NASCAR’s season is only five races old. The new generation car has had mixed reviews but already provided one of the most exciting races we’ve seen in years. As the season heads into its first off week on the schedule, the annual Easter break, Frontstretch spoke to Kevin “Bono” Manion about the car’s progress and other mechanical storylines for 2013. Manion is the crew chief for Jamie McMurray, a longtime fixture in the garage area who first worked with Martin Truex, Jr. on the Cup level.
Manion touches on last weekend’s race, the track at Fontana and the new car. He also speaks to the new engine alliance Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates has with Hendrick Motorsports and his plans for the off week.
Mike Neff: We’re five races in with the new Gen-6 car. What is your opinion of it?
Bono Manion: I think all of the hype and everything we heard over the winter has paid off. I think it is a really cool looking car and I think all of the manufacturers got what they were looking for. I think the fans have seen some exciting racing with some close finishes. Every manufacturer has scored a win. It is almost a Cinderella story. Everything is shaping up for a very good season for the fans.
Neff: What has Jamie had to say about driving behind other cars? That was one of the things that they attempted to do with this new car, handle better in traffic. There will always be an advantage to being in front but does he feel like it handles a little better in traffic than the old car did?
Manion: I think so. We heard a little bit of griping after the Phoenix race, but that was early yet. There might have been a little bit of, I’m not going to say Follow the Leader because I don’t want to get fined by NASCAR, but I think that was more of a product of a work in progress and the tire. I’m not going to bash Goodyear because everyone was safe, but we saw [progress] at California this weekend. Tires actually mean something but are still safe. We saw a good, safe race at California but tires meant something. That is what makes good races — when people can use different strategies. [On the other hand] when it is like, “Man, if I can get full of gas I’m not pitting again” and everyone just kind of rides there… that, to me is what makes races not as exciting. At Phoenix, if you had a good car, you could make passes. It was just tough.
As for the aero-tight behind guys, we haven’t really experienced that or heard that. I think the racing is surely better and the drive-a-bility of the car is better. I think we’re still in the early stages with this car and learning it. We’ve been to a bunch of different types of race tracks right from the get go here. So far, so good. It is a work in progress, NASCAR is still open to changes, we’ll make changes as necessary, manufacturers are all on board. Right now, it is a win-win.
Neff: Looking back at last weekend, how do you feel your California race went overall?
Manion: Overall, I’d rate it in the B+/A- range. I think, as a group, we unloaded off the truck and had decent speed. We switched to qualifying trim and had pretty decent speed. We got an early draw and we were a little too tight but still had a good qualifying effort. Throughout Happy Hour and practice, we were close to the top of the board and stayed on the left side. I felt like we had good staying power in the race. We started and passed cars from the get go, ran up in the top 10, stayed out when the group of cars pitted and gained track position. Only one car passed us that had tires. Toward the end of the race, the car got extremely loose, virtually unfixable. We were able to make a major adjustment and get our car tightened up again, get our track position back and then lo and behold, the caution flew again. We thought we could hold them off on tires but we weren’t able to so we didn’t get the top, solid finish we felt like we deserved. I felt like we had a really good race weekend with a really strong car that was a big improvement over last year.
Neff: The track surface itself at California has some pronounced bumps on the back straight, but that just gives a track character. Do you think the track is finally at its raciest or would you like to see them repave it?
Manion: I would definitely not like to see them repave it. I read something from Dale Junior that he’d like to see them repave the back straight and I agree with him 100%. The corners have the seams, but that gives the track character. It is the violent bumps that we saw on the backstretch that could use some help. I understand it is hard to pave corners and banking but that straight section on the back straight wouldn’t be that hard. They could cut that section out, where the grip wouldn’t matter, and maybe improve the racing even more. It does give character, but those bumps would almost swallow the cars, for sure.
Neff: You switched over to Hendrick engines this season. Is there much of a difference or is an engine an engine?
Manion: A Chevrolet engine is a Chevrolet engine. We’re working with a different group of people. That has been the number one question from a lot of media and even a lot of people in the garage. The car has changed so much between Daytona, having less drag and downforce tracks having more downforce than they did last year. You really can’t pinpoint and say this motor is way better than what we had last year. The motors were good last year and the motors are good this year. It is just working with a different group of people and I think, in general, our team is better this year than it has been. So I think it is a piece of the pie but it isn’t the smoking gun.
Neff: There was a lot of talk this weekend, thanks to the bumps on the backstretch about the splitters being ground off. Are you a fan of the splitter or would you rather see them raise the front end up?
Manion: No, if they raise it up an inch we’ll make it travel more, if they lower it an inch we’ll stop it sooner.
The splitter is a piece of the car and as long as it is the same and consistent for everyone, then it is what it is. We’re still going to get the splitter to travel as much as we can because that is what makes speed and downforce. It doesn’t matter where they put it. The car needs it for balance and, as long as everyone is the same, so be it.
Neff: Are there any changes you’d like to see them make on the new car after five races?
Manion: We’re kind of getting used to it still. We’ve been happy with the process with the templates and everything that NASCAR has done there. The driver complained a little about the visibility out the back but I think he’s gotten used to that. We’ve raised our mirrors a little bit to help with that. Really, I can’t say that there is anything. It is still early so I don’t want any changes yet. Let’s see how that plays out. I think we’ve seen some great racing. I’ve seen fewer open seats. There is more traffic pre and post-race, which is always good even if it is nerve wracking. I’m glad to see the sport is alive and well and headed in the right direction.
Neff: Heading into Daytona, there was an issue with car inventory due to a short supply of hoods and decklids. Does everyone have enough inventory now that it isn’t a problem anymore?
Manion: We don’t hear that much from the fab shop anymore. We’re building new cars left and right and I think, now that everyone is tooled up properly and rolling and we know what we’ve got it is pretty much cars flowing and parts flowing. I haven’t heard much of that so I think everything is good.
Neff: One final question, what are you doing for your off week?
Manion: Y’know, that’s a good question. We got cooped up a little. We were supposed to test this week so I was going to take the beginning of next week off because my daughter has school vacation next week. Now, we’re testing the beginning of next week so I had to change the plans up a little bit so we’re just going to wing it and make it a spur of the moment deal. We’re either going to go somewhere warm or somewhere cold. We’re going to do something but planned on potentially getting out of here Friday and going somewhere warm for a couple of days. Now that we have to be back Sunday night to fly out Monday morning, I don’t know. It might be a short trip to Myrtle Beach or, they have snow in the mountains so we may head up there and do a little tubing. I don’t know. We have a car and a credit card so we can do anything we want to. Sometimes no plans are the best plans but I know we’re going to do something.
Manion and his No. 1 crew have had a tough start to the season, with only one top-10 finish. However, they have been looking stronger during races and the attitude of the team seems better this year. While they aren’t on the verge of challenging the Big Four of Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush Fenway, and Penske quite yet, they are feeling like they should be more in contention for the Chase and the title than they have been in awhile.
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