(Photo: Mike Neff)

Tech Talk: Daytona 500-Winning Crew Chief Justin Alexander Discusses 2018 Rule Changes

For the second year in a row, the crew chief in the Daytona 500 edition of Tech Talk went on to win the race, as Justin Alexander followed in the footsteps of Tony Gibson to score the victory in the first race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season with driver Austin Dillon.

Before his win, Alexander discussed with Tech Talk the rule changes for 2018 and the adoption of the new aero package, as well as changes to the Cup Series engine program.

Mike Neff – You have a brand new Camaro as your racecar this season, so you probably didn’t have a whole lot of an off-season, did you?

Justin Alexander – No, we didn’t. The brand new Camaro and the new rules — we had to pretty much cut every one of the bodies off of all of our cars and start over.

We have been in the wind tunnel a lot. We’ve spent a lot of time on the seven post and done a lot of simulation. A lot of work has gone into this body for Daytona [International Speedway]. We’ve also done a lot of work on our mile-and-a-half, intermediate-track stuff working on downforce. A lot of work.

I won’t say that we’re behind, there was just a lot of work. We had so much going on, but there was a lot of work from everybody. It wasn’t much of an off-season at all, let me put it that way.

Neff – Wind tunnels and simulators can do a lot, but when you put a car on the racetrack things can react much differently. When you headed out for the first practices and qualifying, how much did you have to change the car to get it to where Austin liked the way it drove?

Alexander – We honestly didn’t change much at all. We did a lot of simulation and work on the seven post rig, and we felt like we were where we thought we needed to be. We had to do some adjusting on the car. It wasn’t exactly handling the way he wanted to, so we did make some adjustments, but it wasn’t night and day changes. It was more subtle stuff. We dialed some speed into it, and then we dialed a little bit of handling into it.

There is a big difference there now with no ride height rules. You can dial speed into it and it won’t handle very well. You can dial handling into it and it won’t be very fast. There is a very fine balance there, so we’ve worked on that pretty much every practice and every race that we’ve had during Speedweeks. We feel like we’ve got a pretty good handle on that now.

Neff – After the Can-Am Duels, a lot of guys were talking about needing to make their cars handle better. In order to do that, are the adjustments mostly aerodynamic, are they mostly mechanical or do you have to adjust aero whenever you adjust mechanical and vice versa?

Alexander – Man, it is really a little bit of both. There is a lot of aero, and the only way to adjust you car and see what it is doing, you really need to go out and draft with other cars. If you don’t, it is kind of hard to see what your adjustments are doing unless you do that. It is hard to get bigger packs in practice. You can get two or three cars, but to really feel what is going on you need a group of five to 10 cars.

There are definitely mechanical things going on, but there are also aero things occurring. We’ve actually worked on both of those, and we have discovered that adjusting on both of them can have good and bad results. I would say it is a 50/50 mix.

Neff – Darrell Waltrip talked about teams running 6,000-lb. right rear springs, but if you look at them, these things are squatted way down. Is it a matter of the spring being rated that high, but you’ve got it coil-bound so much that it really isn’t traveling at all?

Alexander – Most of the teams are sprung really stiff; I don’t know how stiff. It doesn’t travel any, because we don’t have any ride height rule, so the cars just start on the ground. That is why if you look at the cars rolling around in the garage, they are basically dragging on the earth. When they get on the racetrack they don’t travel at all because they are so stiff, which is what you want…. You want to control the aero platform, keep all of the drag out of it, keep that blade out of the air. So yes, you are virtually on the verge of a coil-bound spring.

Neff – We saw a couple of guys get out of shape during the Duels and lose it when someone got close to the left rear corner. Is there something you can do with the spoiler position to get a little more on that left rear, or are you in such a tight box that you cannot move it over that way?

Alexander – Those cars, in the Duels especially, were set up for qualifying, so there was no handling built into them. When you get the cars too low you kind of choke the air off that is coming out from under the car. That is where, [when] setting the car up for handling, you have to take some speed out of the car, because you have to raise the back of the car up and put more pitch in the car. That ultimately slows the car down, because it puts more drag in the car. It gives you way more control when guys get onto your left rear corner or your right rear corner or start bump drafting.

There is a really fine line that you have to work on. You want to keep all of the speed in it that you can but put as much control into it so that you don’t have situations where when someone gets to your rear corner, you simply spin out.

Neff – A lot of crew chiefs talk about the importance of getting the air out from under the car rather than worrying about it getting under the car. Does that make a difference in handling of the car and the overall speed?

Alexander – Oh yeah, for sure. Aerodynamically there is a lot going on with the air flow under the car. If you choke the air off too much you can actually hurt the speed of your car. You can also hurt downforce. You can help speed sometimes and hurt it other times based on where it is flowing and how it is flowing out from under the car. There is a really fine line of how much you want to choke air off vs. how much you want flowing under the car. It all goes back to the handling vs. speed thing.

Neff – With the new engine rule this year, does it simply come down to beefing up parts so that they last longer, or is there a whole other development side to make sure these things can last multiple races?

Alexander – [Earnhardt Childress Racing] started working on this a year or two ago. Ultimately you have to sacrifice horsepower. Instead of parts and pieces that can barely last a 500-mile race, they now have to last 1,000 miles or more for two races. You have to beef parts up and ultimately make them heavier. In the end that will rob the horsepower, but everyone is going to have to do it.

I’m not as involved on that side of things as much; there are a lot of things, and there has been a lot of development and design work that has gone into every aspect of making these motors last two races now. It is going to be interesting to see guys that rerun motors. I don’t know how much of a difference in performance there will be. I don’t know if we’ll see a lot more engine failures this year, but it is going to be interesting to see.

Neff – What has NASCAR said about changing out motors after a wreck? There was a lot of discussion after the Duels about some teams switching their primary engine to their backup cars and others were going to utilize the backup engine. Is it a matter of proving you had damage from the incident in order to swap out engines?

Alexander – I think if you can prove you have damage, they’ll let you swap. I also think there is a rule for Daytona that if you swap out the engine after qualifying, you not only have to start last in the 500, you also have to start last at Atlanta [Motor Speedway]. It made it a disincentive to change your motor just to start last in the 500, because that usually isn’t a big detriment. I believe they made it so that you had to start last at Atlanta if you change your motor here. There are a lot of rules, and I probably don’t know all of them and how it all works, especially for Speedweeks with all of the races and before and after qualifying and all of that stuff.

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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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