Tony Gibson was under the weather for a little while in the middle of the summer, but he’s back and ready to rumble in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Stewart-Haas Racing’s production manager took advantage of the series’ final off-week of the season to get cars lined up for the playoffs and make sure everything in the shop is in top shape for a strong run to Homestead-Miami Speedway and a shot at a title.
Getting ready for Darlington Raceway — the next date on the Cup schedule — poses quite a few challenges for race teams. The Lady in Black has aged since her repave, and tires are going to be worth a lot during the 500 miles on Sunday (Sept. 2) night.
As Gibson prepares the four racecars that will challenge the egg-shaped oval in the low country of South Carolina, he knows that he has several concerns. The character that has come back requires more compliance in the front suspension. The inevitable stripe used to require extra bracing for the right side of the car, but the new bodies are so durable that they don’t need it anymore. The mystery of side drafting is, too, still questionable.
Mike Neff – The last couple of races, SHR appears to be the best organization in the field again. Are you still adding to your product and making gains with the cars this late in the season?
Tony Gibson – We think we are; we’re trying to. You’re judging your gains off of your competitors. We work just as hard every week every race, and some other guys obviously have made some gains and caught up and were competing against us pretty hard there, and we were struggling to keep up with them for a little bit. You just have to work that much harder and stick to your game plan.
We feel like we’re pleased with the way we’re running here lately. Hopefully we have enough gas in the tank to take it all of the way to Homestead and finish it off. That being said, the other guys don’t stop either. They’re sitting here saying the same thing and working just as hard to try and come up with a game plan to outrun us. We can’t stop thinking of new ways to do things and how to make our cars better, and how to make our pit stops better and all of the things that go along with winning. It will be a fight all of the way through Homestead, I know it.
Neff – How much of your inventory for the 10-race playoffs do you already have well along in the pipeline for your four teams?
Gibson – We obviously started working on that weeks ago. We started planning for that back when we had two of them with wins. Kurt [Busch] hadn’t won yet, but both him and [Aric] Almirola were pretty solid in the points. We started building those cars, getting them ready and prepared and getting a game plan together. We don’t get too far ahead, because things can change. We are trying to have our cars ready for the first segment of that deal. If we have to adjust after that, we’ll adjust. Right now, we have cars built up to get us through that first stint, and we’ll see where we stack up after that. If we have to go to work again, we will.
Neff – Darlington is the track where NASCAR introduced the low downforce package that was the basis for the package run now. How have these cars changed over the last two years since it was first run at Darlington?
Gibson – I feel like they’ve changed a lot, not only aero-wise but engine-wise. A lot of the components that we run have changed as well. Here’s the thing I look at, if you lay stagnant for two or three weeks, you’re going to be two or three months behind. I feel like the changes that we’ve made over two years feel like five years.
I feel like we’re five years ahead of where we used to be, it’s crazy. I look at some of the cars we ran two years ago, and I’m just like, ‘man, we ran that?’ Things have changed a lot, and I don’t see that stopping, along with all of the rules changes, whether it is aero or engine or whatever NASCAR throws at us. I just think those changes make a year feel like two years and two years feel like four years. It is pretty crazy to watch it evolve.
Neff –Knowing that you’re going to make right-side contact with the wall at some point during the race, do you put any additional structural integrity into the right side in anticipation of getting the Darlington stripe?
Gibson – No, we don’t do anything there anymore. The way the rules are now, NASCAR pretty much mandates our crush panels, the distance our bumper bars are from the bumper, the actual bumper bars, they pretty much regulate all of that now. We really don’t run the bars that were welded to the cage that went out against the body anymore. Plus, this body that we run now is so much more durable than the ones we ran back in the day. We used to hit the fence with those and they weren’t nearly as strong as these bodies are. We don’t do anything any different than we did at Bristol [Motor Speedway] two weeks ago or going to Charlotte [Motor Speedway]. It is what it is; we don’t carry any extra weight because weight is important.
Neff – Are you still able to slam the car down to the earth pretty well or do you need to maintain a little more pliability in the suspension thanks to the necessary travels?
Gibson – The theory is still basically the same as it is at, say, Charlotte or Las Vegas [Motor Speedway] or some place like that that has some bumps and transitions in it. The difference at Darlington is [that] the two ends of the track are so completely different. We shoot for the middle as far as compliance in the front end with our bumpstops and springs and things that we do to keep the car off of the racetrack. We try to keep it as low as we can. Obviously, center of gravity is very important and splitter control is very important. We still focus real hard on keeping the car as low as we can without a lot of transition of the splitter up and down.
Obviously, the grip in the racetrack has gone away from when they repaved it. It has resulted in us building in a little more compliance in our shocks and springs and some of our geometry stuff to absorb that.
Neff – Are we to the point now that tires are critical enough that even 10 laps on tires is going to dictate a change if a caution flies?
Gibson – Yeah, I think so. Back when guys stayed out, like when Regan Smith stayed out and won that race, the track had grip. The times have changed, and the track has lost a ton of grip. The downforce on the cars has changed as well. The track has gotten older, and it wears the tires more. It is to the point now where 10 laps makes a big difference. At the end of that deal, you’ll come put tires on. I think you’ll take tires over track position even inside of 10 laps to go.
Neff – Is there a wind tunnel available where you can put two cars side by side to analyze what the air does between the two of them?
Gibson – No, we’ve never tried that. At Windsheer, which is a belt-driven, rolling road type of wind tunnel, you can put cars end to end but not side-by-side. I’ve never done that. Aerodyne is too narrow to do that. I don’t know of anybody who has done that. Maybe they have, and I just don’t know about it, but not that I know of.
Neff – If you have to pick one place to go eat when you’re in Darlington, where are you going?
Gibson – I don’t remember the name of it, but there is a place that used to be a bowling alley. Now it’s a restaurant. We used to go there, and they had a buffet. You could get fried fatback, fried chicken or most anything else you wanted fried. It was a bowling alley with a restaurant made into it, and it was a big buffet deal. A bunch of us used to go over there every year and eat. They had the craziest stuff to eat, but man, you talk about good. Some good ol’ southern fried chicken and some fatback, if just doesn’t get any better than that.