Heading to a road course is a different race preparation from any other race on the schedule. The cars have to be set up to run in a straight line where they are designed to naturally turn on ovals. Shocks and springs are designed to bear the load equally vs. the uneven rates of springs on ovals. The fuel mileage strategy has been part of the equation since Geoff Bodine taught the series how to run the races from back to front. Teams have to squeeze every drop of fuel so that they can pit as early as possible because that is most frequently how a road course race is won.
Going into Sonoma this weekend, Tony Gibson is preparing the No. 10 Stewart-Haas machine for the event. He tells us about the struggles at Michigan, why transmissions seem to be having issues, combating wheel hop and the fear of nose damage. Recently he has been testing transmissions to make them stronger, faster and better. Most of all, he’s continuing to push his team toward the Top 10s and Top 5s that he feels they are capable of.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: We ran Michigan last weekend. Seemed like it was tough to move forward no matter what position you were in. What was your day like in the Irish Hills?
Tony Gibson: We started out taking the green flag and lost third gear. The car flew out of third gear and it was catastrophic to the start of our day. We fell all of the way back to dead last as everyone drove right around us. We actually held on for a while there and passed several cars back but we lost all of that track position early. We got a lap down when the 4 was really fast. We got our lap back and then the last three or four deals there, she did her best to hold it into third as long as she could before she had to shift to fourth on restarts, but it was still a struggle. It really is not what you want to have at a place like that but she did a nice job of manipulating it and doing the best she could. We ended up getting our lap back there towards the end. Our car was good all day, we made one track bar adjustment one time, other than that it was really good. We’d lose spots on the starts and then pass them all right back. We ended up P17. We felt like we definitely had a Top 10 car speed-wise, we just never could get there because of our deal at the start. We ended up salvaging a really good finish out of it with what we had going on. We’re pretty pleased with what we overcame there for sure.
Neff: Quite a few people have had transmission problems this year with gears either falling out or the car not wanting to stay in gear. Is that from the higher speeds and loads we’re putting on them or is it coming from another endemic problem?
Gibson: I think a lot of it is coming from the new setups that we run. The cars are so rigid that they shake a lot more. You see more vibration and a lot of things that we’ve never seen before because our setups are so stiff and rigid. The input shaft and the drive shaft are not one solid shaft, so I think the dogs and sliders and other parts are moving around and bouncing and I think it is causing them to become disengaged. We’re looking at that really hard this week. The 41 had a problem at Pocono and then had a problem in practice this week and then we had the problem in the race. We’re going to do a lot of testing to get on top of that. You see a lot of that coming from the chassis setups being so stiff that it is causing other issues.
Neff: We’ve been hearing a lot of reminiscing about bungee cords being standard issue in the cars in the past to hold cars in gear when they would want to pop out. Are we going to see people start putting the cords back in the car as a standard procedure?
Gibson: It probably isn’t a bad idea. I don’t know that it will be a fix all of the time. Obviously third gear for us it wouldn’t have helped us unless we had something on the dash for it to hold onto. It picks and chooses which gear it wants to fly out of. If it is fourth gear the bungee will help. If it is another gear it won’t do us much good.
Neff: Heading to Sonoma this weekend and we’ll be turning both right and left. Danica has seemed to enjoy ovals more than road courses in her career. Has she mad some progress on road courses with these big stock cars?
Gibson: I think we have. We’ve been testing a lot. Last year we had an okay car and got spun at the end and had some issues that cost us a decent finish at the end of the race. We weren’t stellar in either one of them last year. We thought we’d be better than that because she did well in the Nationwide cars. I don’t know if it is the extra horsepower or what, but it seems to be hurting us just a little bit with the power and how the cars move around a little bit more. We went and tested at Road Atlanta a couple of weeks ago and had a very positive test with the new ride height rules. I’m hoping we can go back out to Sonoma and have a better overall weekend than we did last time.
Neff: You mention the new ride height rule. At road courses the chassis tends to roll quite a bit from side-to-side. With the new rule will we see the cars much stiffer or will you still have the rebound and have it move around as you go around the track?
Gibson: I think you will see the cars be stiffer. I think everyone will stay on the same lines that we’ve had on the oval tracks. It will be down and rigid because you want the center of gravity to be low just like you do on ovals. You want to keep it down and keep it from swinging from side-to-side. It is definitely going to be the premier setup.
Neff: Transmissions go through a lot more on a road course than they do on an oval. Are the transmissions relatively the same on the road course as they are on ovals or are they dramatically different?
Gibson: The case and all of the external stuff is the same, just the guts are different. 90% of the makeup is the same. The gears and the way the dogs are cut are different. The gears are beefier. A lot of the components are different on the inside as far as how they are shaped. The profile and all of that will change a little but overall the picture of the trans and the guts will be the same.
Neff: Wheel hop is always a battle on the road courses. It seems like it is a little more of a challenge at Sonoma than Watkins Glen. Is there anything you can do with the setup, especially with the new ride height rules, to try and cut down on that or is it still mostly up to the driver?
Gibson: You’ll always have that but it will be better with low ride heights. The cars sitting so much lower you won’t have that big pitch from front to rear, where the back of the car comes up and the nose slams down. That part will be better so that will help it some. Your braking package will have a huge impact on wheel hop. That is the best way to manage it, your driver and then the brake package you run. You can run different pads and different ratios from the front to the rear with the calipers and the number of pistons. All of that we’ll still have available to us but I do think the ride height rule will help quite a bit.
Neff: We always worry about getting off of the track at road courses. You want to stay on the asphalt but invariably you will get off course at some point in time. It seems like the cars that we’ve seen get off track over the last month or so have not had the catastrophic damage that Junior had at Texas. Have the teams come up with a way to beef up that front section of the car and the splitter to make them even more durable?
Gibson: No, NASCAR dictates what we can run for bracing on the front end and that whole structure. We don’t have a choice for what we run for bracing up there at all. None of that has changed. It depends on the situation. If you go off in the dirt out there you will tear it up just like you did anywhere else. If you go off the right way, in the right situation, you’ll look just like Junior did at Texas. It will be the same, none of that will be different.
Neff: We do the math on these road races and run from back to front to figure out your strategy. How long have you and your engineers been working on planning out when to pit?
Gibson: You have somewhat of an idea when you get out there. You know what the number of the laps will be and how long the race is. What you don’t know is how your fuel mileage will be from race-to-race out there. We have some options on settings, when we get out there, that we can move around and change. We will look at all of our fuel mileages from practices and then we will calculate it and that will tell us how aggressive we can be or not. Everyone will be trying to make it on two stops or whatever, based on their fuel mileage, but we won’t know 100% until after our practices.
Stewart-Haas Racing has two cars with wins already headed toward the Chase. Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team have been very fast all season and that is trickling down to the rest of the team. Gibson continues to help Danica Patrick improve her efforts. Her average starting position has greatly increased from last year and her average finish is up slightly. The efforts of the No. 10 team are focused on improving and trying to win a race to make the Chase and having Gibson on the box is a large benefit in that direction.