Tech Talk: Tony Gibson on Kurt Busch’s Hot Start & What to Expect at Martinsville

Tony Gibson started the year off with Regan Smith behind the wheel while NASCAR had Kurt Busch on suspension but he was still working with Busch during that time, so when his usual driver came back last week they hit the track fast. Last week at Auto Club Speedway, they were three-quarters of a lap from victory until Brad Keselowski passed Busch in turns 1 and 2 to snag the win.

Gibson is pragmatic about the loss that would be devastating to some, partly because he’s been around this sport for so long.

This week the team heads to Martinsville, where Busch won a race last season. Gibson is preparing to attack the oldest course on the circuit with a new rules package that is going to bring in a whole new set of challenges that the drivers aren’t used to. Getting through the center of the corner is going to be a premium along with keep the nose inside on exit to be able to root the other cars out of the way. He will also be faced with making a tough pit stall selection and making the car comfortable for Busch.

Read about these challenges and more in this week’s Tech Talk.

Mike Neff – California didn’t end quite the way you wanted it to but the rest of the weekend was really strong. How do you feel your weekend went?

Tony Gibson – We were coming off of a great run at Phoenix. We were running first and second with Harvick all day and it came down to a few laps left, something like 15 to go, and I knew if we came down pit road running P2 at least half of them behind us would come because they weren’t going to out run us the way they were running. I knew some of them would at least try and take two to out run us. I decided to pit and put tires on and 11 of them stayed on the track. We drove back up to fifth but we thought that was our chance to win it. It just didn’t pan out but it was a great finish and a great run all day.

2015 Fontana CUP Kurt Busch pit stop  credit NASCAR via Getty Images

The #41 team is off to a flying start in 2015. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

California we unloaded on Friday and that thing was really fast. It was fast all day Friday and sat on the pole. Both practices on Saturday that thing was wicked fast again and we had a great 10-lap average and had good up front speed and end of the run speed. We were really pumped going into the race. We had a car that could win the race if things went right and it started off really good. We led a bunch of laps and ended up leading the most laps. It was pretty much us and Harvick again. The [No.] 20 car had one run there where he was pretty stout and the [No.] 11 had a run where he was pretty good and we were a little bit off because we were too tight and fell back to second or third. We got our car better from the second stop on and it was pretty much between us and Harvick to race it out to the end. At the end we all came and got tires, whether it was two or four. We knew we had to get at least two tires. Thirteen or 14 behind us took two tires and two guys stayed out so I thought we were in really good shape with the right call at the right time.

We were looking good after the green and stretched the lead out and we were heading into three and coming to take the white when the caution came out. It bunched everybody back up and Keselowski got around four or five of them and then we restarted again. That time it was a legitimate caution there because the back bumper got knocked off of the [No.] 42 and there was a big piece of debris there. So the yellow flew going into three again coming to get the white and that let Keselowski close up to sixth or so and I knew we were going to be in trouble unless traffic held him up. We did the best we could and I made the call that I thought was the right call at the time.

Hindsight is 20/20 and Monday crew chiefing I would have done it different knowing how it played out but at the time I think we made the right decision. The way I look at it we won the race three times. It just didn’t work out for the final deal but we had a strong run and we’ll take that and the momentum heading into Martinsville. I told my guys and Kurt when we went to lunch yesterday, if we keep running like we are our win will come. We are excited and pumped up to head to the next one.

Neff – When you make a two tire call like that at the end of a race, in order to get the car to feel the same as it did before the pit stop, do you just adjust the air pressure or do you have to adjust the wedge or track bar as well?

Gibson – We made an air pressure adjustment on the right sides we put on to get them pumped up because the left sides were up on pressure since they had been run so they’d match. Your left to right splits will be off when you do that so we tried to help with that. It took off fine, we were in good shape for the next two restarts but we couldn’t survive that last deal. Two isn’t going to beat four, especially at a place like that where it is so wide and you can get around guys. Kurt kicked himself for not raising his track bar. He saw Keselowski coming and was looking in the mirror paying attention to him instead of adjusting the track bar. He felt like he could have helped his balance a little bit by raising the track bar but I still don’t think we could have held him off. We may have lasted into three but four over two is going to win every time when you’re that close. Especially on a track where it loses grip like that. You can make a chassis adjustment but with this track bar deal the driver can adjust that stuff, which is really cool. Circumstances put us in a bad spot there and we didn’t need to be in that spot but it is what it is.

Neff – We’re headed to Martinsville and it is obviously a lot different than any of the other tracks we’ve been on this year. Drivers have different feels that they like in the car. On a little half-mile track like that, can you make that much of a difference between tight and loose to fit a driver’s style?

Gibson – You can; what everyone fights there is loose in. You’re driving into the corner so hard and you are still turning while you’re breaking. Then you have the drop off from asphalt to concrete. You’re applying brake while you’re decelerating and the rear of the car is really light. We work with the braking balance more than anything to reduce the wheel hop so that you can minimize that loose in. On the other side of the corner, where we call it the 5/8 point, just past center where the curb starts going away from the racing groove, the car kind of gives up right there and it doesn’t want to turn or rotate. At that time you’re back in the gas hard and the rear tires are driving the front tires. The front pops up and the back squats down and the load comes off of the front tires so now it wants to push the front tires. It is a balancing act, managing the entry under breaking and then being able to accelerate straight off of the corner. If the car has any wheel in it and it is rolled to the right it isn’t going to do anything but push the nose and you’ll just lose your exit speed.

Neff – Speaking of the drive off of the corner, we’re going there for the first time with the tapered spacer reducing the horsepower. How is that going to have an impact on the cars getting up and out of the corner?

Gibson – It is going to be big. RPMs in the middle of the corner are going to be way lower. It is 30 points of gear different than what we’re used to. It is going to be a huge deal to overcome there. Keeping the cars loose enough to roll through the center so that you don’t have to use a bunch of brake to overslow it because you aren’t going to have the power to run off of the corner. When you get underneath somebody, especially on the restarts, it is going to be beating and banging and pushing and shoving because you don’t have the acceleration to pull away from a guy or finish a pass up off of the corner. It is going to be a matter of, if you can get a guy pushed up high and keep your nose right on his left rear corner where he can’t get back down then you’ll take the spot. I see it being very difficult to pass there with the motor package the way it is, it is just going to make it worse.

Neff – You mentioned the rear gear, are we going with a smaller rear gear so that you have less RPMs coming off of the corner?

Gibson – Yes, it is a lot taller gear. It is just like a bicycle sprocket. We are going to a tall gear so it takes a long time for the top of the chain to get back around to the 360 mark. The smaller the pulley the less teeth are on it so the top of the chain gets around quicker. It is going to be less RPM on the bottom end so, as the car is getting up to speed it isn’t going to have that initial throttle response like we used to have. That is where that rolling through the corner and being really free and being able to roll with speed through the corner without using a ton of brake is going to pay off.

Neff – On pit road at Martinsville, there are only four or five choice spots where the in and out is easy. If you don’t get one of those prime spots, would you rather be at the beginning of pit road in turn 3 or all of the way around toward the exit in turns 1 and 2?

Gibson – On that deal, stalls one and two are really good. I think stalls 11 and 10 are really good, which is the last opening getting into turn 1, and then there is another one at the exit of turn 4. The problem with that one is that it is kind of one a bank so it slopes off. It is an opening but the car doesn’t sit flat. If I can’t get one of the first four then I want to pit on the flat on the front straight on a good flat pit stall. The thing is now, you have to control these tires that guys are taking off. If you have a slanted pit box the tire can roll in or roll off very easily. You have to keep that in the back of your mind when you are picking these stalls now based on the pit stuff that is going on now. If I can’t get one of the first four or five there than I’ll probably just stay on the front straight there towards the middle and roll the dice that we get around someone who ends up down a lap early. That is about the best you can do.

Neff – Talking about the tires getting away from people, we’ve seen a rash of those this year. Is it at least part of it that the new electronic officiating system is spotting it more and it was always going on or is there something more going on this year?

Gibson – Kind of, before guys could take the tire off of the right rear and the jack man would sit the tire next to the right rear corner of the bumper cover and the tire would sit there, and he’d go back to the jack. Now the tire has to be in control all of the way to the mid line of the pit stall. You saw that this weekend, the tire didn’t go outside of the stall. They rolled the tire toward the wall but they weren’t halfway back when they did it so that is what they are calling an uncontrolled tire now. It can be in the pit box but if NASCAR feels like you don’t have control of that tire then they will bust you for it.

Neff – We have a new aero package. Martinsville is a short track without a lot of speed so aero isn’t a big deal but it still comes into play. What do you feel like you’re going to battle with the smaller spoiler and lower downforce on the front?

Gibson – It will be like it is anywhere else. It is less of a concern there but it is still a concern. Anywhere that you run over 100 mph it makes a difference. It isn’t quite as crucial there. You spend so much of your time with the car in pitch and heave there it is really hard to control the aero platform there. It may be a one out of five on the scale of do we need to worry about it. The big thing is to keep the fenders off of the tires and not really worry so much about the shape of them.

Neff – There was a lot said about the fact that Kurt was running Kevin’s set up the last couple of weeks. How helpful is it that you have two full teams working off of one platform when you get to the track?

Gibson – We’ve always been pretty close. Even when Danica drove, the [Nos.] 4 and the 10 were always close. Our setups at Phoenix and California were maybe 75 percent the same, they weren’t the exact same. We do have a core geometry setup that we use between the two teams but our shocks and springs and sway bars and wedge vary. We were quite a bit different this past weekend with those, further apart than we were at Phoenix. It isn’t so much a 4 setup or a 10 setup or a 14 setup. It is what we call the Stewart-Haas core geometry setup. You take it from there and adjust on it according to what your driver feels. Stewart has tried many times to plug this setup in. He’s plugged in ours and has plugged in Harvick’s exact setup in and he hates it. When you say the same setup it isn’t 100 percent throw all of this in there and it will be fast. No driver drives the same. There are things you have to do to make your driver comfortable. That is what we do. What we call a Stewart Haas core setup is the geometry that we run and then each team does their own tweaks and things for driver preference.

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Fontana 2015 in the Books

Who’s in the headlineBrad Keselowski may get credit for the win but Kurt Busch is in the spotlight for how close he came to taking the checkered flag in his second race back from suspension. Busch was leading when a caution flag flew with less than two laps to go, one that resulted in a green-white-checkered ending. As the field took the white flag, Greg Biffle wrecked on the frontstretch but the caution flag did not fly. Keselowski was then able to pass Busch in the middle of turns one and two, driving away for the win.

What happenedKevin Harvick looked to be on his way to a sweep of the three west coast races at the start of the season until a caution with 47 laps to go. When the field came down pit lane, Matt Kenseth‘s crew got him out ahead of everyone else. Then, when the green came back out, Kenseth was clear of the field and poised to take the win. A caution flew with 15 to go for supposed debris in turns 1 and 2, although it was never shown on TV. Kenseth pitted for two tires but his rear axle broke as he attempted to exit the pits.

That put Kurt Busch and Harvick on the front row and Busch was able to wrest the point away from Harvick on the restart. He was headed to the win when another caution for a small piece of debris, located outside of the groove at the exit of turn four flew with less than two laps to go. Busch and most of the other leaders came to the pits for tires while Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Biffle stayed out. The green flew and the mad scramble saw Busch shoot the gap between Gordon and Stewart to grab the point. Kyle Larson bounced his car off the wall as the field spilled onto the back straight and the rear bumper cover flew off his car. NASCAR had to throw the caution again and set up one more green-white-checkered finish. Busch led the field to green and was leading as the field passed the white flag. Biffle wrecked at the start/finish line before Busch led Keselowski into turn one; however, NASCAR chose not to throw the caution (unlike at Daytona, where they threw it when cars wrecked more than a mile from the start/finish line). Keselowski passed Busch in the middle of turns one and two, then held him off as they raced back to the finish. Busch hit the wall on the exit of turn four and ultimately lost second place to Harvick.

2015 Fontana CUP Kurt Busch window credit NASCAR via Getty Images

Kurt Busch climbed into contention Sunday but ultimately fell short of his first Sprint Cup win of 2015. (Credit: Getty Images)

Why you should care – Brad Keselowski has put his name firmly into the mix for the 2015 Chase. While he hasn’t officially qualified yet, Kes is in great shape to be included in the 16 who run for the title. Busch has himself in a position where, with a consistent run of races like he had today, he will be able to lay claim to a top 16 point position even without a win and missing three races. Harvick, in the meantime, thanks to Busch bouncing off of the turn four wall and slowing down, passed his way to the runner-up slot and notched his eighth straight top-2 finish. Ryan Newman has turned in three straight top-5 runs after a 38th at Daytona and a 10th at Atlanta.

What your friends are talking about – We frequently talk in this column about the credibility and consistency problem that NASCAR has. They threw the caution in the 500 for the wreck on the back straight and claimed it was due to the safety concern for the drivers who wrecked, even though they all drove away well before the field was anywhere near the finish line. Well, Biffle wrecked directly below the flagstand and yet NASCAR left the green in the air and allowed the race to continue to the checkered flag. That is the way it should be, but you cannot make the call at Daytona for safety and then make the call at Fontana for whatever reason you make the call. If you had thrown the caution then, there would be no debate; without it, the box for doubt is flung wide open once again.

Brian Vickers is out of a racecar again. He climbed back into a car at Las Vegas after missing the first two races of the season due to heart surgery. Now, after two races, he has been diagnosed with a blood clot, meaning he’ll have to go back on blood thinners. Vickers obviously cannot race while on that medicine so he will once again have to turn his seat over to another driver while he recovers from the latest bout. Ironically, March is blood clot awareness month and Vickers was scheduled to do multiple appearances in support of one of his sponsors, who provides clot-related products. This is the third time that blood clots have taken Vickers out of his seat. With the amount of money and time that are involved in marketing and sponsorship activation for Cup Series drivers, you have to wonder if Vickers is still of interest to race teams. The real question is, with the track record of clot recurrence for Vickers, is it a safety risk for him to continue racing cars at all?

The purses for the XFINITY and Truck series have gone up this season. Why? Well, while it hasn’t been trumpeted by the sanctioning body, some of the purse money that used to go to the Cup series has been redirected to the XFINITY and Truck series. Cup purses have dropped for the three races since Daytona, albeit by less than $100,000 per race. The XFINITY races have been up anywhere from $60,000 to $155,000. The Daytona Truck race was up 16% and the field was 32 trucks instead of 36. Atlanta did not have a truck race in 2014 but compared to the 2012 edition, the purse is up over $100,000. The purses for the two series have been ridiculously low for teams that have to travel the country and compete so it is a great step in the right direction. Let’s hope it continues for years to come so that new owners are encouraged to come into both series.

If you build it, they will come…at least if you only have one race date and the asphalt wears out. Auto Club Speedway put on some of the worst races of the year for several years, and the crowds were uninspiring – just like the racing. As a result, the track lost a date and was in danger of losing NASCAR altogether. Fortunately, the asphalt aged and Goodyear finally brought a tire that wore out. What happened next was fantastic competition. The last few years, the track has hosted some of the best races each year and the fans have come out to support it. For the second straight year, Auto Club Speedway sold out for the Cup race. The seating capacity is 68,000, down from 92,000 at its peak. Still, the capacity doesn’t include luxury box or infield seating, meaning this crowd is one most tracks would beg to have these days. Obviously, the trend in attendance for the sport is downward but for a track that was in danger of losing their presence completely, it is a positive sign.

The future of racing continues to look bright. Max McLaughlin, the son of “Magic Shoes” Mike McLaughlin, scored his first career Dirt Modified win at the Skyler Trull Memorial at Carolina Speedway in Gastonia, N.C., this weekend. The 15-year-old driver is progressing up the ranks just like his popular father did years ago. Check out this week’s edition of Pace Laps for some more information about McLaughlin and Timothy Peters going back to his roots to score a win at South Boston Speedway.

Who is mad Kurt Busch did an outstanding job of biting his tongue at the end of the race and giving credit to Brad Keselowski for the driving he did on the last restart. He had to feel like they would throw the yellow when Greg Biffle was wrecking and dropping debris all over the front straight. Instead, Busch — who led the most laps and was the car to beat at the end of the event — was bit by that ending and an earlier caution for an almost microscopic piece of debris.

Joey Logano was set to make it to the end of the race on fuel with 15 laps to go when NASCAR threw a caution for debris that was not shown on television. He had rebounded to 13th from a pit road penalty and had three laps in hand on fuel over most of his competitors. When the caution flew, it knocked all the fuel mileage questions out of the way and kept Logano out of contention for the win.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Matt Kenseth’s winless streak continued Sunday when a broken axle broke momentum on his trek toward Auto Club Speedway Victory Lane. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Matt Kenseth‘s team told him he was good to go on fuel when the same caution flew that ruined Logano’s chances. As he tried to leave the pits, the left rear axle snapped. Fox never showed the debris on track so we are left once again to wonder just how legitimate the debris was. Kenseth hasn’t won a race since 2013 and has to feel like the had one taken away from him on Sunday.

Who is happyBrad Keselowski is thrilled with the handling of the yellow flag over the final few laps of the race. The caution that cost Kenseth the win allowed him to come in and put on four tires. The subsequent caution with two to go allowed him to catch up to the front two and make the final run that put him out front for the win. Keselowski had never won at California before, so the win and the step closer to the Chase has to make the 2012 champion happy.

Martin Truex, Jr. continues to set Furniture Row Racing records. Truex was sporty for most of the race and found himself near the front at the end. As a result, he has five consecutive top-10 finishes to start the season. This is the first time that Truex has had more than one top 10 to start a year.

Paul Menard has been knocking on the door of his first top 10 of the season since a 25th-place finish in the Daytona 500. He had three consecutive top-15 results since his Sunshine State February debut. Sunday’s finish of fourth is not only his first top 5 of the season but also puts Menard ninth in points and, at this point of the year, on the inside looking out of the Chase.

When the checkered flag flew:

Brad Keselowski turned in his first career win in seven career runs at Fontana.

This is Keselowski’s 17th career victory in 202 career Cup starts.

Keselowski is tied with Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Marvin Panch and Curtis Turner for 47th on the all-time wins list.

Keselowski now has five straight years with a victory in the Cup Series.

Kevin Harvick chalked up his fifth top-2 run of the season in five races. He has eight consecutive top 2s, the most since Richard Petty accomplished the feat in 1975. Petty threw down 11 straight so Harvick has three to go before he ties the King.

Harvick’s runner-up was his third top-2 run at Fontana in 22 career starts.

Harvick has 34 career second-place finishes which is 19th on the all-time list and fourth among active drivers behind Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.

Kurt Busch’s third-place run was his first of the season in two starts.

It is Busch’s second consecutive podium run at the track and his fifth of his career in 22 starts at Auto Club Speedway.

Busch’s top 3 is the 72nd of his career in 509 career starts.

Jeb Burton was the Rookie of the Race.

The race saw nine leaders who exchanged the lead 19 times. Busch led a race-high 65 laps.

There were seven cautions for 31 laps.

The margin of victory was .710 seconds.

David Ragan turned the fastest lap of the race.

Kevin Harvick is still the only driver with two wins in the books. Officially, he is the only driver who has punched his ticket to the 2015 Chase provided he is still able to climb behind the wheel in September and stays inside the top 30 in points.

Three drivers now have an inside track to the Chase by virtue of winning a race already this season. Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski have wins and, assuming there aren’t more than 16 winners in the first 26 races, they will be in the playoffs provided they are in the top 30 and can still race.

The remaining 12 drivers who are eligible for the Chase based on their current point position are:

  • Martin Truex, Jr.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  • Ryan Newman
  • Jimmie Johnson
  • Kasey Kahne
  • Paul Menard
  • Aric Almirola
  • AJ Allmendinger
  • Casey Mears
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Denny Hamlin
  • David Ragan

Takin’ it to the Bank:

Cup winners this year have pocketed $2,970,040 while the last place finishers have taken home $552,285. Lucky for this comparison that Sam Hornish, Jr. was last instead of Matt DiBenedetto this week. That pulled almost $17,000 more in the last place coffers.

In the XFINITY Series, it has been $440,217 for the winners and $88,872 for last place.

After two Truck Series races, the winner has $137,089 and the last loser has banked $21,153.

What is in the cooler – After several years of fantastic races, this weekend’s event left fans wanting for most of the event. Thanks to the two garbage cautions at the end of the event and the failure to throw one that legitimately should have been thrown, the race is lucky to get two glasses for Torch Pilsner from Foothills Brewing Company. Restarts were wide open and cars were spread out everywhere on the track which made the end of the race exciting. However, 90% of the race was a spread out parade with cars relatively equally spread out. There were multiple on-track passes for the lead which is the reason the race didn’t receive just a single beer.

Where do you point your DVR for next week – The West Coast swing is in the books. The traveling circus heads back to its traditional roots as it heads to the half mile track outside of Martinsville, Va. Martinsville Speedway is one of two tracks still in existence from the first Cup season in 1949 and the only one that is still on the schedule. The action from the venerable track can be seen on Fox Sports 1, their first Cup series event ever. It can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate and NASCAR SiriusXM radio channel 90. The racing begins at 1 p.m. ET.

Tech Talk: BK Racing’s Joe Williams on What Auto Club Speedway Brings to Cup Racing

Joe Williams is in his second year as a crew chief in the Sprint Cup series. After spending the 2014 season on the box with Ryan Truex for most of the year he finished up the season guiding JJ Yeley. He is now drawing on the extensive knowledge the grizzled veteran brings to the table for a lower tier team. The team has been gradually improving from its 40th-place run in Daytona and came home with a 31st-place run at Phoenix

Williams took some time out from packing for his trip to California to talk about preparing his car for the weathered racing surface and new tire that awaits him in Fontana. He shares his opinions about reduced speed and staying in the throttle for the whole lap at the two-mile track. He also spoke on reducing center of gravity through different oil tanks while making mechanical gains in the front of the car.

Mike Neff: How do you feel like your day at Phoenix went?

Joe Williams: Phoenix went well. When we started off it was a little tricky there with that brand new tire. We ended up getting a handle on it. We set the car up for long runs. That is kind of how the races have been going, cautions not falling as quickly as they used to. 20 laps into runs we were pretty satisfied with our car, thought we could have gotten a couple of cars at the end. The late caution at the end there left us with 10-lap run and kind of caught us off guard at the end of the race but, we were pretty happy. We got a little bit of a late start with the Toyota nose change and stuff so we’ve been a little bit behind but we’re catching up.

Neff: JJ has had a lot of success at Phoenix. What is it like working with someone who knows how to get around a track so well?

Joe Williams - BK Racing

Joe Williams is the crew chief of JJ Yeley’s #23 BK Racing Toyota in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

Williams: It is great, I love working with JJ no matter where we go. He has a lot of experience. He helps me learn some of the stuff at these tracks where I haven’t had as much experience. Last year, with Ryan Truex, we were both rookies at it trying to work through the learning curve. When JJ stepped in he brought that experience even though he has a different feel that he likes in the car. We’re clicking for sure, I worked with him as a car chief in the past so we have a little bit of history. We get along great so it really hasn’t been a big deal as far as our communication is going.

Neff: We are headed to Fontana. For the last two or three years tires have been the story there which has led to some great racing. We have a new left side tire that offers a little more grip than we’ve had in the past. What do you think that will do for the racing?

Williams: The left side tire is supposed to have a little harder side wall, so we shouldn’t see the left side issues we’ve had in the last couple of years. It is also a softer compound so that is going to make the setup a little bit tighter. In the past at California you usually fight the seams more than anything else. If you hit the seam with the right front it will make it feel tight and if you hit it with the right rear it will make it feel loose. Inconsistency from lap to lap is what you’re going to fight there. Goodyear brings a good tire every week. They do a good job of correcting where we want to go with air pressures and stuff. Other than being a little tighter with a little more grip, the falloff is probably going to be a little bit more like we’ve seen at the first couple of mile-and-a-half races. I think it will be a great tire and as long as we can get through the seams out there, the track is getting a little more worn out and we need a grippier tire to be able to fire off well.

Neff: With the new rules package we have less downforce than we’ve had in the past. Has that changed what you’re doing with your shocks from a rebound perspective compared to the last couple of years?

Williams: We’ve gone backward a little bit with the shocks. We’ve got a little bit more rebound. With the less downforce, when you are in traffic you need to try and hold the car down a little bit more in traffic to keep the splitter sealed off as best you can. The shocks are a little different than they were in the past with the downforce. It hasn’t been as big of a deal as I thought it would be. I thought it would be a handful but it hasn’t really been. It has just been little adjustments. The shock package has changed a little bit for us, just to try and keep as much downforce on the front of the car and keep it as low as you can when you are in traffic.

Neff: Last week we spoke with Bono Manion a little bit about rear gear. He mentioned that he’d seen a few teams had actually been choosing the option rear gear with the higher RPMs than the higher speed option with this new package. Have you seen that in any of your experiences or have you tried out the option gear instead of picking the bigger rear gear every week?

Williams: There is something to that. We get into the chip (rev limiter) at some of these places. They want the RPMs to be around 9,000. With the new engine package the valve train seems to move around a lot when you get toward 9,200 RPM. Qualifying at places like that, when you’re using that high gear, you’ll get up to 9,200–9,300 range and you’re get into the chip pretty hard. Also I think the momentum part with this new package, being down 100 horsepower, when you used to get a run off of the top with momentum doesn’t happen anymore. You’re already at your momentum when you get to the corner. You don’t see that big run off of the top like you used to. If you’re going to run the bottom then you are going to need the option gear to get through the corner, otherwise you’re going to have to run the middle or the top but you aren’t going to see the gains. A lot of these guys are going to try and run the bottom so they’re going to opt for the lower gear so they can get up off of the corners.

Neff: Fontana is a two-mile track. We have lower speeds on the straightaways thanks to the reduced horsepower. Are we getting to the point where the drivers can flat foot it all of the way around Fontana and Michigan?

Williams: I do believe, when the tires are new, there is a good possibility that you’ll just breathe the throttle. You won’t roll all of the way out of it but you’ll just breathe it back by 50 percent maybe. Some guys are a little bit better. They’ll roll out and get right back into it. It is a momentum race track so you don’t want to use the brakes much at all there. It will get the car really tight in the center. If you do touch them you want to be off of them really quick so you can roll those long, sweeping corners. I do believe in qualifying on Friday afternoon you’ll see a lot of guys that won’t be off of the throttle for long if they are at all.

Neff: With drivers not lifting much at all is there some concern about the wear on the engines due to the fact that they are not getting a chance to breathe at all during the laps?

Williams: With the sustained RPMs, absolutely it is a concern. Like we’ve seen in the past at races like Charlotte and other long races, we try and keep the mileage down as much as we can Valve springs are the heavy hitter right now. They are a little bit lighter valve spring than we’ve used in the past. That is the biggest thing, most everyone will be changing the valve springs before the race to put in a brand new fresh set. Just because of the RPMs. You jut sustain such a constant RPM that the weakest link is your valve springs.

Neff: In the past, at superspeedway tracks, a ton of effort and technology went into the design of the cowl and the cowl opening to get the air into the engine as quickly as you possibly can. Do you see any of that technology coming over to the other tracks now that we’re using the tapered spacer?

Williams: We’ve seen a little bit, but not as much as you do at the superspeedways. At the speedways you’re at about 450 horsepower. With these engines you’re still at 800 horsepower since they’ve only knocked off 100 horses with the tapered space. There is a little bit with what goes on for keeping the air flow getting in. More of it is involved with the headers and exhaust. Anything you get in you have to get out. The faster we can get it out of the motor the more we can get in and make more horsepower. Most of the effort has been on the heads, the headers, the exhaust pipes. Trying to make sure you keep that exhaust flow and speed up. It is basically an air pump. The faster you can get it out the more you can get in. You have to start there. We haven’t seen a lot of radical cowls for the first four races here.

Neff: You put a decent amount of oil in the reservoirs of these cars but oil is rather heavy. Is there anyone playing around with cutting back on the amount of oil that they put into these cars to reduce the weight that is that high up in the car?

Williams: We are definitely looking at center of gravity heights with these cars since we can now lower heights and stuff. We’ve looked at different, smaller oil tanks, just putting in as much oil as the manufacturer wants us to run. Not giving the oil a lot of room to breathe in there. Before we had these big tanks and you’d have 17-18 inches from the top of the tank to where the oil level was. That was 17-18 inches of aluminum that you were carrying around that you didn’t need to. There are some designs coming out that are smaller and more radical. The oil level is what the manufacturer recommends but we’re going to push it to the minimum.

Neff: We are three races into the new rules package. With this new package do you feel like you’ve made more gains with the aerodynamic side of things or the mechanical grip side of things?

Williams: I believe we’ve made a lot of gains in the mechanical side and the compliance. We did a lot of work at TRD (Toyota Racing Development) in Salisbury (N.C.) over the winter on compliance and steering in the front ends and trying to get that tightened up so we didn’t have a lot of movement in the front end that we have to overcompensate for. We have made a lot of gains over the winter mechanically. Our aero package isn’t bad. We’ve been to the tunnel a couple of times with the new car and the new nose. We’re still working on it. We have another date next month so we are going to try a couple of other things we’ve learned. I would say mechanical is certainly where we made the biggest gains over the winter.

Neff: BK is the only team that uses Racing Engines Plus. Do you get any help from TRD in the engine department? If so, how does that work?

Williams: It works pretty good. We get some mapping, fuel mapping and stuff from them. We’ll take one of our motors out to California and dyno the motor and get some help with the fuel mapping on the motor to make sure we’re peaking where we need to peak and whether the computer part is working properly. In the beginning a lot of people had issues with that stuff. Just trying to get the motor to run at 3,000 RPM and still make power at 9,000 RPM. It is a fuel mapping deal that they’ve helped us out a lot with. It has come a long way for sure.

Thinkin’ Out Loud – Kevin Harvick Strolls In His House At Phoenix

Who’s in the headlineKevin Harvick is starting off the 2015 season in dominating fashion – the first person since Richard Petty in 1974 to start off a season with four straight top-2 finishes. Sunday’s victory was his seventh straight, dating back to 2014 and is also second only to The King all-time. Harvick is the first driver to score two wins this season, which is what he did last year as well. That locks him into the Chase, now sure to have a shot to defend his title.

What happenedJoey Logano grabbed the lead from Harvick at the drop of the green and led the first 25 laps of the event. From there, it was Kevin Harvick for the next 93 laps. Brad Keselowski used pit strategy to get out in front off of the fourth caution of the event and held off Harvick for 52 laps. Harvick then led 18 before Logano made another strategy play to grab the lead again. He kept Harvick at bay for 10 laps before the eventual winner jumped back to the point for 96 more laps; it was mostly smooth sailing down the stretch. On the penultimate restart of the race, Jamie McMurray beat Harvick to the line and was given credit for leading lap 295. That advantage was short lived as Harvick regained the lead and walked away for his second straight victory. 10 caution flags slowed the race, seven of which were for incidents with competitors… but it felt like the outcome was never in doubt.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick stayed a step ahead of the rest of the competition with yet another dominating win at Phoenix. (Credit: Getty Images)

Why you should care – Kevin Harvick was the fastest car for much of last season but had quite a few problems getting his cars to the finish of races. The team is now making it to checkered flags consistently and the result is domination by the defending champion. It took Harvick 14 years to win a title but, at the moment he is undoubtedly the man to beat if someone else wants to try and win it in 2015. Ryan Newman, still nursing a two-year victory drought, took a step toward the form that brought him to second place in the championship in 2014. Kasey Kahne crossed the line in fourth for his first top 5 since he won his way into the Chase in 2014. Finally, Kurt Busch showed that he should be taken seriously now that he is back in the seat with a run that was second-best to Harvick when the money was on the line, although a pit call left him with just a fifth-place finish.

What Friends Are Talking About – Kurt Busch was reinstated by NASCAR and was back in the car on Sunday. After the legal pundits in Delaware decided he was not going to face charges for his accused domestic violence, Busch moved from indefinite suspension to indefinite probation. He is still subject to his participation in a treatment program and full compliance with any judicial requirements placed upon him. NASCAR also declared that he is eligible to make the Chase if he is able to qualify. The bottom line is that, short of bitch-slapping Brian France during pre-race intros, just about anyone can be eligible to make the Chase as long as they try and make every race that they can enter and are still breathing. NASCAR claims they learn something from everything they have to deal with in the sport. Well, I’m not sure what they learned from this one but hopefully they have a better understanding of innocent until proven guilty.

John Cohen, the owner of Team Xtreme Racing, is facing a bench warrant in New Jersey for failing to comply with a settlement that he made with investors in a nightclub that never opened. Cohen insists that nothing involved with the warrant will impact the operation of his race team but, in an amazing coincidence, the warrant was issued the exact same day as the team’s race car disappeared from a hotel parking lot in Georgia. While it is 2015, the stories and accusations surrounding this case are the stuff that NASCAR used to have frequently in the early years when the corporate money wasn’t what kept the teams going. That, or a day in the life of Jennifer Jo Cobb and Mike Harmon…

RAB Racing withdrew from the race at Phoenix after the first three races this season saw them fail to qualify. They are taking a step back to regroup before heading to Fontana since that is the race closest to Toyota USA’s headquarters. With them dropping back to a part-time schedule it will be interesting to see if NASCAR will issue a Chase waiver for Reed Sorenson when he wins a race.

Tony Stewart expanded his racing empire more this week with a finalization of his purchase of the All-Star Circuit of Champions racing series. The 410 Sprint Car series is one of the oldest touring series in the country and was the first to sanction “Outlaw” sprint car races. While Stewart has said it will be some time, if ever, before he jumps back into a sprint car to race again, he continues to give back to the local short track racing levels that are so crucial in bringing people up in the sport.

NASCAR has informed race teams that they can face a 15-minute practice penalty if their cars fail to make it through pre-qualifying inspection in two passes. Teams have to push the edge of the envelope in order to try and get every thousandth of a second of speed out of their race cars, but they also need to be more realistic about passing tech. NASCAR gives the teams tolerances, which are designed to allow them to miss a small amount after preparing their cars to the rules in the rule book. Unfortunately, the teams build them to the edge of the tolerances, not the specifications in the rules. It is understandable that a team might miss it on the first pass but making multiple passes through tech while trying to stay on the upper or lowermost limit of the rules is unacceptable. Provided the laser measuring system is consistent, which is up for debate if you speak to crew chiefs, then the teams need to start pulling it back from the edge a little bit.

Three races into the 2015 season and NASCAR is already planning changes for the rules in 2016. During a test at Charlotte Motor Speedway this week, the teams tried out an updated rules package that the sanctioning body is considering for next season. Richard Buck, the director of the Sprint Cup Series, received so much positive feedback from the crew chiefs and teams that the series is considering running it for the All-Star Race in May. The series can tweak their rules all season long if they’d like, but until they get these cars off of the ground they are never going to get away from the leader having an enormous advantage.

Speaking of rules changes, starting next week the cars will be backed into the stalls on pit road for qualifying instead of pulled in. Congratulations to the decision makers who finally figured out that was a good idea.

It is with a heavy heart we say Godspeed to Ron Lemasters, Sr. The longtime sports writer from Muncie, Ind. passed away on March 9th after suffering a stroke at the end of February. Lemasters spent much of his career contributing to the Muncie Star. He was the sports editor for the Muncie paper from 1982 through 1999, when he retired. He also wrote extensively for the National Speed Sport News, becoming a fixture around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was a member of the Indianapolis 500 Old Timer’s Association. He was an influential part of the news bureau for IMS for the last 17 years. He was twice voted sportswriter of the year by the Indiana Sportswriter and Sportscasters Association. He is not only a member of that association’s Hall of Fame along with the Mid-American Conference Hall of Fame for his coverage of Ball State University. Enjoy your new beat, Mr. Lemasters; we know the news reporting in heaven just went up another notch.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Brian Vickers almost spent as much time on the track in driver intros as he did under green at Phoenix before wrecking. (Credit: Getty Images)

Who is mad Brian Vickers is finally back in the seat of a race car after another health issue. He started at Vegas with a 15th-place finish as the first car one lap down last week. This weekend, he was in the 18th starting position and never had a chance to get into a rhythm before Jimmie Johnson drilled him in the back bumper at the start/finish line and turned him hard into the outside wall. Vickers did make it back out into the race, but he was 81 laps down when he rejoined and finished the race in the 41st position.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was very loose all day long. During a long green flag run he abused the right rear so badly from the condition that the bead on the tire melted and the tire went down. Before he could make it all of the way back to the garage the right rear on the car caught fire and Earnhardt had to bail out of the car. After taking the car behind the wall the team retired it for the day. The end result a 43rd place finish and a fond farewell to the second place position in points.

Tony Stewart has been struggling this year trying to get his arms wrapped around this new rules package. He’s also had some terrible luck. This weekend wasn’t any better. He finally looked to be having a good run until he tried to pull his car down hard in turn four to keep it off of Justin Allgaier. He ended up spinning and damaging the right front. He followed that spin with a blown right front tire with 27 laps to go which put an end to his day. Smoke can’t get to Martinsville soon enough.

Who is happyKurt Busch started the weekend happy since he was finally able to get back into a race car. He followed that up with a great race, chasing his teammate for much of the event. He made a move to the pits when Stewart had his issue and put right side tires on. He gained five positions after the pit stop but that was four too few as he came home in the fifth spot. With his deficit in points, Busch is looking to win a race at this point to make the Chase. Martinsville isn’t far away and Busch has won there recently.

Landon Cassill wasn’t running for the win on Sunday but he was the winner when it came to Lucky Dogs. Cassill received the first three Lucky Dogs that were awarded during the event. Cassill finished the race on the lead lap in 22nd position.

When the checkered flag flew:

Kevin Harvick scored his 30th win of his career in his 506th cup start.

The victory was the seventh of his career at Phoenix International Raceway.

Harvick is still 23rd on the all-time wins list in the Cup series. He is one behind Matt Kenseth for 22nd and three behind Fireball Roberts for 20th on the list.

Harvick has four consecutive victories at Phoenix. The last driver to accomplish that feat was Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte in 2004-05.

Kevin Harvick surpassed the 1,000 lap led barrier at Phoenix during the race on Sunday. That is the most among all drivers. Jimmie Johnson is second on that list.

Jamie McMurray scored his first runner-up finish since Kentucky in 2013. It is his second top 2 since then having won at Talladega in the fall of 2013.

It is McMurray’s 10th career top-2 finish which ties him with Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski and Jeremy Mayfield for 62nd on the all-time list.

Ryan Newman came home in third for the second consecutive race. It is his fifth career podium finish at PIR.

Newman has 48 career top-3 runs which is tied with Greg Biffle for 48th on the all-time list.

Jeb Burton came home in 34th to claim the Rookie of the Race honors.

The margin of victory was 1.153 seconds.

Average speed of the event was 105.753 mph.

27 cars finished on the lead lap and 41 of 43 cars were running at the finish.

Kevin Harvick puts a second win in the books and punches his ticket to the 2015 Chase provided he is still able to climb behind the wheel in September.

The two drivers who have an inside track to the Chase by virtue of winning a race already this season are: Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson.

The remaining 13 drivers who are eligible for the Chase based on their current point position are:

    1. Martin Truex Jr.
    2. Kasey Kahne
    3. AJ Allmendinger
    4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    5. Ryan Newman
    6. Brad Keselowski
    7. Matt Kenseth
    8. Paul Menard
    9. Casey Mears
    10. Denny Hamlin
    11. Aric Almirola
    12. Clint Bowyer
    13. Greg Biffle

Taking it to the Bank – Cup winners this year have pocketed $2,612,259 while the last-place finisher has taken home $464,700. Earnhardt’s 43rd place actually helped the last-place pool as Michael Annett only earned $52,255 for 42nd compared to Junior’s $68,155.

In the XFINITY Series it has been $364,810 for the winners and $74,686 for last place.

After two Truck races, the winner has $137,089 and the last loser has banked $21,153.

What is in the cooler – Phoenix is the short track that thinks it is a big track. It did live up to one big track characteristic for sure; the leader is almost unbeatable still, even with the new rules package. As long as the car at the point could make it to the exit of turn two with the point, he was all but guaranteed to hang onto it. While the battling in the pack was good, once again the action at the front of the pack was even worse than we’ve seen in the past. The amount of racing in the pack wasn’t able to help salvage this one, which results in a rating of two lukewarm Old World Nitro Blondes.

Where do you point your DV-R for next week – The “West Coast Swing” wraps up in Fontana, California next weekend with 200 laps around the 2-mile oval. The track used to be home to the worst racing in the sport but the last few years, it has been one of the two or three best races. Unless they repaved it without telling anyone, we should be in for another great race. You can see it on Fox at 3:30 Eastern time. You can also hear the dulcet tones of the MRN gang describe the action on your local affiliate or NASCAR SiriusXM radio channel 90.

Tech Talk: “Bono” Manion Breaks Down Phoenix

The challenges of racing a small team against the goliaths in the garage area of the Sprint Cup series are daunting when luck is on your side. When the racing gods frown on you, it can make things seem nearly impossible. Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion has lived on both sides of that fence in his career and he is definitely on the David side of that battle these days. Manion’s No. 7 team, driven by Alex Bowman, started the season missing the Daytona 500 and then suffered an engine failure in Las Vegas. The team has been fast but luck has not been on its side and the resulting poor finishes have stacked the deck against Manion, Bowman and co. already.

This week in Tech Talk, Manion tries to come up with the words to describe the tremendous disappointment of missing the Daytona 500. He also talks a little about the tests of NASCAR inspection, the handling of the car so far with the new rules package and the surprising lack of changes to their setups so far this year. He touches on the slightly improved gas mileage and notes the somewhat surprising steps some teams have been trying so far this season at the mile and a half tracks.

Mike Neff – Vegas certainly did not go as you had anticipated. What turned out to be the engine issue?

Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion – Being on the west coast, they just received the engine this morning. We were able to ship it home with another team that was headed back to Mooresville. I’m sure they are pulling it apart now and trying to figure out what happened first. Usually when you blow up it is usually a bit of a problem to find out what came first, the chicken or the egg. The guys at the motor shop will try and determine what happened and try to move forward from there. There have been a few motor failures already this year. That is a hard pill to swallow but the car was good, we qualified pretty decent and Alex was happy with the car, it is just a terrible failure and something we didn’t need for sure.

Neff – This is the first time we’ve talked since Daytona. What are the ramifications for a small team like yours to miss that race?

Manion – It is huge, it is so sad, painful, embarrassing. We have a new sponsor with Toy State and Nikko RC cars, the Road Rippers brand and all the folks there. The list is a mile long. Words can’t even explain what goes through your mind when that is happening. For one thing it is a big payday. It isn’t the way you want to start the year. Nothing good comes out of missing Daytona. You always try to find a positive on anything. Other than having a good, fast car, everything went well down there as far as the team working together and so on and so forth. Still, with that said, it is just really hard to make some kind of positive out of that, Mike.

Neff – You’ve been to two races now with the new rules package. What has been the biggest challenge for you so far with the new box that you are working in so far?

Manion – That is a good question. We were extremely loose in Atlanta. It seemed like a lot of people were loose Sunday although we didn’t get to race very long. The less rear spoiler is certainly contributing to that. The jury is still out there as to what we’ll fight this season. The setups have been fairly similar to last year. Being a small team, we don’t have any support from any other teams. It is a learning process for sure. We’ve been pretty happy with our cars. Just a little on the loose side has been the biggest problem we’ve had in the first couple of races.

As we move forward, Phoenix is a short track so the aero isn’t as critical as it was at the last two mile-and-a-halfs. By no means is Phoenix a slow short track so aero is certainly a major part of it, but it is our first short track so to speak. We’ll see what this week brings us. All in all, I’ve been pretty happy with our performance so far on the mile and a half tracks. I was really happy with our performance at Daytona but you just need to finish races. You needed to finish the twins and we needed to finish the other day. As long as you finish and stay out of trouble you’re going to have good days. It seems like Alex is doing an incredible job. I’m very impressed with his talent and his feedback. I’ve been pretty happy with the speed in the car for just getting rolling. We’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, taking it all one day at a time and I think we’ll be just fine.

Neff – Phoenix is a short track but it is also far flatter than any of the other tracks that we’ve been to this year. With the reduced downforce, even thought it is a mile track you’re still using it. How much of a challenge is it going to be attacking a flat track with the cars not as forced into the track?

Manion – We haven’t done any testing so your guess is as good as mine, so to speak. We’re going to approach it the same way we approached the last two races. Make a few changes from last year’s setup, but all in all the balance of the car, with the way NASCAR changed the rules, is still headed in the direction of looser than last year. They took some downforce off of the back and some off of the front but the trend seems to be looser. We’ll make a few changes from last year’s setup, give it a shot and find out where we end up.

Neff – This year they have put the tapered spaced on the engine to reduce the horsepower. On a shorter track, this one being a mile in length, what is the biggest challenge for you to get speed out of the car with the reduced air flow to the engine?

Manion – Y’know, the speeds of the cars, with the reduced downforce have actually been greater this year. They also changed the gear rule, to go along with the tapered spacer, and the corner speeds have been up. [Jeff] Gordon set a new track record last week. It is a learning curve for us, especially being a smaller team. Somebody said half of the fans probably don’t realize they changed the engine package with the speeds they are running. Every day is a new day with the new rules package. Going to a short track where I don’t think too many people have tested, period, at the short tracks. I think it is going to be very new for all of us.

Neff – One more on the tapered spacer. Have you noticed if the cars are getting a little better fuel mileage since the horsepower is being held back with the restricted flow?

Manion – Yeah, the fuel mileage has been relatively close to the year before, although it has been a little bit better. We didn’t get a good read for Vegas obviously, but it was a little better throughout practice for sure. It wasn’t a huge change but it does seem to be a couple of tenths better than it was in 2014.

Neff – You mentioned that they changed the gear rule with the new tapered spacer. They still regulate the gear, though, correct? You can’t go out and wind as many or as few teeth as you want to on that thing right?

Manion – Nope, there is still an option. There is a high and a low to choose from during the weekend that we can choose from. I did see some teams and hear some chatter at Vegas of teams trying the option gear. I did see people changing it, which generally we have not seen. We usually pick the most gear and that is what we run. However, with the new spacer there have been some teams who have seen something there that has made it worth working on.

Neff – With the smaller radiator pan in the front of the car, the front downforce has changed. Has that resulted in changes to the front end geometry or is it still the same because the car is still down on the earth?

Manion – Nope, the geometry seems to be the same. The front change was fairly minimal. What we have seen so far is that the balance has shifted a little bit loose. They did take some downforce off of the front but it wasn’t as much to keep up with the year based on what we’ve seen so far. The setups in the rear have changed for sure but the front geometry is still the same.

Neff – It seemed like everybody was able to attempt to qualify at Vegas. Did NASCAR change anything with the time or the schedule for how they got people through tech or did the teams pull back from the edge a little to make sure they got through this time?

Manion – We were one of the teams at Atlanta that failed to get through the NASCAR inspection process. It was a little embarrassing on my part but my job is to max it out based on the rules that NASCAR gives us. Especially in our situation. We try to do as much as we can to keep up with the Joneses so to speak. I think we’ve done a good job so far. This weekend NASCAR cut practice short by about 10 minutes. The inspection line opened up five minutes after practice ended and they pushed back qualifying five or so minutes. They did everything they could to get everyone through. We still pushed it to the limit. At Vegas we were the fourth car in line and the first three failed. We were the first car on pit road, which felt pretty good after missing last week’s qualifying. They opened up the garage early on Sunday to get everyone through for the race.

The rules are the rules. They opened up some tolerances from last year to this year with the laser platform. What they thought was that they hoped it would help people get through their sheet a little bit more easily. The problem is, if they say the car can go to a certain point we’re going to take every bit of it to that next level That gray area, or that cushion that they put in, we’re just using it all up.

Like I said, in Vegas we backed it down a little bit. We did fail the first time going through for the race this week so we had to roll around and fix it. Any time there are moving parts, no matter what it is, that machine some days is frustrating. Some days you go over it and it is all green. Some days you go across and there are two reds and you just shake your head every once in a while. That is kind of why they made the tolerances a little bit bigger, but if they are going to open them up, every team is going to take advantage of them. The sport is so important to get everything you can out of the rules so that is what everyone is going to do. You just have to stretch it to the limit very chance you can.