The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is using the same aerodynamic package at the restrictor plate tracks that they have used since 2013, yet the teams continue to find more speed. The difficulty in passing presents bigger challenges to crew chiefs to make strategy gambles, putting more pressure on drivers to maintain track position gained through that strategy.
In this week’s Tech Talk we catch up with Justin Alexander, the chief for Austin Dillon’s No. 3. He looks back at the craziness that was Sonoma and looks ahead to Daytona. He touches base on front suspensions, gas mileage, driver comfort and the character that has come back to Daytona.
This isn’t his first Cup restrictor plate rodeo, but it is his first with Dillon. It will be interesting to see if he can make the right calls to win a second race for the No. 3 this weekend and put it back in Victory Lane at Daytona, in the Cup Series, for the first time since 1998.
Mike Neff – We are coming off of Sonoma. Austin has never been much of a road racer but managed an 18th-place finish. There were a lot of twists and turns in strategy in Sonoma, no pun intended. How did you feel like your day played out in Wine Country?
Justin Alexander – I thought our day played out fairly well. Austin did a heck of a job all day long. We qualified five spots better than he ever did out there, so we started off on a good note. The race went really well. I think our strategy worked out to be just about perfect for the first three quarters of the race. We kind of got track position, stayed out on old tires, and Austin did a heck of a job staying up front on those tires. There at the end, we pitted right in our window and the plan was to go to the end. With six or seven laps to go, Austin spun out in turn 11 I think it was, which cost us a couple of spots. Guys were stopping with 15 or 20 to go and putting new tires on again. They were making that time back up on the race track, which I did not think they could do. If I could go back and do it over again I think I do the same thing. With 20 to go I think I’d pit and I think we’d have netted out quite a bit better. All-in-all it was a solid weekend. Austin is still learning on road courses. He’s been putting in a lot of time in the simulator on road courses and he’s been doing a lot of things to get better. We ran well, we ran better than I expected to run. We didn’t finish where we should have finished but, all-in-all, I thought it was a solid weekend for us.
Neff – You mentioned a little about tire strategy out there. Tires gave up and were dropping three or four seconds per lap and the inventory that you had to use for the event was limited. Were you happy that the lack of inventory forced you into some strategy calls throughout the race?
Alexander – It is always a better race when you have limited tires. That way you don’t just pit every time the caution comes out. It makes it a little tougher on us crew chiefs. It was crazy how much tires were falling off there. They were losing four to five seconds when we had the really long runs. It did play into the strategy. Road courses are funny. You don’ t always want to pit, even if you have tires. Track position is so important there, which is one of the reasons we stayed out a couple of times. Mainly, most of those decisions were driven by the fact that we didn’t have but so many tires in the pits. You always want to save a set in case a late race caution comes out. Tire management was definitely the name of the game out there on Sunday. I felt like we played it well. It was fun. I enjoyed it.
Neff – This weekend will be your first weekend on the top of the box for a plate race with Austin. Have you worked through some strategic plans for how you think the stages will play out in Daytona?
Alexander – I dont have anything too strategic laid out at this point in time. Speedway racing at night, at Daytona, is a little funny. Handling sometimes becomes an issue. You race in February in the 500at Daytona and there are times when you take two tires or no tires. Sometimes in the night race it becomes hot and slick and handling becomes an issue so driver do want tires. Tires do become an issue in this race. Like every other track, track position is so important here, although you wouldn’t think it would be, just like it is at every other race track. I’ve got a few things from my experience, that we’ll do in certain situations. Kind of a tentative plan laid out on strategy. We’ll just see how the race unfolds with the segments as they are. We’ll kind of play it by ear.
Neff -The rules package, amazingly knowing the propensity that NASCAR has for changing rules, is the same as it was in 2013, outside of some safety additions. At this point is there really anything left that you can tweak to find any speed in these cars?
Alexander –It is funny that we’ve had this same rules package for five years. You are always looking for more speed and there are always different ways to do things. We have limited practice times at these plate races so sometimes you want to go out there and work on drafting and work on your car but wrecks can happen just as easily in practice as they can in the race. These are dangerous places for practice. A lot of crew chiefs shy away from getting into packs and racing during practice. You try to bring different things to these tracks and you’re constantly working on the bodies and the suspension and fine tuning things. We’ve had this package here for so long that you are, at this point, just fine tuning what you’ve had over the last couple of years and what you’ve come up with. There isn’t a ton of stuff. The biggest part really is just getting the balance right for him. Depending on the weather and track conditions and things like that you try to get the balance for him so that he can hold it wide open through the corner and not have to lift. Really that is a lot of what you’re working on.
Neff -You mentioned the suspension. They paved the track a few years ago but it is starting to get the character back. With the ride heights and stipulations NASCAR has for you, is it a matter of telling Austin to grit his teeth and bear it out there or do you build some pliability into the suspension to handle the bumps?
Alexander -No, I build speed into it, I let him worry about the bumps. It is getting rougher and slicker. It is getting to be a lot more like it used to be before the repave. It just puts on a better race, wears out tires faster and makes handling more of an issue. Bumps have always been an issue here and they will become more of an issue as time goes on. They give us the rear shocks and the rear springs for the race. We can mess with the front. We can run whatever we want up there. You do have to tune around that stuff for sure. You want to get it to where they can run wide open all of the way around. As tires wear and the track gets slick those bumps do become an issue. So you do have to sort of set up around those bumps, as opposed to Talladega, which is really smooth and really wide. We do have to account for those bumps and our setup is different here than it is at, say Talladega. We try to put as much speed in the car as we can. My job is to put as much speed in the car as I can and his job is to manage that speed. If he can’t, we’ll try and dial it back a little bit. I just try to make it go fast and let him worry about keeping it on the race track.
Neff -With the restrictor plates on these cars they are obviously restricting the amount of air the engine can use to make power. We’ve seen fuel mileage come into play at the 400 in the past. Is there anything you do with fuel mapping for the EFI system that you mess with, due to the reduced air to the engine, that allows you to get better fuel mileage at plate tracks?
Alexander -You knowe don’t really concern ourselves too much about fuel mileage. With the segments thrown in here it isn’t as big of a deal. Although you did see, in the 500, that it did become an issue. At any race fuel mileage can potentially become an issue. We set the things up and tune them for raw power. The biggest thing you can do with fuel mileage, at plate races, it tuck in behind somebody. Your fuel mileage can change drastically if you’re running out front versus drafting behind someone. When you are tucked in behind somebody you are running part throttle, quarter throttle, and that can save you tons of fuel. If we get to that point, we use where he is on the race track to determine strategy for fuel mileage. If mileage does become an issue, you can tuck up behind somebody and save almost all of the gas you need.
Neff -In talking with some crew chiefs over the last month or so, they’ve admitted that they are actually trying to get a little more air under these cars and that is actually causing them to pick up some speed. Without giving away trade secrets, is that something you’re looking into, especially on the plate tracks, letting more air under the cars to speed them up a little bit?
Alexander -he plate tracks are a little different than the downforce tracks. The rules we have here, splitters we run here, we don’t run pans, There is a lot of things different about the cars at the plate races. It is not as prevalent at the plate tracks. What we’re worried about at the downforce tracks doesn’t really carry over to the plate tracks. There are things that we do . There are aerodynamic things we work on at plate tracks that are a little different from the downforce tracks. We do worry about drag moreso here than at say Charlotte or Texas, a typical downforce track. Aerodynamics is something we obviously focus on heavily here. The underbody stuff is not as prevalent here as it is at the downforce tracks. It isn’t a huge concern but the air is always a concern, wherever it is. We’re always trying to optimize it and where it flows and some of the things we’re working on. It is just a little different from a normal downforce track.
Neff -Youtalked about it being hot and slick. We’re talking a little about air, as far as getting air to your driver down there, you want the air flowing over these cars as efficiently as possible but you do need your driver to function for the full 160 laps. Is there mandated cooling for this race, for the driver, do you get to decide where to place your NACA ducts to get some air to your driver and how much air you send his way?
Alexander -We have a rule that we have to run NACA ducts in the right side window, to get the driver some air. Anywhere that we run a right side window. Everything above a mile we have mandatory cooling that we have to run to the driver. Along with that the drivers, most of the time, will have an AC unit that they run inside the car. We pull some air off of the left side of the window to help cool him off and give him fresh air. NASCAR has done a few things to help keep the drivers cool. I think it has definitely helped the cockpit temperatures and the drivers in general. We don’t do anything other than that to help the driver. You certainly could do that if you wanted to. You could put more NACAs in if you wanted to, to try and help the driver but then it becomes a speed thing. You take some speed out of the car if you do that. You really want to do as little as possible. I think what NASCAR has implemented is sufficient. Everyone does it across the board so it puts everyone on a level playing field.
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.