The No. 7 team of Tommy Baldwin Racing, armed with a rookie driver and a revamped program continues to improve as the season progresses. Tech Talk has followed along as Michael Annett and the team have matured, logging laps while gaining experience. Kevin Manion, the crew chief, has given us insight all year about the team’s mindset and we see more of that this week along with some great technical answers as Watkins Glen approaches.
Manion revisits Pocono and the vagaries of trying to garner the Lucky Dog to improve your lot in the race. He also gives a glimpse into the mindset of planning out the weekend before leaving for the track based on weather forecasts. Also, ever wonder what can cause the front tires to lift off the ground at road courses? All that and more make up this week’s Thursday Tech Talk with one of the brightest minds inside the sport today.
Mike Neff: You started pretty far back at Pocono, worked through the Big One and managed to come home in 22nd place. How did you feel about your race before the wreck and then afterwards to wind up 22nd?
Kevin “Bono” Manion: On qualifying, we’ve been spending a lot of time in race trim getting Michael some laps. It was our second time there, we qualified 30th in the Spring and we were hoping to better that. We just didn’t get a good lap in. We opted not to make a second lap. Even though it cooled off and people were picking up, we felt like we’d only pick up a couple spots. We felt that stickers were our best opportunity. We got on the splitter a little too much in one corner and ended up a little too tight. We’re going to do some more concentrating in qualifying to get some improvement. Especially going back to the track for the second time, we felt like we should do a little better. I’ll take some of the blame for that for not spending enough time in qualifying trim.
The race we were plugging along, doing pretty well and passing some cars. The way the cautions fell there was a little goofy in the beginning. We got a couple quick strategies in play, and you were on one side or the other. We felt good about our strategy, but there was a lot of green-flag racing and we ended up getting a lap down. We still felt pretty good about a solid 20th-place finish, even being a lap down because there were quite a few cars a lap down. With that said, the caution came out and we didn’t get the Lucky Dog. We pitted and put two tires on. We ended up in Lucky Dog position and were ready to get it at the time of that caution for the Big One. The rules state that, if you are in Lucky Dog position and you are part of the caution then there is no Lucky Dog. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it. We just about had it cleared but I think we got hit in the back and shoved into the wall. It was an unfortunate set of circumstances, for sure. If we could have got back on the lead lap, it would have guaranteed us a 15th or 16th-place finish which would have been a great day for us. What is important is our team is logging laps and gaining experience. We are racing pretty good and we’re pretty happy with the progress so far. It is a pretty steep learning curve for Michael. He’s been doing a great job. We’re really proud of the team and what we’ve been accomplishing throughout the year. If we can keep making small improvements and gains every week and as long as every day, at the end of the day, we feel like we bettered ourselves in some way, shape or form that is what we’ll take out of the day.
Neff: Earlier in the year, you were trying to log laps and not contending for lead-lap finishes. Now, you’re finishing on the lead lap and contending for top 15s. Your qualifying has been the Achilles heel for you. You’re starting 33rd but finishing an average of 27th.
Manion: I think we are a lead-lap team now. Dover, we were on the lead lap and broke a shock mount. We talked about that earlier this year. Kentucky we had an outstanding run, we were on the lead lap and I think we finished 18th. We passed a lot of top-tier teams in that race. Our goals are small each week but staying on that lead lap is important. We’ve been able to do that the last few races, even without help from the Lucky Dog. We feel like our position throughout the year has progressed and that is what is important, meeting our small goals and staying on the lead lap now. Maybe picking pits a little different now, I know we talked about that earlier in the year too. We’re past midseason now, and we’ve met our midseason goals. Our year-end goal is to maintain, then increase our point position and keep getting these good finishes. It is something to build on for sure.
Neff: You finished 30th at Sonoma. Do you feel like that is about where you should be or do you feel like you are a little better than that for these twisty, turny races?
Manion: Sonoma is a pretty difficult place, along with Watkins Glen, but I feel like we can finish better than that. At Sonoma, we had position at the end of the race but we couldn’t maintain that position. We feel like, at Watkins Glen where it is a little faster track, horsepower and downforce make a difference. We feel like we have really good horsepower and really good cars so we’re going to go out there and expect a better finish than Sonoma.
Neff: There have been a couple people saying that it may rain this weekend. Does the weather forecast impact your plan of attack on the weekend before you even pack up to head to the track?
Manion: Yes and no. I looked at the long-range forecast for Michigan today and on Friday, it says 80% chance of rain. I was going to go in qualifying trim, as we talked about earlier. Now, I’m changing my mind about how we’re going to attack Michigan. Getting back to Watkins Glen, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday it says a 0% chance of rain on my weather forecasts, for three straight days in Watkins Glen, New York. That sounds a little shady to me because it is Watkins Glen. I don’t know if it is because you are fairly close to the Great Lakes there in Buffalo, but that weekend always seems to have a pop-up shower. So as the weekend gets closer, we’ll pay attention to the weather. One good thing is that your qualifying setup is very close to your race setup. The amount of tape off the grille you can do in the front, with the track being so big and the format, it isn’t like you can really tape up a whole lot. So the offset of front downforce is less at that kind of a track and it is closer to your race setup. It is kind of a rhythm thing there. Hitting your marks in and out of the corner, hitting your braking zones, shifting, so on and so forth. We’re going to get Michael as many laps as we can early on in practice and take what the weekend will give us.
Neff: You mentioned earlier that Sonoma is more technical where Watkins Glen is more high speed and downforce oriented. Did you learn anything at Sonoma that you can carry over to the Glen with the new ride height rules?
Manion: I don’t know if we can answer that yet or not. They are two completely different race courses, for sure. I think the new rules will make Watkins Glen even faster yet with the longer straightaways and the high speed exits. I think you’ll see the speeds be very fast, which will make it harder on braking. It may change the shift points a little bit as well. We’re geared up for transmission ratio changes. We’re going to try and just get some laps and get the best setup we can under the car.
Neff: You mention transmissions. Does your driver’s style of racing affect how you set up your clutch and how you configure the transmission?
Manion: That is a pretty good question. I think every driver is probably a little bit different as far as their shifting habits and how they approach the weekend. It can make some difference, although the transmissions are pretty bulletproof now.
Neff: Formula 1 and IndyCar offer their teams different tire compounds. Would you like to see that option at road courses or just within NASCAR in general?
Manion: Oh man, I think that would make some exciting racing and exciting strategy, like in F1. I just don’t know if I would like to see that. I guess I would. With 25 to go, you come in and bolt on some gumballs and you race to the front. That is more of a short track racing style but I don’t know if that is something we can do safety-wise. These cars are so much heavier than Formula 1 and IndyCars. I just don’t know… what about costs? It is a good question though. I’ve never thought of anything like that. I can imagine that is probably something that isn’t going to happen. It sounds easy, but I don’t think it would be.
Neff: When the Car of Tomorrow first came out, the front tires would come off the ground pretty substantially. It was explained on TV that it was because of the rigidity of the chassis. We don’t see that as much now. Have you made the cars lighter so the chassis is flexing more or is it that you’ve figured out the setup to keep the tires on the ground more?
Manion: That is more of a setup issue. The chassis flex is very, very minimal. I’d say that is not the correct answer. In the setup, we can adjust how much the left and right front tires droop out. Some people tighten up the droop to help the drive off the corner. That front tire lifting up in the corner might not be a bad thing with some setups. It is more the setup in the back. You may even see a little of that at Martinsville, where guys get down hard on that right-rear tire and that left front will look like it is almost coming off the ground. It is more indicative of the setup at Sonoma with the elements of the rear end packages trying to get more rear grip there. It is a track that demands rear grip. The sway bars people run and the shorter upper A arms that they run will induce that front tire to lift off of the ground.
Neff: With the new ride height rules, and the need for rear drive being so important at road courses, are shocks more important for the travels and the movement of the suspension than they are at mile-and-a-half tracks?
Manion: I would say the shock package at a road course is closest to your short track package, like Martinsville. Especially at Sonoma. Maybe at Watkins Glen, with the higher speeds possibly the rear shocks are a little closer to the mile-and-a-half tracks. They are a tuning tool that we use. When you compare notes, the road course shocks have evolved extensively over the years. With the shock teardown, we see the race winner and the pole winner every week. NASCAR tries to keep it a level playing field. Every week, everyone has different valving and different shock builds but it isn’t uncommon to have the same shock on as the guy who wins the race.
Neff: We’ve had EFI (electronic fuel injection) around for several years now. Has it evolved at the road courses to give you a little more throttle control, dampening to minimize wheel spin or is that still in the drivers’ hands?
Manion: That is still in the drivers’ hands. There is definitely a little more with the timing you can adjust with the click of a button. There have been advancements with engine braking and fuel mapping for fuel strategy. There is, by no means, traction control, but there is benefit to where your engine tuner and your engineers can look at the data and make adjustments to help in the range where you are lighting the tires up, so to speak. It is still the right foot of the driver managing the throttle to save the rear tires.