Tommy Baldwin racing continues to chase the dream on a fraction of the budget of the big race teams. A strategy call that goes wrong can cost them half a dozen positions on the race track and that can drop them into the perilous ‘must qualify on time’ area of the point standings. However, the little team that could is still comprised of racers who are in this business for the right reasons.
As they continue to chase the dream, Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion is steering the ship on the No. 7 of Michael Annett. During this week’s Tech Talk he reveals that he not only crew chiefs the car but he IS the setup guy. He also helps load the cars and anything else that really needs to be done. He also thinks Goodyear is doing a great job this year, the added speed and downforce of the cars is stressing the tires and the cars and his driver is driving like a veteran.
Mike Neff: You started 27th in Texas and finshed 29th. Was the end result indicative of your day, or was it less of a struggle than it appeared?
Bono Manion: For sure, we weren’t happy with the result. For the better part of the race we ran quite a bit better than that. It was one of those days where we started off okay, and it took quite a few laps for us to go a lap down and I was pretty happy with our progress. I decided to long pit on the second stint which inevitably cost us two laps, and that is what put us in the position to finish back there where we did.
The cars we were racing with were one lap down cars and we should have finished in the low 20s for sure. Later in the race we had a loose condition and once we took the time to put a rubber in the left rear we were running pretty good. We were running competitive lap times with the group we were running with. There at the end we gambled on fuel mileage, but it didn’t work out with that late caution. All-in-all the day was okay. It wasn’t a terrible day but the position should have been low 20s instead of high 20s.
Neff: With a rain delay like that what do you and the team do to pass the time when it rains for so long?
Manion: We pretty much knew that Sunday was going to be a wash. It was going to take some luck to get the race in. We planned a full day to work on Darlington stuff. We have a Kansas test coming up the day after Darlington, so we worked on Kansas and Darlington and really set our sites on a Monday race. If we’d have raced on Sunday night we’d have been ready, but we had a full day’s worth of work just planning ahead for next week.
Once the car is online for the race on Sunday, as far as strategy and fuel mileage for that particular race, it is over. We know what is going to happen. We know what our plan is, we know what our fuel mileage is, we know what our strategy is so we just move on to the next week. It is a week where the cupboards in the truck get cleaned out. You’re there, it is a long day, you have nothing to do so you just eat. Everyone eats everything they can find in the truck.
Neff: With a small team like yours, unlike the large teams that have their own travel department, does the crew chief have to take care of arrangements for the team when an extra day gets added onto the weekend?
Manion: Actually Doug, our spotter for the No. 36, he doubles as the travel coordinator. Like Tommy, who wears multiple hats, Doug wears two hats. He takes care of all travel arrangements, all of the rental cars, all of the hotels and then spots the 36. He does a good job at both. As part of a small team, I’m a crew chief and I also help with the setup. I’m the setup guy and I also help load the car.
It is just the way it is with a small team. Inevitably it isn’t a bad thing either. I remember when I was a small Nationwide team and we moved into Cup and I got all of this extra help. I didn’t know what to do with it all. With a small team you feel a little more connected to the race car and the race team. It is kind of getting back to that. One guy doesn’t just do spoilers or something else, because the spoilers are made for you now. One guy now might do two or three areas of the car and not just get into a fixed, “I pick things up and put things down” kind of situation.
Neff: *They had the dual-zone tire in Texas. Does that add any challenge to the setup and also, when the tire loads in the corner does it change how it responds because you have more of the soft part of the tire on the track?
Manion: Y’know, we did do some camber and toe sweeps. This is the third race for this tire. We had a little bit of history and information from Atlanta and Kansas last year. It is a different car setup though. We did sweep the camber to get on the goody side of the rubber so to speak. We also swept the toe throughout the weekend to see if there were any positives or negatives. Nothing really stood out that we needed to do different. As for the loading we didn’t notice anything different. We did see the tire blade a little bit on the inside, on the harder compound, but not so much on the outside. It is really a good tire. It is very similar to Atlanta and very bulletproof. It did a great job at Texas and I’m sure we’ll see more of it this year.
Neff: On to Darlington. We’ve seen seven years of this asphalt on the track. Is it starting to get into the Atlanta, Texas, California category where it is really abrasive to the tires again?
Manion: Reading my notes from last year and Darlington is definitely showing a fall off in lap times, fairly significantly. As beat up as the cars were at Texas, I’m sure we’re going to run into the same thing at Darlington. The Summers at Darlington are just brutal with the South Carolina sun just baking the track. I think you will see an abrasive track. Darlington is one of my all-time favorite race tracks and I can’t wait to get there.
Neff: When you get to any track and the asphalt is worn in one section more than others, thanks to the cars running one groove, the drivers seem to try and change their line to find that fresher asphalt to get more grip. That doesn’t really seem to hold true at Darlington where the drivers always seem to want to run the top. Is there any consideration to try and make the car work the bottom since the top is worn out so much more?
Manion: In working with Jamie the last couple of years, he actually preferred the bottom in three and four. However, one and two is one of the coolest corners in all of motorsports. The way you enter the corner, get back after the gas and drive literally straight to the wall. One and two is definitely a place where you can only run the top. Three and four you definitely see people running that lower line for sure. One reason is that there may be some more grip down there and secondly, to just stay away from the dang wall. (laughs).
Neff: Qualifying is the topic of the year. With the new format, is it going to be one shot and if you screw it up you’re going to be consigned to the back of the pack?
Manion: I would think so Mike. Not knowing until we get there, but with the track being so abrasive it is a one and done kind of place. I believe you’ll see one lap, and hopefully our Pilot Chevrolet can make it into knock out qualifying.
Neff: We always hear the point that Darlington is, “Too Tough to Tame” and the driver has to run the track and not the competition. When you are in that scenario, does it give you guys a shot at a better finish because Michael can focus on the track and not have to worry about racing the competition?
Manion: Y’know that is one of the major sayings for racing Darlington. I think you’re right — if we get into the race solidly and put a good setup under it and let Michael do his job. We just need him to log laps and gain experience. We’ve had some really good races. I’m really proud of Michael’s success. Not so much success, but his ability to catch on quickly. I think we’re going to be just fine.
Neff: Speaking of Michael’s ability, other than Daytona, y’all have been running at the finish of every race. A team with your budget that is a very helpful thing having a car that you can roll back onto the truck at the end of the day. Is that something that Michael has been focused on over the first seven races?
Manion: I don’t think so. He’s been aggressive but he’s been smart. When you have that rookie stripe on the back of your car these guys will beat you up if you aren’t careful. If you don’t show them respect. There has been a lot of give and take and he’s been really smart. He’s been a seasoned, aged, veteran, smart type of driver right now and that is what we need right now for our small team. Make finishes, learn everything we can, log our laps, have Michael make mistakes, we’ll make mistakes, and we’ll learn as a team. We are making great progress right now.
Neff: Being a smaller team you don’t have the budget to be off testing at non-NASCAR tracks every week. With this new ride height rule, there area lot of new things that teams are trying out and figure out what works and what doesn’t. How do you guys go about acquiring that knowledge? Until it becomes common knowledge in the garage it can be hard to get your hands on that stuff.
Manion:We are a small team, but we have done some testing. We’re going to test in Kansas. It is a struggle at times but we have a full engineering staff that we are extremely proud of. We have a little ol’ sim program; definitely have some help with General Motors and Chevrolet. We have a small alliance with ECR since we run their engines — we get a little help from a few people. Mostly it is a lot of our guys just working really hard to come up with our own things. It is all good.
Neff: Historically the right side tires on these cars take a lot more abuse than the left side tires. For whatever reason it has seemed like, this year, the left side tires are having more difficulty than the right sides. Is that just because we have more downforce and the left side tires that we’ve brought back from previous years are just being tested more since we’re putting more pressure on them than we have in the past?
Manion:There are a couple of factors going on. The cars are faster and the setups are putting more load onto the tires. We’re using the tires to take some of that load off of the car and we’re dropping the left side of the car lower than we have before. There is a handful of different reasons.
We don’t want to point fingers at Goodyear or anyone else. As we get faster, I read today that Clint Bowyer went 217mph at Michigan. That is unheard of in a stock car. As we get smarter as a whole and NASCAR gets smarter and Goodyear gets smarter, it isn’t even a matter of catchup. Times are changing, things are changing and we need to work on them to make them better.
Manion and the No. 7 team head into Darlington looking to continue logging strong finishes in their book and to beat the cars they are racing. He is still realistic about the capabilities of his team but he does expect them to perform to the best of their abilities, even though they aren’t winning races yet. If the No. 7 can keep finishing races, and start finishing on the lead lap, it won’t be long before the little team that could becomes the little team that did.