Jeff Gordon has not exactly set the series on fire this year, but believe it or not, the four-time champ is actually having a better start than 2012. A year ago, he was 17th in points after Richmond in the Spring, while this year he’s 14th, boasting one top five and four top 11s to his credit. When the Gen-6 car came out, many people felt that it would be a better fit for Gordon than the Car of Tomorrow, and it has proven to be so far although he’s a step behind teammates Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Kasey Kahne in the Hendrick stable.
Gordon’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson has been turning the screws and making the calls from the pit box as always, trying to mold this No. 24 team back into championship form. As he works on guiding Gordon onward and upward, what’s the key to bringing back the dominant driver of old? Gustafson took some time to speak with Frontstretch bringing back the swagger to his team, the past week of gains at Richmond and the trials ahead for all teams at Talladega._
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: It looked like Jeff struggled at the beginning of the night at Richmond but ended up having a pretty decent race when the checkered flew.
Alan Gustafson: Unfortunately, we did struggle at the start. We’re a little perplexed by it, but we’re trying to get to the bottom of it. We’ve struggled there at the start the last two races and each for the exact opposite reason. It’s a little confusing and we’re working through that. We got the car better at the end but we weren’t as good as we needed to be. Ended up with an OK finish. Tire strategy got pretty crazy there at the end and I feel kind of lucky that we survived that. Felt like we got our car better and made our way to the back side of the top 10 for the second half of the race and finished 11th. Not what we wanted… but it wasn’t terrible considering.
Neff: On the tire strategy side of things, it seemed like tires obviously mattered. When you have a green-white-checkered getting ready to happen and most of the field comes in to get tires, is that a sign the tires wore out or just lost grip as the night wore on?
Gustafson: The tires would definitely wear out if you made a long run. It was just such a huge difference in lap times, which was great. The surface is old and used up, so it makes for really good racing. That is what you saw and tires were a huge premium. I think you see that out of tracks where the surface has age on it and that generates really good racing.
Neff: Why aren’t Goodyear tires wearing out more everywhere we go?
Gustafson: In my opinion, it is track related. When the track is new and generates so much grip, Goodyear doesn’t have a choice but to bring a hard tire that won’t wear out. If you have a surface like Richmond or Atlanta that is 10 or 12 years old — Texas is another good example, when we first went to Texas originally that new surface, tires never wore out, and it was a bottom groove race track and you never took tires or just took right sides. Now, look at the place. It is great racing, the tires wear out and it is really good. Richmond is great for that reason, Atlanta is great for that reason. I think it is more the repaves. You’re going to see that at Kansas now, that race has gone to strictly track position. Michigan is going to be the same way, as are these other repaved race tracks. The only one, in my opinion, that is repaved and they seemed to do a little better than the rest is Pocono. It still races more like an old surface so hopefully, it will last for a while.
Neff: Speaking of repaves, we’re headed off to Talladega, a track that was repaved a few years back. Has it started to age and are we seeing a little bit of character in that facility?
Gustafson: Starting to, yeah, you’re starting to see some character back. It is starting to get there but it is such a big, huge, broad race track that I don’t even know. We’d probably have to make it dirt before it would really make a difference — but it has started to age.
Neff: Sunday marks the second plate race with the new car. Did you learn anything at Daytona that you’re able to take to Talladega?
Gustafson: I think more than car stuff was how to race these cars. How the race transpires and the lanes and how you’ll be able to pass. Daytona was definitely back to how drafting was in the early 2000s. With the new configuration, you’re not making as big of a hole in the air so guys behind you don’t get as big of a run. It is a little tougher to pass. Daytona was really hard to get the bottom lane working. The top lane, for whatever reason, had a pretty distinct advantage. Interested to see at Talladega if, because it is such a wider track, if multiple lanes are going to develop and whether we’ll be able to make the middle work or the bottom work. It is going to be interesting to see.
Neff: I guess this would be a better question for Jeff to answer than you. It seems like the drivers are getting smarter – I guess we have to give them some credit for that – but they’re realizing that they don’t pay the money until the end of the race so it doesn’t seem like they’re taking as many chances early on in these plate races as they used to. Do you think that is the case or were they just trying to figure out the car at Daytona?
Gustafson: I think it is the car. The thing that I think happened at Daytona, why you didn’t see as much aggressive racing early, it was just so difficult to make that bottom lane work. If you went down there and did make it work, there were 30 cars lined up at the top and you couldn’t get back up. It wasn’t like you make a move where you fall to the back; we’ve seen that, where guys get stuck in the middle in plate racing and go to the back. But there’s a bottom lane to work your way back to the front. At Daytona, the fact that the inside lane didn’t work made everyone really guard the top and afraid to make a lot of moves. The penalty was so severe that it was so difficult to regain those positions, so that is why I’m curious about Talladega and if that is going to be any different.
Neff: With the new car, you can’t bumpdraft as much as you used to so, as a result, it didn’t seem like cooling was as much of a factor at Daytona. Are you as worried about cooling at all going to Talladega seeing as the cars aren’t as sucked up on each others’ bumpers?
Gustafson: I think you’ll see a similar trend to Daytona in that aspect. You’ll see some pushing and bump drafting at the end of the race, but it isn’t something you’re going to be able to do lap after lap after lap. The cooling, where you could stay right on a guy’s bumper the last few years, is going to have less of an impact. It is still something you have to be concerned about, but not to the degree it has been the last few years.
Neff: Have there been any technical bulletins since Daytona or is it going to be the same car?
Gustafson: The same car, very similar. I’d have to look through everything to say for sure but the cooling inlets and configuration as approved are the same. The spoiler is the same. It is going to be very similar.
Neff: The talk of the week has been the Joe Gibbs penalties for the engine failing tech at Kansas. Are you of the opinion that this issue was more about NASCAR making a statement about, “Don’t Mess With The Engine” because I can’t imagine that a little under three grams would be a significant horsepower advantage.
Gustafson: I don’t have all of the facts and I think it is very difficult to comment when you don’t have all of the facts. The thing I’m most interested in is getting the details, the Paul Harvey, where you get “the rest of the story” as things come out. For me, I don’t feel like I have enough information to judge either way and, in NASCAR’s case, I’m not an expert on penalties, but the last one I remember was Carl Long for an engine infraction and the penalty was very similar. It seems to me that it is a consistent stance on engine infractions. As far as making a decision on what did or didn’t happen, I think there is more to the story than we know and it is going to be interesting to have all of that come out and really understand why they made the decision they did.
Neff: Finally, going into this weekend, is your plan to run up front or out back? Are you going to wait and see how qualifying shakes out?
Gustafson: Qualifying is going to impact that. Understanding the style of racing we’re going to have is going to be an important factor. We’ve talked already about what our plan is and how we’re going to execute it. It is really tough to say right now because we don’t know how the racing will transpire, what style of pack racing we’ll have and how easily racers can pass. Obviously, if it is difficult to pass then you’re going to have to worry about maintaining track position. If it is a revolving door, then you can use a little different philosophy and stay out of trouble. A lot of it is still TBD — really looking forward to getting down there, seeing what kind of racing we do have and planning accordingly.
Jeff Gordon isn’t getting any younger, turning age 42 this season but he is still running strong. With Gustafson milling around the pit box, there’s still plenty of opportunities for this duo to win races and put themselves in position to contend for championships. Whether one of those will be this weekend, we’ve yet to see…
Connect with Mike!
Contact Mike Neff