Being a new crew chief in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is challenging enough. Climb onto the pit box for one of the most iconic cars in the sport when it hasn’t won in a long time and the pressure is even more intense. Justin Alexander, crew chief for Austin Dillon, did it with such aplomb that he went to Victory Lane the first time out. Now he’s faced with the daunting task of repeating that success much sooner rather than later.
Alexander is getting ready for Pocono Raceway, where the Richard Childress Racing stable had a good showing in both races of 2016. The new aero package is going to throw a couple of curveballs at the teams, so what worked in the past might not work this time.
Mike Neff – It seems like tires really came into play this time around at Dover International Speedway. Was that your experience?
Justin Alexander – Dover can be a weird track. Sometimes you go there and the cautions are spread out and you only pit four or five times. Sometimes you go there, like this past weekend, where it just gets crazy with cautions are flying left and right. I think a lot of that had to do with the new aero package this year.
NASCAR is limiting our tire allotment at some of the races as well. We didn’t have as many tires to use this year to start with. Then you throw in all of the cautions, and drivers always want four tires on the car. Most tracks you go to, tires are worth quite a bit, and it was no different last weekend. Every time a caution comes out, you always want to put new ones on whenever you can. So with all of the cautions that fell we ran into a situation where we started using up too many. We had to start backing off and managing our tire allotment because guys were starting to run out.
That was a little bit different from anything that I’d ever experienced there in the past, but not at Dover. It was unique, interesting and kind of crazy.
Neff – Ty Dillon was 40 laps from scoring a huge upset victory at Dover. His team, Germain Racing, has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing. How much interaction do the crew chiefs and teams from RCR have with the gang over at Germain?
Alexander – We stay pretty connected with those guys, along with our other affiliates, the [Nos.] 37, 47 and 95. We meet before practice starts at the beginning of the weekend. Then we have another meeting after Happy Hour. We’re all pretty in tune with what each other has going on. We kind of learn from each other and use things from each other from time to time. We stay pretty close to them and we’re well connected. We’re well aware of what they have going on with their racecar and the same for them with our cars.
Neff – As you get ready for Pocono Raceway, what is Dillon’s feeling going into the weekend, and what are you trying to accomplish as you unload off of the truck at Pocono?
Alexander – I think Austin is actually really looking forward to Pocono. We had a really strong car up here last year in both races. We had some mechanical problems in one of the races, but RCR as a whole ran really well here last year. We feel like we have good cars and we’re going back with similar things this year. It is a tough place to get around, but I think Austin has a good handle on what he needs to do, and I think we have a good handle on what we need to do to the race car.
As far as expectations go, we plan to go up there and try to win the race. Anything less is… I don’t want to say a let down, but our plan is to go up there and run the best we can and maximize our points. We have a win, but we aren’t guaranteed in the Chase yet. There are still some races left, so we have to kind of watch that and manage that. We’re going to go up there and we may get a little risky with the calls we make and try and put ourselves in good track position near the end of the race and go out and try and win us another one.
Neff – Is there extra attention paid to the transmission as you get ready for this weekend, and do you put in some heavier, beefier components to make sure that thing stays together for the duration of the race?
Alexander – Yeah, Pocono is one of the places, other than road courses, where we shift, so you have to be careful with the transmission and the rear end gear and everything in the drive train there. It is hard on all of that stuff, so we do focus on that area when we go to Pocono and the road courses, and we do make sure that we have the right transmissions and make sure that they are capable of doing what we need them to do. We have to run transmission coolers and we run a few other things that we don’t typically run at intermediate tracks.
We do have to pay attention to that stuff, and it is always something that is in the back of your mind that you have to worry about because it is something you don’t deal with on a normal week. However, we’ve done this for a long time and we feel good about what we’re taking with us. We don’t foresee any issues with that stuff at all.
Neff – There are three unique corners, but they all have some pretty decent radii on them, with Turn 2 being the tightest of the group. Does the sweeping nature of the corners result in you doing something a little different with your cambers and your geometry to keep the tire patch down on the track a little more?
Alexander – This place is so unique in the fact that the three corners are very different from each other. You’re right, it does almost take a different setup to get through each corner the best. Unfortunately, you can only have one setup in the car. What you really have to do is find the geometry for the car, along with the camber settings, that balances those three setups out the best. You want to be really good off of Turn 3. You need to be good off of there because you have such a long front straight, and that is where you can get runs on guys and complete passes going into Turn 1.
You really want to be strong through Turn 3. We focus on that corner a lot, but you can’t neglect the other two. Those two are as important because you can lose track position over there after gaining it. We tune around all three corners, we do focus on Turn 3 the most, but we do have to pay attention to all three. It does take something a little different to get through each of the three turns, but, as you mentioned, in the end we just have to compromise and try and get what works best through all three.
Neff – One thing that isn’t talked about that much at Pocono but can come into play more this year, thanks to the new aero package, is brakes, specifically the cooling of the brakes. There is a decent distance between corners so that the brakes can cool down, but when you get to the end of the frontstretch and you try to whoa that car down to make the 130-or-so-degree turn, you have to be putting some excessive strain on the braking components. Does that take a toll on the system when you do that for 160-or-so laps?
Alexander – Oh yeah, brakes are really important at Pocono. You end up running really big brakes at Pocono. You wouldn’t think so, but you run so hard and so fast into Turn 1 that you use a lot of brake there. They use the brakes pretty well in all three corners. Pocono is a place, and especially with the reduced downforce this year, [where] we have seen a little more wear on brakes this year, compared to previous years. We put a lot of emphasis on brakes and spend an extensive amount of time on those thing because they are becoming more important with the new aero package. This weekend at Pocono we’ll focus on those things and make sure we have what we need and he has the pedal that he needs. You have to be extra careful at Pocono because you don’t want to go down there and destroy a rotor or break something, because that is no good.
Neff – From a race strategy standpoint, which has really been heightened this year thanks to segment racing, we’ve seen some guys pull strategy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway where they pit as soon as the race restarts after a caution. On a two-and-a-half-mile track, you are not going to go a lap down on a green-flag stop if you’re that close to the leader. Do you think we may see even more of that this time around thanks to the segments, where some guys will be trying to grab some track position?
Alexander – [At] Pocono, Indy and the road courses, you can pit without going a lap down. You try and pit within your fuel windows and not come down pit lane at any other time. You typically see that here at Pocono by a lot of guys. However, with the stages that is going to throw a wrench into it. You used to back up your race from the end of the race and pit when each window opened, so you’d pit three or four times. Now we have stages so you may see some guy try and strategize and pit to be there at the end of the segments. You might see some other guys try and strategize to be in the best position for the end of the race and not worry about the segments. I think you’re going to have a lot of mixed things going on between teams and crew chiefs. There will be a lot of different strategies that you’re going to see playing out. It is going to be fun and fun to watch.
Neff – We saw penalties come down Tuesday for the No. 18 Cup car and the No. 29 truck with tires that came off as the vehicle left pit road thanks to a pit miscue. The intent of the rule was to penalize who were trying to gain a competitive advantage by not tightening all of the lug nuts and having a failure during the racing. What do you think of the rule?
Alexander – That is a tough one. Certainly the intention of that rule was for things that we were doing a year or two ago. That situation is very rare that it occurs, and for it to happen two times in one weekend is extremely rare. It is hard. They did the right thing, they enforced the rule, the rule is black and white. It wasn’t intended for that nature but it happened and so they had to enforce the rule. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with it but the rule is the rule.
I do think they probably need to look at it. I think they need to look at it during the off-season and maybe modify it for next year. I don’t think you can change it now, after they’ve done what they’ve done. I think you have to leave it in place for the rest of the year. They certainly do it for the safety of everyone, including the fans and the competitors. It comes from a good place. I think they need to look at it at some point in time. It is just unfortunate circumstances that led to that. I really doubt you’ll see that much again, if at all.
About the author
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.