Race Weekend Central

Tech Talk: Trent Owens on Dealing with Low Downforce, Tires & Traction

One of the new additions to the Tech Talk lineup for 2016 is Trent Owens, the crew chief for Aric Almirola. This is Owens’ third year on the box for Almirola.

Owens adds a special perspective on the sport. He is the nephew of Richard Petty and his father, Randy Owens, was part of the King’s crew until he was killed in a 1975 accident on pit road.

Owens makes his maiden voyage on the Tech Talk sea as the series heads to Atlanta. Almirola’s two best career finishes at Atlanta have come in the last two seasons, with Owens calling the shots. This season the series hits the aged mile and a half oval in Hampton, Ga., with a new aerodynamic package that will provide lower downforce resulting in less grip and greater tire wear.

Mike Neff – You wrapped up Speedweeks in Daytona with the Daytona 500. Between the Sprint Unlimited and the activities around the 500, there is a lot going on. How did you feel like your time in Daytona went in general?

Trent Owens – The Unlimited is obviously a race with no points, but it is a good shakedown to analyze the changes you made over the off-season. We had a new 2016 Fusion to get on the track and it was a good race to get some practice. We were happy with the way the car drove and happy with the way it performed. We got caught up in an accident, which you’re about 80 percent sure of happening in that race.

We got the 500 car out and we weren’t overly excited about single-run speed, although it was an improvement over last year. That was encouraging. I thought we had a really good race during the Duel, until we ran out of gas. You never want to run out of gas, although it probably saved us from being in that last lap crash in the Duel. We took that good luck and locked our starting spot in for the 500.

In the 500 we performed in the top 10 for the first part of the race. We lost our track position due to a pit road penalty, but we were able to work our way up to the top 12 on the last lap. I thought our performance was strong, and Aric was encouraged by how the car drove, which was really encouraging. In July handling will be that much more important.

I thought our Speedweeks went well. 12th is a great place to start the season, points-wise. Other than the pit road penalty, everything went pretty smooth with the guys. We’re ready to see what Atlanta brings.

Neff – It seems that, once again, Daytona is starting to get the character back to where handling was an important factor on Sunday. Did you hear that from a lot of your compatriots, too?

Owens – Temperature drives some of that. The night races we had before the 500 you didn’t see that handling was that big of a deal. As the temperature started to rise as the sun came out, it started to look a little more like the old track. You could definitely get yourself in trouble if you trimmed your car out for pure speed. Downforce did play a factor at Daytona this time around; since the repave we haven’t seen that very much. The July race, you are going to hear a lot about handling and downforce.

Neff – Speaking of repaves, Atlanta has not been repaved recently, and NASCAR is also debuting the new low downforce package. Do you think tires are going to be the big challenge this weekend?

With tires at a premium on Sunday, expect to see drivers on pit road early and often. (Photo: Matthew T Thacker NKP)
With tires at a premium on Sunday, expect to see drivers on pit road early and often. (Photo: Matthew T Thacker NKP)

Owens – Tires will be everything. You’re going to like them for about three laps and then you are going to run the rest of the run wondering when you will come back to the pits again. Atlanta, with the old pavement, is a challenge for the crew chiefs. The mechanical grip is barely there. The cars are going to slide around a lot. The speeds are going to fall off very quickly from new tires to old tires, especially with the low downforce package. The cars will become a handful very quickly. I expect to get a tongue lashing on the radio to fix the problems we are having.

Atlanta has a lot of challenges, and a lot of it is due to the fact that it hasn’t been paved in a long time. The track surface is not only worn out but it is also rough. You’re going to hear a lot about tires, especially during the race. Tire strategy, especially if we get a lot of cautions in a row during the race, you’re going to have to make a tough decision about whether you want to use all of your tires at that point in the race or not. The deal with Atlanta is that you have to have a good car in the long run. You need to get out front and maintain the speed as long as you can, relative to the competition and that is what we’re going to focus on in practice.

Neff – How many sets of tires are they going to give you down there?

Owens – They just opened up another set for us to practice on, so that ups it to six. I don’t know the total allotment on the race. I haven’t looked at that yet. I do know that there is a definite number. They are trying to get away from getting halfway through the race and opening up another set of tires. As crew chiefs we have been told not to count on that anymore. The number of tires we get is pretty much what we’re going to have for the whole race. I know in Darlington, the race we did last year with the low downforce they kept having cautions about every 10 laps. Our thought was that at some point, we’re going to get a green flag run so we kept throwing tires at it. With 30 or 40 to go I put my last set of stickers on the car. We have to keep that in mind this weekend.

Neff – When you have a situation like that, and tires have been cycled, that used to be the way to increase the durability of tires. With the technology in tires today that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Is there a benefit to gluing lugs back onto a set that was only run for a short stint so you have a reserve set?

Owens – We always keep our freshest set of scuffs glued up. If we have 20-lap scuffs, we glue them up. If we then run a five-lap stint, we’ll toss the 20 lappers and glue up the five-lap tires. Just for that emergency set, we do glue up at least one set to keep the freshet set of used tires we can. As for making them live longer, it seems like the radial tire we work on today, rolling them in or scuffing them to try and make them harder is a thing of the past. We really haven’t seen that with the recent versions of the tire we’re running.

Neff –What testing were you able to do during the off-season to get a feel for the low downforce package?

Owens – We were able to be a part of the test that took place at Homestead, right after the season ended. We were able to take our new teammate Brian Scott there and do some testing, but that was it for us. Other than having our cars in the wind tunnel and then working through simulations through the computers, that is really what we’ve got. The information gained in Vegas may be a little bit skewed because the temperatures were so low and therefore the speeds were quite high. I think everyone is going in with some unknown expectations, and I think there are going to be several challenges when we start practice on Friday. It is a weekend where we don’t really have a lot of practice. It is very important to baseline off of the hauler really fast and to have a foundation to adjust for Sunday.

Neff – When you unload at Atlanta are you rolling off in qualifying trim or race trim?

Owens – Since they issued the extra set of tires to practice on, we’re going to unload in race trim. We will go ahead and get a feel for the package and make sure our travels are right before we waste a set of stickers making a qualifying run. We’re going to go ahead and baseline our race package. I’m sure some of the guys will be in qualifying trim. The speed chart is going to be difficult to keep up with but our plan right now is the be in race trim from the start.

Sunday's heartbreaker wasn't the first close loss for Martin Truex, Jr. (Photo: Mike Neff)
Sunday’s heartbreaker wasn’t the first close loss for Martin Truex, Jr. (Photo: Mike Neff)

Neff – One thing that has come up in Atlanta over the last few years — Martin Truex, Jr. lost a race a couple of years ago because of it — is the traction on the outside lane at the start/finish line on restarts. For whatever reason, the outside lane does not seem to be able to take off on restarts. Is that a product of the rubber that is put down by the cars or is it that the asphalt up there is even more aged than the lower portions of the speedway?

Owens – You are exactly right. It is something you can almost count on happening every year now. That outside lane is really hard to find traction up there. I don’t really know what it might be, I used to think they had some paint on the track that was causing it. I don’t know, whether through race conditions the rubber buildup is more up on the top side or not. I really don’t know exactly. It is a situation where, late in the race especially, you’re glad to be on the inside row because you can count on someone not getting going on the outside row. It is certainly a challenge at Atlanta. I wish I knew for certain what it was. Either way, if you’re on the outside you have to go through it. It isn’t like I can do anything to the car to prevent it. The drivers definitely have their hands full.

Neff – One situation at Atlanta and no other track is that they run drag races on pit lane through the year. A couple of years ago there was a situation where the first pit stall was not launching as well as the second stall. Is that something, going into the weekend, you have to keep in mind as you’re picking your pit stall due to the treatment for the drag racing?

Owens – It has been a while since I’ve been able to pick the first stall. When you talk about the first couple of stalls there is an advantage, not only for traction, but when pulling out of your stall. You don’t have to go all of the way to the grass. If there is traction to be gained in any stall, it definitely figures into the selection process. We go out and look for cracks on pit lane. If we make picks on Saturday morning and they ran a race on Friday night and someone boogered an engine, we factor that in and try and avoid that stall. It may be as simple as a light pole might be right in the middle of where you are trying to put your box. There are a lot of things that factor into pit selection, outside of just who you want to be beside or not be beside. There are advantages and disadvantages of where you pick on lane but if there is a benefit of traction in a stall that certainly will factor in.

Neff – Daytona was your first official race with the new digital dash. Did you learn anything? Are there any tweaks you need to make for Atlanta or are you pretty locked in with what you’ve got now?

Owens – We were really happy with the design and interface that we’ve come up with. I thought our pit road speed, in comparison to last year’s report, actually looked like we did better on the pit lane this year than last. For right now we are sticking with what we’ve got. I think it is a great thing. I think it is great that we can take the dash interface and customize it to every driver. The driver can basically have the dash exactly as they want. It isn’t like, if you have a team of four drivers, they all have to run the same cluster. It is nice now that we can set it up exactly like Aric wants in our car and exactly how Brian wants it in the No. 44. It is nice to have the ability to switch pages and have a pit road only page so things didn’t get lost. It is a good thing and we’re very happy with how it performed at Daytona.

About the author

Frontstretch.com

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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