The No. 7 team of Tommy Baldwin Racing is continuing to show improvement most every week. This past weekend the teamy scored an 18th-place finish at Kentucky Speedway with driver Michael Annett. It was the team’s fourth Top 20 finish of the season and their best non-restrictor plate finish of the season. Crew Chief Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion has been quite candid about the goals of the team this year, and notes to Mike Neff this week in Tech Talk that those goals are now beginning to change.
Manion shares his views on the lack of an upper groove at Kentucky, dealing with mandatory requirements in the rear end of the car at Daytona and splitter specs. With the series heading to Daytona this weekend, the strategy aspect of the race can be extra challenging thanks to the narrow racing surface and need to have help to move to the front. Manion also touches on tire durability and what most crew chiefs will be thinking about as the race unfolds.
Mike Neff: You had a very good showing up at Kentucky. It seems like the No. 7 team is starting to have some better results. How did you feel the day went?
Bono Manion: Absolutely; I believe the last time I spoke with you we were coming off of Dover. We used the same car and had a really good car there before we broke a shock mount late. That was a top-20 run there. At Kentucky, from the time we unloaded, Michael felt really good about the car. The lap times were good and consistent with a touch of speed. With the schedule at Kentucky you do a lot of race practice first and then a little qualifying practice at the end. In qualifying, we hit our splitter a little too hard and didn’t get the exact lap we wanted. We thought we’d be a little better than that. We started the race 32nd but quickly moved up through the field. Really, at no point during the race were we ever concerned about the leader lapping us. We always had good speed and we passed a lot of good cars. Like you said, it was a really good night. One of the first races where we contended for a strong finish on the lead lap. I’m extremely happy with everything and everybody.
Neff: Early in the season you said you are a young team with a rookie driver and you didn’t feel like you were ready to contend for lead lap finishes. At this point in the season do you feel like you are at that juncture where you ought to be scoring lead lap finishes now?
Manion: Definitely, as the team grows and we improve on our product and Michael improves on his learning curve and he grows faster as we go back to these places for the second time. At Dover we were on the lead lap with just over 100 to go when we had the shock mount break. We talked about that and hopefully we can start picking different pits. We talked about when we picked the pit stall we wanted to pick between lead lap cars. Now we are definitely looking at that because we raced two cars on the lead lap all night and it had an impact on our pit stops. It is at the point where, as we grow, we’ll only take what the car will give us, but the team has gelled together and is moving along in the right direction. Everything is good. We have to take the good with the good and the bad with the bad, but, as we move foreward, we surely are looking at the lead lap and top 20s as the goal.
At the beginning of the year, it was finish races and log laps and see where we stack up. I’m glad that people are seeing the progress, the sponsors are happy with the progress. Tommy, Michael and myself are extremely happy with the progress of the team. We’re just taking it as it is. Can we win a race? Sure, we can win this weekend in Daytona–along with 42 other cars. Could we have won Kentucky? Not yet but for sure we can contend for an outstanding finish, keep gaining experience with Michael and the team, and keep climbing these steps. Every day we learn something. As long as we learn something and take a positive out of each day and make our race team better that is all we can ask for.
Neff: Michael is gaining more and more knowledge on the driving side of things. With driving knowledge vs. driver ability, does the driver’s knowledge of how the car works and how the changes you make will affect the car make him a better driver or does ability make him a better driver?
Manion: I don’t know, that is a bit of a catch 22, and every driver is a little different. Some drivers know exactly what they want and Michael is still learning that feel. Whether he’s on the splitter a little too hard or if he needs a little right rear spring, he’s still learning with these Cup cars. It is a new deal for everyone with these cars being down on the earth but being a rookie and having a whole new set of rules has made it a bit of a challenge. I do know that, when Michael complains about something, a lot of the other teams are complaining about the same issue. He has a great feel for the car. What he’s good at, and what our M.O. as a team is isn’t busting off that fast lap. That will come in time. What we’re really strong at is on the long run, having a good, consistent car and keeping the same lap time up. As the other cars slow down, we catch up to them. The feel for the car and the driver is definitely a work in progress. As we get ready to go back to these tracks for a second time, Michael has told me that he knows what he’ll need to feel the next time around.
Neff: When you get to these tracks with aged asphalt, and the cars are searching for grip, it seems like going outside of the established groove is how you find it. For some reason at Kentucky there wasn’t any grip up top. Do you have any feel for why people couldn’t really tread up there?
Manion: You said it, for whatever reason there was no grip up there, so they had to stay where the fast line was. I know that Kentucky is also very bumpy, and maybe there were some bumps up there that inhibited it too. There are a couple of different lines there but, for the most part, the people who did go up there didn’t make any headway. These tracks are crazy. Who knows, we might go back there next year and that might be the preferred line. Another season on the track and it just might get to where the asphalt up there is worn out by the sun and sand and wind blowing and the hard Winter and it will be grippy. It is just that the drivers go where the grip is. Sometimes you can move the groove up by putting the tires up there in the gray. It just wasn’t successful for the people the other night who tried it.
Neff: Ok, we’re heading to Daytona. It is finally aging and starting to get some wear on the track. Are tires a factor at all there yet?
Manion: I think, early on in practice, you’ll wear them out on the green track, even at Daytona. It still isn’t at the point where the leader will take four on the last stop. I’m fairly confident he’ll take two. The left sides will probably go a couple of stints. Still no change I don’t think there. We’ll see though; like I said, every time we go back to these tracks they are different. Obviously, this is a night race so that is a factor. We’ll keep our eyes on the tire wear and take a look. Gas and go at the end or possibly some right sides. Handling may play a part there. You can take four there and not be hurt too bad if your car is slipping and sliding a little too much. If you need the extra added grip you can put four on.
Neff: It is a night race but it is in July. Temperatures are certainly higher. Do you have to be more focused on engine cooling now than you are in February or does having it at night negate some of that?
Manion: In February, some of the teams chose to run a little bit of tape, just a little bit. NASCAR mandates the grill opening and there was some talk about increasing the maximum square inches. I received a memo about a month ago from NASCAR saying that they had it under consideration but they will not and are not going to increase the maximum opening size. By no means is it safe, but everyone will probably race with no problem, seeing as we do run a little bit of tape in the cooler month of February. It is borderline. I know these motor builders, for sure, are concerned about it. With the bigger pack now and without as much tandem style racing it is going to be just fine, I believe.
Neff: NASCAR issues your team the rear springs. You know the size and rate of them, but they come from NASCAR. Getting the rear spoiler out of the air to create the minimal amount of drag is what you are trying to do. Are there things that you can do, with the configuration under the rear of the car, that can get the back of the car down as low as possible or are the regulations too strict to allow you to do much there?
Manion: That is the name of the game. What is mandated in the back is spring location, the spring and the shock absorber. There is no mandate on the truck arms or the position of the truck arms. There are some guidelines that you have to be within. (You can use) any manufactured truck arms or you can build your own. There are some offset rules from left to right as well. You have a little bit of wiggle room to play with there. Everyone has their own little trick of the trade that believe or what they have seen on their pull-down rig or their seven-post rig. Wheels all of the way to the right or all of the way to the left. Some people want the wheels max forward, some want them max back. Whatever they drive there is very little room to wiggle but there is a little bit that you can work with in the rear end. The chassis are all very close to the same and the amount of bars that you’re allowed to have. We see a lot of close racing there and that is part of the reason: the restrictor plate and the rear end. Single qualifying runs were where you used to see the advantage, but once you get into the draft that is negated. Now that qualifying is done in the big packs, it is anyone’s game as to who will sit on the pole.
Neff: When we did have tandem racing, there were guys who put things on the back bumper to limit the potential to turn the car. With the current regulations is there an regulations against spraying anything on the overall car to minimize the drag that it has going through the air?
Manion: I don’t believe so. As long as it doesn’t interfere with the templates. Any kind of wax or spray that you want to put on your are welcome to do it. I know they frowned on the grease on the rear bumpers and stuff like that. The old rule of thumb was that anything you put on the ground in your pit box for grip or on your car you had to be able to eat it. It can’t be anything toxic or poisonous or anything like that. Nothing too crazy there.
Neff: Is there a regulation for the thickness of the splitter for when it goes on the car and when it comes off?
Manion: There are a handful of templates for the front splitter. One checks the contour shape and also checks the width. There is one that goes underneath to check the surface and make sure that it doesn’t have anything on it. The splitter starts at half of an inch. Usually when you present the car for inspection, especially at the Superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega, they would like a new or nearly new splitter that is very close to half an inch. After the race there is no rule. It can be worn completely off. Before you start the race they’ll come around with a small go-no go gauge that, if it slides on your splitter it is probably too thin. They give you quite a bit of tolerance there. For the most part, if you’re hitting that at a speedway you’re scrubbing speed off and it also changes the aerodynamics so you really don’t want to wear the thing off that is for sure.
The TBR No. 7 will be looking to shock the world this weekend at Daytona. As Manion said, anyone can win on Saturday night. As Annett comes back to these tracks for the second time around he will be more in tune with what the car wants and Manion will be prepared to give it to him. They may not be ready to contend for wins on smaller ovals but the improvement they have shown as a team has them poised to contend in the near future.