Tony Gibson continues to guide the ship for the No. 10 team at Stewart-Haas Racing, navigating the waters of a sophomore slump for driver Danica Patrick. Outside the top 25 in points, the Chase has become a longshot, but with 13 races left in the season this team has set specific goals that focus on continually improving, making the most of rough luck situations while strengthening their ability to persevere. Last weekend at Michigan was a perfect example, as the team started a wreck that resulted in damage to the left side of the car. Put in a tough spot, they battled through adversity, patching up some sheet metal, using strategy to regain a lost lap and then racing into Lucky Dog position to recoup another. The result was a lead-lap finish of 18th place.
It’s a solid performance, one this team hopes to build on in the present while keeping an eye on the future. Gibson, along with the No. 10 team stayed in Michigan Monday to participate in NASCAR’s 2015 rules test of reduced horsepower and downforce. The knowledge gained was the first in several steps toward establishing a racing platform for next season, with a goal of eliminating aerodynamic dependence and maximizing competition across the board. How’d it go? SHR’s veteran crew chief delivers a full report, explains how to prep for the Thunder Valley storm that is Bristol’s half-mile under the lights and updates us on how NASCAR’s ride height rule is having an effect on competition.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: You started pretty decently at Michigan and then had the wreck. What kind of challenges did you face after making contact in the accident?
Tony Gibson: All of the damage was aero. It affected the car a little bit. The damage was mostly behind the left front tire. That is probably the best place to have damage if you’re going to get any. We were able to make a few pit stops during the next couple caution flags. We kept working on it and working on it and patching it up. We got it the best we could get it. It affected the drag a little bit. It seemed to be draggier down the straightaways. It affected the balance a little bit. It was a little bit tighter because we lost some downforce. We were able to adjust for it and it wasn’t too bad after that. We were able to race our way back. We actually came from two laps down and used a little bit of strategy to make that happen since we were on a different sequence. It allowed us to stay out a little bit longer than the leader and we were able to get one back that way. We then raced our way back to the Lucky Dog and got that one.
We ended up 18th, on the lead lap. For the day we had, it was pretty damn good. We’ll take that. On a day like that, if you can come out with a top-20 finish, which is what we were shooting for with a clean race car, we were happy with that.
Neff: On a track that big, did the aerodynamic dependency overshadow any mechanical grip? Are you at a point where it is 90% or more aero?
Gibson: Yes, aero is everything there. It is a balance between downforce and drag at that place. The mechanical handling part of it comes second. If you have a car that has good downforce and is good aero-wise, it makes it easier to tune on the chassis.
Neff: You hung around for the test. How’d it go? One of the biggest items participants have talked about since was the possible reduction of horsepower. Did they do any tests on that front?
Gibson: We did two different versions of the horsepower reduction. Both of them I thought went really well. I felt like it tightened the field up a little bit, based on what I saw. You were only talking about 12 cars, so it wasn’t a full field. I didn’t see a huge change in what I saw on Sunday versus what I saw on Monday – just a little bit.
Neff: Were they doing just a tapered spacer or were they adjusting the EFI as well to reduce the horsepower?
Gibson: They were just doing that tapered spacer deal.
Neff: Some people said the drivers were happy with the reduction of downforce package. Did they do that through spoiler size or were they adjusting elsewhere to reduce the downforce?
Gibson: They did a smaller spoiler in the back and pulled the front belly pans off behind the splitter. That was a pretty good chunk of downforce. It was probably around 30-40% of downforce reduction. I wish we’d have had a little while to work on it. We only had about 30 minutes to try and work on that package. It was quite a bit looser on the entry into the corner. Everybody thrashed around to try and get their balance as close as they could for that racing at the end of the day. I thought the racing looked a little bit better. Guys were having to lift all of the way out of the throttle, for sure. They used throttle management to make passes and it seemed like you could move around a little better with that package.
Of course, it was just a short little test session there but it looked like there was definitely some promise. I think the drivers were definitely leaning toward that direction – take some downforce away and have Goodyear make a tire that will fit that platform. We need a couple more tests with that low downforce package to fine-tune it, then have Goodyear build a nice tire that falls off and I think you’ll have a good package to race with. Just to make it so the grip goes away and the car has less downforce. As the tire falls off, the car will start handling worse. Guys will start backing up and guys will start moving forward, causing pit strategy where you have to come down pit road and get tires. Staying out would not be an option with those changes. It isn’t a question of, with five to go, do you come down to take tires or stay out? It would be a “no brainer” to come down for tires. NASCAR is working through all of that, looking at all of the data. They had video and TV stuff there. They’ll go through all of the in-car camera stuff and come up with a package that will hopefully suit everybody.
Neff: You mentioned tire. Did Goodyear just use the tires they brought for Michigan or did they build a different tire for the test?
Gibson: They brought a couple different compounds. We only had the time to put the one on. It was for a different racetrack so it was kind of a shot in the dark. I think they wanted to do something a little different but with the time we had, that was all we could do. I think, once NASCAR gets narrowed down on an aero package then Goodyear can go back and match a tire with it. That will be our best scenario.
Neff: Did they test anything else besides horsepower reduction and downforce reduction?
Gibson: No, that was all we tested when we were there. The time went really fast and we didn’t make our last run until like 7:00 or 7:15 so it was really late when we got done running.
Neff: Heading to Bristol, which is a little bit different track from where you were just running. Bristol is mostly concrete. Does the consistency that concrete provides through the range of temperatures allow you to be a little bit more precise with your car setup?
Gibson: I think so. The biggest thing you fight there is the amount of rubber being put down. That changes the surface more than anything. The concrete doesn’t really change with temperature swings. It does control how much rubber gets put down and how fast it goes down. The hotter the concrete, the faster the rubber goes down and the more it stays attached to the racetrack. The surface, for us, doesn’t really change. It is more rubber being put down the hotter it is. Sliding around on that rubber changes our balance. As you go into the night and that rubber gets piled up, the track never does cool down from us running on it all night. The rubber ends up getting slick and slimy – that is what you fight.
Neff: We’re coming back to the track for the second time with the new ride height rule. With the ride height being so close to the track all the way around on such a high G-force track, what kind of a role does that play on parts fatigue? With the amount of G-forces and the stress that it puts on the different components, do you have to beef up some of the suspension with the load mostly being absorbed by the tire shoulders?
Gibson: No, not really. We see as much G-force and as much lateral load on the components at a place like Las Vegas or Kansas. All of our stuff is beefed up on the mile-and-a-half ovals, anywhere that we will see a certain amount of wheel loads. Bristol is no different than, say Atlanta or Vegas.
Neff: It would seem like the tightness of the corners and the steep banking would result in higher G-forces than the mile and a half tracks.
Gibson: You are running so much slower though. When you run into the corner running 200 miles per hour, it compresses the car just as much, if not further than it does running 120 at Bristol even though the banking is greater. When you take the load and balance it out on the car, it is really, really close comparing Atlanta, Vegas and Kansas. They show the most loads of anywhere we go.
Neff: With the speed that the cars seem to be going this year, generally higher at every track we go to, does aero play a greater role at Bristol now than it used to be?
Gibson: Yes. Since we’re able to control our body heights and our splitter heights so much better, the aero stuff is way more sensitive than it used to be. That is what we work on the most now is keeping our cars as flat as possible and our splitter as consistent as possible all of the way around the racetrack.
Neff: Track position is key everywhere. However, now that we have at least two grooves of racing at Bristol and you can pass people more easily, is fuel mileage strategy as important as it used to be there?
Gibson: There have been a few races won at Bristol in the past, staying out and rolling the dice on fuel so that you could keep the track position. Typically, it hasn’t come to that there lately because guys are getting more aggressive. Guys get spun out or someone gets against the fence and you have debris even if you don’t see it. I think the last couple of races, something has happened to allow everyone to make it in their window.
It is definitely a racetrack where you can use fuel mileage strategy to keep track position. But help is limited; there’s so much banking that there isn’t a lot of flat to run on under caution. If you get down to the last three gallons or so in the fuel cell, it will run away from the right side pickup. You could have plenty of fuel in it, but with the banking, it will run away from the pickup. You could end up sputtering and spitting and running out of gas even with four or five gallons left.
Neff: Don’t the fuel cells have pickups on each side with the EFI system?
Gibson: That is an option. Some teams run them and some don’t. You don’t have to run multiple pickups.