The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has been a challenging year for Chevrolet. They are beginning to see the fruits of their labor, though as the learning curve on the new Camaro ZL1 reaches its peak. As of late, the Bowtie Brigade is scoring plenty of top-10 finishes, although last weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway proved to be difficult (no drivers ran inside the top eight).
Early in the year, Austin Dillon’s crew chief Justin Alexander of Richard Childress Racing spoke with us about the effort put forth to adapt to the new Camaro body. RCR has given him all of the necessary tools to achieve success, from an optical scanning system to in-depth wind tunnel testing. Are their new in-house chassis beginning to pay off now that we’re 15 races into the year?
Tech Talk this week visits with Alexander about what they’ve learned so far. Where are they focused going forward as we enter the second half of the MENCS regular season?
Mike Neff – Let’s take a quick look back at Michigan before diving in. How did the weekend go for your team? (Dillon finished 14th).
Justin Alexander – The car was pretty good all weekend, really. Right off of the truck, we were in qualifying trim and we never really made any changes on the car all through practice. Qualifying, we ended up 16th. We missed the balance just a little bit. We needed to be a little bit freer, but the car was driving good and handling good.
In race trim, the car drove great. We didn’t make any changes. We’ve been doing a lot of work to make the cars better. It has been showing. We’ve had more speed.
Track position was so important. Guys were so bad in traffic, for whatever reason there, and we were one of them. We struggled on pit road a little bit. Really, we just struggled with track position. We had a fast car. If you put us in the top 10, we could run there. We tried a couple things, strategy-wise, to get track position. It worked sometimes.
All-in-all, it was a decent day. Could have been better, could have been worse. The car was solid all weekend; we weren’t chasing it much. We were really just fine-tuning to the balance of the track. In the race, it was just track position [that cost us].
Neff – Speaking of strategy, with rain coming it was surprising that more people did not go with two or no tires when Clint Bowyer did. What was your reasoning for going with four on that stop?
Alexander – We had actually done two earlier in the race and it didn’t work out as well as I thought it would. We only had about 20-some laps on the tires. The No. 95 did it, as well, with us. They were able to maintain the lead for a little bit and then ended up falling back.
We ended up restarting next to them in second and we fell back pretty hard, not too hard but guys with four tires dropped us back to seventh or eighth in two laps and we fell back a little bit farther than that. I was looking at it and we had more laps on our lefts at the time and the main reason I think most guys didn’t do it was the rain on the radar was so hard to predict. It wasn’t a clear cut, “it is going to rain in five minutes or 10 minutes.”
Michigan is one of those places where you get the mist and rain and drizzle and it doesn’t even show up on the radar. Nobody saw it and, since we didn’t see it, we were worried that if we put two tires on we would have to run 30 or 40 laps on two tires before we could get to our window where we could go the rest of the way on fuel. I think that was the main concern.
It was certainly a gamble. If you did it and we had to run 30 or 40 laps, you would have lost a lot of track position doing it. It is an easy thing to look back and say, “yeah, we should have done it.” but, at the time, with the information that everybody had, it didn’t make sense honestly. Hindsight is 20/20 and certainly, if I could do it over, I would try two again and I think most of the field would do the same thing.
Neff – Looking at the track in Michigan, since it was repaved it seems like the groove isn’t widening out. Why?
Alexander – That is a good question. If we knew what it was, we could probably try and do something to move up there. They used the Tire Dragon in the second and third grooves to try and entice us. We got up there a little bit but we weren’t spread out all over the place the whole time.
I don’t know if it is so much a tire thing or if it is just a track thing. Like some of these other places we’re going, like Kentucky or Texas, it is just one groove at the bottom. It probably just needs a little more age on it and [widening] will come with time.
Neff – Looking at an off week, let’s take a look back. You’ve been struggling a bit with this new Camaro body. It seems like the Chevy teams have made some gains. Where do you feel like you are with the new car? What are you focused on for the next few weeks to make them faster?
Alexander – Really, the same things we’ve been doing the past few months. Going to the wind tunnel. Doing everything that we can on the bodies to make them as good as we can. Continuing to work on the motors, continuing to work on the chassis and suspensions. It really is the whole thing. It isn’t just the body, it isn’t just the engine, it is everything together.
For us, we’re going to focus on trying to execute. Bringing cars to the track, sometimes we might not have the fastest car at the track. Our job is to execute and get the best finish we can with the car we have. That is what we have to do to maximize our points days. Obviously, we still want to try and win another race if we can to get more bonus points to help ourselves out when we get to the [playoffs].
The biggest thing is to just try to execute and build some momentum so that, when we get to the [playoffs], we’re firing on all cylinders.
Neff – On the balance of this car as you’ve worked on it, are you tending more towards the tight side or the loose side?
Alexander – I wouldn’t say one or the other, honestly. Depends on what track we go to. We’re making changes to our cars and suspensions every day, along with our bodies. We’re constantly working on the aero balance, where we’re putting it and some things like that. I think we’re getting smarter, or at least learning more, I should say.
Every time we go to these racetracks, and inherently any time we go to a different racetrack, we learn a little more about what we need as far as aero balance and things with the car along with things with the body.
We’re learning more every race. I think it is showing we’re getting better as a group and better as a team. We just have to keep in that direction, keep working on it, keep our heads down and keep digging so we can catch up to the Fords and Toyotas.
Neff – You mention learning what the cars need. The cars are supposed to be interchangeable but we know they are predominantly purpose built. How many times are you able to reuse chassis at this point or are you having to build brand new race cars, from the ground up, as you’re learning this new car?
Alexander – As we develop, we make new chassis and we’ll build new chassis but, for the most part, we’re reusing chassis that we ran earlier this year. I think most teams are. We’re working on things and developing new things. Hopefully, we’ll have some new stuff come out come [playoff] time, to try and put our best foot forward and try and get the best out of what we’ve got.
The thing with learning the bodies and what we need, every time that NASCAR comes out with a new rule like the flat splitter, it inherently changes everything. It changes ride height behavior, it changes aero balance, it changes a lot of stuff. I think the whole garage and the whole field is dealing with the same thing. It is just a matter of who can pick it up faster and figure it out the fastest. That is what we’re trying to do right now.
Neff – We recently heard Hendrick Motorsports bought an optical scanning system to make sure they were in compliance before they left the shop. Do you have access to one of those that you can utilize while you’re working on these cars and developing them, to ensure you’re staying within parameters? Or are you using manual measurements and then confirming when you get to the racetrack?
Alexander – We actually use both. We use measurements in our chassis shops but we actually own an OSS. We bought ours back in the winter. I think we had ours up and running in January or early February. We’ve had ours the whole year.
I know Hendrick just got theirs. Most teams either have one or are getting one. We’re the ones who’ve had one for a few months now. We’re definitely using it to try and max the car out to try and figure out what we can learn and take the optimized car to the racetrack. So, when we show up, we feel like we are right there with what we can and cannot do legality wise.
Neff – Whose job description was expanded when you brought that system in or did you hire someone to run it?
Alexander – We have a few guys at the shop who do that kind of thing and run the station. We didn’t really have to create a job, although you probably could if you wanted to. It is, pretty much, a full-time job. We had a couple guys already doing something very similar with other measurement tools and things. It kind of just fit in. It isn’t a full-time job but it is close.
Neff – We are in the midst of an off weekend. Were you getting an off week or are you still in the shop getting stuff done?
Alexander – Kind of both. I was in the shop Monday and Tuesday this week trying to debrief from Michigan and get the Sonoma cars going. They have to leave Monday night. They leave a little bit early to get out west. I worked on Sonoma and started working on Chicago for the week after Sonoma. I worked a little bit the first couple of days and then I took off Wednesday and headed up to Boone doing a golf trip and trying to relax a little bit.
Neff – Did you give the rest of your guys the time off, too or are they slaving away?
Alexander – No, some of the guys worked a little bit the early part of the week but most of the guys took off. Whenever we get a chance to have an off weekend, which are very few and far between in this sport, I like to give the guys some rest and down time, just because it is such a grueling schedule. It gives them a chance to refresh, recharge the batteries so that when we come back, we can go at it hard.