Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men are blown up by the slightest mistake. That happened last weekend to the No. 3 of Austin Dillon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, when a late-race loose wheel upended its strong run.
Crew chief Justin Alexander hopes to have his ducks in a row this weekend, as the three turns of Pocono Raceway can throw more curves at the teams than some road courses.
In anticipation of the 2.5-mile oval, Alexander and his team have several major concerns. The primary focus rolling off of the transporter will be getting off of Turn 3 quickly and slowed down in time for Turn 1. The ride height rule changes how the cars attack the track in Pocono, and it also has made the camber settings in the car more and more crucial. Braking decisions will also affect who runs the best in the Pocono Mountains.
Mike Neff – This past weekend was your one and only visit to New Hampshire for 2018. There was plenty of talk about traction compound, weather and tires. How did the weekend go for you?
Justin Alexander – Our day was kind of up and down. We had a good car. We did a lot of changes in practice. With the PJ1 and trying to get the feel right for Austin, we made a lot of changes in all of the practices and changed a lot on the car throughout the weekend. We ended Happy Hour pretty decent. We felt good about it and entered the race and the car was pretty strong. We really didn’t have to adjust on it too much. We had to free up a little bit as we went to kind of keep up with the track. The car was really fast. I thought we had a top-10 car, for sure. Probably one of the best cars I’ve ever had at Loudon.
It wasn’t really great on the short run. It took us about 10 laps to get going. We’d sometimes lose a couple of spots, but on the long run we’d just mow them back down and go back and pass everybody and more. We were really strong on the long run, and I was really happy with the car and the speed.
We didn’t get the finish to show for it. We had a loose wheel on the last stop on pit road and had to pit under green to fix it, and that kind of ruined our day there. It ruined a good finish; I felt like we could have definitely been in the top 10 at the end.
Neff – We have talked a lot about the traction compound over the last year or so. Does rubber actually stick to the compound, or does it peel off and roll elsewhere?
Alexander – I think what happens is the compound is eventually pulled up by the tires and it goes away. I believe rubber sticks to it, but we end up picking the stuff up, and by the end of the race it isn’t as present as it is at the beginning of the race. I don’t think it helps lay rubber, so to speak, on the racetrack. It definitely does give grip in the areas where they spray it, and that is why you see guys running in it. I think it is a little bit different at every track we go to, concrete vs. asphalt and things like that. I don’t know if it helps lay more rubber on the track, but it definitely gives more grip.
Neff – When you head to Pocono, is Turn 3 your primary focus as you start practice?
Alexander – Turn 3 is by far the most important corner that there is there. Obviously, all three are important, but getting off of Turn 3, with that long straightaway down the frontstretch, there is so much time to be gained or lost there. If you can get through Turn 3 and get to the gas early, getting up to speed faster, you are going to carry all of that momentum down the longest straight in the sport. Definitely [Turn] 3 is the most important corner, and it is also the toughest corner because it is the flattest at the track. You’re trying to balance between Turn 3 and Turn 1 because they are opposites in terms of banking and how you get through them. [Turn] 3 is one of the toughest corners we race and one of the toughest to set up for.
Neff – We always think of Pocono when we discuss shifting at ovals, since that is probably the first one where it ever happened. Is the plan this weekend to shift once a lap or more than once?
Alexander – It depends. Definitely once a lap. Sometimes the guys shift over in the tunnel turn. You shift in [Turn] 1 and you shift in [Turn] 3, so in that sense you shift multiple times a lap. It depends on the gearing ratios that guys have in their cars. Some guys have a slightly different gearing than other guys. It changes a little on what some guys want to do, and sometimes pace of the race will dictate whether guys shift more or less, depending on how fast we’re going and whether they’re in traffic and things like that. A couple of factors come into play there. Definitely expect to shift at least twice.
Neff – Is the determining factor on that primarily the amount of RPMs that you are turning at a particular point on the track?
Alexander – Yeah, when you get to your lower RPMs, you definitely want to shift. You’ll shift to third and get the RPMs back up and get the engine wound back up to get off of some of the corners. Down in Turn 1 and over in Turn 3, for sure, trying to keep the RPMs up and keep the motor in the power band where it wants to be, where it creates the most power. If it takes shifting to get there, that is what we do and why we do it.
Neff – Is there anything different about the construction of the transmission itself, due to the fact they’re going to be shifting, to try to eliminate the potential for missing shifts?
Alexander – Not really. Some guys may run transmission coolers or something to keep them cool, some don’t. It depends on the team and how much they anticipate shifting. The transmission itself isn’t too much different.
Neff – You go into Turn 1 carrying a tremendous amount of speed before making a 120-degree turn. Are you able to get away with an intermediate braking package even with that one heavy-braking corner?
Alexander – You almost really need a short-track package. It depends on the driver and how much they are on the brakes and how aggressively they use them. Some guys don’t use brakes as heavily as other guys do. It can be dictated off of driving style of different drivers. Some guys may come with an intermediate style or a heavy intermediate-style package, and some guys may come with short track stuff. I have been there with both before. We’ve seen brake issues. We’ve seen guys break rotors there before, and it was likely because they were too small. Obviously, we want to run as small as we can for weight and for power and just for speed. However, certainly if you can’t stop the car, it doesn’t really matter. I tend to err on the heavier side just to be safe so there are no issues and go from there.
Neff – Before we had the ride height rule, you used to see the car come down the front straightaway and slowly compress down into the track. Now that the car is already down, does the amount of force that is added to the car as it gains speed coming down the straight increase the load on the tires? Or do the bump stops manage to absorb that before it is transmitted to the tires?
Alexander – I think before the ride height rule, you would see more of that going on. With the setups we run nowadays, we tend to run stiffer setups all around. We run no ride heights and are pretty low to the ground. We try to keep the car at an attitude wherever it wants to be. We tend to run pretty stiff springs and pretty stiff bump stops in the front nowadays.
Really at all of the places we go to, you rarely, unless you’re going to a super short track like Martinsville [Speedway] or somewhere, you rarely run soft anymore. You definitely won’t see that phenomenon going on down the straightaway. The load itself will be the same whether you’re sprung softly or stiffly. Definitely the car will move more or less depending upon how stiffly or softly sprung you are. We run stiffer nowadays, and we do that to keep the aero platform as consistent as possible and keep the most downforce in the car. We’ll run bump stops or shaft springs or whatever the case may be.
Neff – Is there a lot of camber in the tires to help make the corners better?
Alexander – Camber is definitely important at Pocono. What changes what we do with camber so much at Pocono is just the three different corners. You tend to travel a little bit more in Turn 1 than you do in Turn 3. The travel differences will change your dynamic cambers. We try to optimize the cambers like we do at every track. We try to get the most grip out of the tire at a certain slip angle of the racecar. Definitely they’re optimized for Pocono for that specific tire. Then we try and optimize our geometry and our static cambers and things like that to get our dynamic cambers on the racetrack so that they are matched up to where we want them to be in turn[s] 1, 2 and 3. Because they change so much you know that is something we’ll mess with. You will see other teams mess with that some as well. It definitely can change the handling characteristics of the car and we try to use it to help balance out turns 1 and 3.
Neff – Last week, everyone talked about how great the food was, especially the lobster. What do you look forward to when you head to Pocono?
Alexander – Pocono, we stay at Kalahari Resort, which is a big indoor waterpark. It is a cool place if you’ve never been. I don’t know; It is a really big hotel with really nice restaurants. It is kind of a mix between a Vegas casino and a big waterpark. We go there and we have a good time. When we do have time we might go up in the waterpark and play around in there. If we don’t, they have a couple nice restaurants to go eat at. It is definitely a place we look forward to going to and hanging out at, at the resort, when we are not at the racetrack, having a little down time and relaxing a little bit. I don’t know about this weekend. This weekend, we don’t have a lot of time. Being a two-day show, we’re going to be at the racetrack for the most part and be there late at night on Saturday. Probably not going to have too much time to do any of that this weekend, unfortunately, but when we were there in the spring we did for sure.