The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the high-banked, concrete half-mile in the Smoky Mountains that is Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. Teams are faced with many different challenges getting the cars ready for the race — and completely different circumstances once the race begins.
One thing is for sure: it is never boring when the series heads to the last great coliseum.
Trent Owens and his No. 37 team, driven by Chris Buescher, will be facing the challenges of having their car stay competitive while trying to race ahead of leaders who can catch the back of the field very quickly with the rapid lap times at BMS. Owens knows he’ll have to face the traction compound, high vertical loads, minimal brake demands and NASCAR-required gear ratios all while managing tire wear thanks to the changing track conditions.
On top of all of that, he has to work out in the elements, as Bristol does not have garages.
Here’s what he had to say about those challenges and more.
Mike Neff: At Michigan International Speedway last weekend, competition seemed to be rather hindered by aero dependency. Was it really that difficult to get around cars even when you were faster?
Trent Owens: At Michigan, although we had a much better race the second time up there vs. the first race this season, we had a bad pit stop right at the end of the first stage. It was really hard for us to get back to 20th place, and we came in running 16th. I felt like we had a 16th-place car.
The race conditions were very traffic- [and] aero-dependent. Even on the setup side, this second Michigan race we tended to adjust more for aero and had a much better race. Making speed and the difficulties passing in traffic all seemed to stack up to an aero-dominated race at Michigan.
Neff: Did the tires make a difference at all?
Owens: Everybody was on a different strategy for most of the race, so it was hard to tell. [There were] times when people took four tires, [and] there was a ton of people who took two tires, so they kind of protected each other. It wasn’t a big advantage like we see at some tracks, for sure. As it got later in the run, say 30 laps in, the four tires seemed to have a little more speed. It wasn’t where you could come in, take four tires and gain four or five spots when we went back to green. You were definitely able to hold on. We even did a fuel-only stop during the race and were able to hold our position throughout a 30-lap run.
Definitely tires seemed to be a little harder than what we’ve dealt with at most of the tracks throughout the year. Maybe in the future things will change.
Neff: With competition cautions after rain overnight, does NASCAR strongly suggest you change tires, or is it entirely up to you?
Owens: On the weekends that we have competition cautions, the only rule is that was cannot refuel the car before that caution. There is no mandatory four tires [or] two tires — it is simply a competition caution. We’re welcome to take our tires off and see how they are while sending the car on its way. They do a good job balancing around our fuel mileage readings so they don’t allow you to come in and get fuel to try and gain an advantage while you are in the back of the pack.
Neff: The first thing that comes to mind at Bristol this weekend is the so-called sticky stuff on the track surface. How does that change your approach to the weekend, knowing you’ll have more grip at the bottom of the track early in the race vs. later in the race?
Owens: The standard now for Bristol is the traction that is applied to the racetrack. Just going off of past notes, and we have better notes about that now, we know it is going to go away and the racing groove is going to migrate from the bottom of the track to the top at some point. The hardest part for us is being able to practice, during practice, the mid-race to end-of-race kind of conditions. We really struggle as a group in the Cup garage to really get the top side cleaned off and worked in. You’ll see cars mostly practice around the bottom for most of the practice. Maybe the last 15-20 minutes you’ll see the groove open up, usually. That is really the toughest part. Our practice conditions tend to lean more toward the start of the race, and we kind of have to depend on our notes for when the traction that is applied to the track wears off.
Neff: When that compound is on the track, and even as it starts to wear off, do the tires wear differently? Do they peel more rubber or less rubber than when the compound is not on the track?
Owens: Yeah, the tire wear, at least the history of tire wear since we’ve done the traction compound, we’ll see a lot more tire wear in practice and in the first part of the run of the race than we’ll see at the end of the race. Is that due to the traction applied? Is that due to the track just not having rubber built up on it to being with? I don’t know the exact answer to that. Definitely our tire wear changes from practice through the start of the race, and it is something we have to keep track of.
The track is really hard on left-side tire wear, surprisingly enough. It isn’t uncommon on some of the earlier cautions seeing cars take left sides only. Later in the race you might see some stay out with no tires.
Neff: With the high banking at Bristol and the fact that the cars travel at a relatively high speed, do you use much brake to slow the cars down into the corner since there is so much banking to catch the car?
Owens: As for using the brakes, because of the banking, typically through practice and qualifying we don’t really use much brake. In race conditions, in traffic and when you’re trying to make passes or you come up on a car, that is when you get to using the brakes more than we do by just driving normally or by yourself. It is not one of our heavy braking tracks, no.
Neff: When you throw the car into 30-plus degrees of banking, you’re getting a lot of vertical load on the car. Are the spring rates that you use at Bristol as high as you utilize at anywhere else on the schedule like Las Vegas Motor Speedway or Texas Motor Speedway?
Owens: With the 30-degree banking at Bristol, we actually see higher loads than we see at most of our other tracks where we run close to 200 mph. That banking really creates a lot of load in the tire, the suspension, the frame, and you see a lot of twist. Yes, however we want to do it with our suspension rate, it definitely has to be stiffer, even than what we run at Texas and Vegas. Charlotte [Motor Speedway] has some high-load spikes where it gets close in setup. I don’t know if you pay attention at Bristol, but when the cars really land off into the corner, it is that landing load that really gets you. It isn’t really sustained load as the landing load. The hard part is to protect that landing load and not have the front end come up too high throughout the corner.
Neff: In the old days you used to really beef up the bumpers on the cars because you knew you were going to root and gouge to get guys out of the way. Now that we have multiple lanes at Bristol, that might not be necessary anymore. Are you even allowed to beef up your chassis anymore?
Owens: Now that you have a rule book that is really thick, we are kind of not allowed to beef up our bumpers and so forth, or add nerf bars by rule. Most of that stuff is spec’d out by size and thickness. Obviously, with the multi-groove track, I don’t think you need to do that anymore.
The other side of that is we have to take our lightest, best cars to the racetrack every time. The garage is just that competitive. We certainly wouldn’t want to add a bunch of weight even if we could. It is a little bit of the rules, and I think we’re at a place now, with the racing at Bristol, it probably wouldn’t benefit us. The situations it would benefit us in are probably much less than the performance part of it.
Neff: With Bristol being so fast and the time on the throttle being so short, do you even need to use fourth gear there, or do the required ratios you have mean you have to go to fourth in order to keep the car in the RPM range to maintain your car in the maximum power range?
Owens: As far as gear ratios go, the rear-end ratio is determined by NASCAR. We also have limitations on our third gear. With that said, we pretty much have to run fourth gear. The RPMs are still too high to run third gear called out by rule, and the gear that is spec’d out for the rear. So yeah, we’ll just run fourth gear all of the time. The restarts can get tricky because the gears can end up being really close together, so, depending on where you restart, front or back, there are some things the drivers need to do to time that properly.
Neff: Going to Bristol, you know the odds are pretty high you can get some damage to your car during the race. What are you allowed to bring into your pit box to utilize to work on your car to try to survive the five-minute clock?
Owens: In the new damage repair policy, the time portion is really hard to monitor. It doesn’t just count the time that you’re in your stall, it counts the entire time that you’re on pit road. You have to work all of that into it. As far as cutting body panels away, you are allowed to remove body panels, [and] you’re allowed to use some screws and fasteners and tape. We’re not allowed to put new body panels on. We have to repair the ones that are actually on the car. We don’t have a lot at our disposal anymore for repair work as far as add-on panels, trying to patch stuff together. It is pretty much down to some kind of bonding agent, screws and rivets. At somewhere like Bristol where we can give up some aerodynamics, we’ll just cut the fenders away and send it on its way. I think the damage policy is a good thing so we don’t put unsafe vehicles on the racetrack. It has certainly made it tougher while repairing damage.
Neff: Bristol is the only track without any kind of garage. Does it make it more of a challenge?
Owens: It is actually fun. It is fun to go back and work like you used to back in the old short track days. Work is normal, the problem comes if we have weather more than anything, to be honest with you. After we qualify, it is a thrash to get all of our stuff loaded back into the haulers so that the XFINITY guys can set their pit stalls up. That is a little bit of work in itself. I think it works. I don’t know where they’d put a garage at Bristol, honestly, if they were to try and put something in there. I’m OK with it.