is tire-driven and age of the asphalt-driven. As years go by the asphalt will age and the groove will move up. There is plenty of room to race up there whenever it comes in.

They did all they could. They used the Tire Dragon and tried to prepare the track as best they could. You are right, [turns] 1 and 2 [were] bottom groove only. It was really hard on restarts to get clear of the bottom so that you didn’t get hung out. I was surprised that in [turns] 3 and 4 you could make passes up high. I wasn’t sure that groove would come in, but it did. Over time, the track will gain character, and you’ll get multiple grooves there.

Neff – We’re now headed to the desert Southwest for a little vacation in the dry heat instead of the sweltering heat that was Texas. We’re dealing with another track that was recently reconfigured, although we do have a bit of a notebook on it. Do you feel like you have at least some familiarity with how the car is going to perform when you get out there?

Owens – I do; we’ve been to Phoenix a few times since the reconfiguration. I feel like we know what to expect, but it is always a 50/50 shot when practice starts if you’re where you need to be or if you’re going to have to work on it. Phoenix is one of my favorite areas to go to, and I really look forward to that racetrack.

We need a strong run this week. We are in a battle for 25th in points, and we’re trying to race the guys in that area. Having a good race in Phoenix is definitely what we need.

Neff – One thing people might not realize is that you have to deal with sand in Phoenix that tends to accumulate on the track rather quickly whenever there is downtime during the weekend. Is that something you have to account for with your cooling and fans on the car because you pick up more debris and grit than you do at other tracks?

Owens – You’re exactly right about the sand/dirt that gets up on the racetrack. We see it at the very first of a practice session or a qualifying session just thanks to downtime. We don’t really prepare anything differently, because in the first 10 minutes of being on track it usually cleans up and goes away. Needless to say, the guys on the crew hate it, because they get frustrated having to constantly clean the car. It is always a little bit dirty on the racetrack, but we just deal with it for the first 10 minutes of a session and move on.

Neff – That afternoon sun blinds the drivers heading into Turn 1. It probably won’t be too bad during the race, but it always comes into play during practice and qualifying. Is there anything you can do on the car side of it besides duct tape and putting a tinted visor on the driver’s helmet to deal with it?

Owens – That is about it. By rule we’re not allowed to put a tinted film on the windshield. It is pretty much on the driver. We get a certain amount of complete darkness that we can paint or vinyl the windshield, and we can obviously add duct tape to narrow down the opening. It does become difficult. For some drivers it is more upsetting than others. One thing is for sure: it will be a factor just like it was, as you mentioned, in Texas.

Neff – Phoenix is really unique compared to all of the other tracks. You definitely don’t have the banking like you do at other intermediates. Are the travels and bump stops that you’re using there more like Martinsville Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway than the intermediate tracks?

Owens – Phoenix is interesting. On the old configuration we treated it more like a short track. Now that the surface is a lot smoother and less abrasive and a lot faster, we tend to take our intermediate-type racecars because we need the added downforce. However, we still need the short track brake package. As for the setup package, Phoenix is its own. Loudon is probably the closest track on setup but it isn’t a short track and it is not an iintermediate. You need a little bit of both to get around there.

Neff – In the last few Tech Talks, we’ve been talking about the lack of travel on these extra-smooth tracks. Tony Gibson was telling us last week that chassis travel at Texas was .002 to .0025 of an inch. With the speeds being slower at Phoenix with the smoother racing surface, are you traveling even less than that?

Owens – A lot of our travel difference is just a matter of how low the air pressures are that we start on to the hot pressures. With the ride height rule, we’re allowed to start at whatever frame height we want. With the smoother tracks like Texas and Phoenix we’re allowed to run a lot stiffer wheel rate. When you do that there is less travel change with load, and I think that is what he’s referring to. Phoenix is definitely one of those tracks where you could do it for a lap. You have to monitor where you might be after 50 laps. We might not be quite as aggressive as we were at Texas, but it will be one of the more aggressive tracks that we race at.

Neff – NASCAR is talking about going to a spec pit gun next year to keep everybody on a level playing field. Do you feel like they legislate this sport enough that they should let these guys go, or is it going to save a little bit of money so you aren’t spending thousands of dollars on pit guns?

Owens – That has definitely been a topic, and a tough topic. I’m sure the conversation started with the ownership group, trying to cut some costs in the pit stop area so they started with the equipment. I fear that if the gun doesn’t perform at least comparable to what we have now, you’ll have to put your money and focus into the people itself. Your speed is going to have to come from somewhere. In order to have an advantage, if you can’t get the speed out of the equipment you’ll have to look for the most athletic people to try and get the speed out of them. That would be a whole other training and cost that we don’t have now, maybe, in some positions. I’ll have to wait and see how it plays out before I make all of the comments about it. Rarely do we have rule changes that don’t end up changing something else.

Neff – NASCAR is changing the aero package for the superspeedways at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. It is going to be the same package run at all of the tracks next year. Is that something you’re already started working on for 2018?

Owens – For us, the biggest thing going into Daytona is validating what we’ve discovered. When we were in Talladega, it is a pretty lax weekend. We go out and practice a handful of laps and park it. Then we go qualify and race. That gave me time while we had the simulation model built to run through some setup ideas. We’ll do a lot more over the winter. The biggest thing is getting our cars in the wind tunnel and mapping out the different drag and downforce balances at the different ride heights, now that we have the option to have varying ride heights on the straightaway than we had before. That is going to be the biggest thing, finding that sweet spot.

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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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