Taking the green flag and being involved in a wreck before you make it back to the start-finish line is a recipe for a terrible day — just ask Austin Dillon.
But in the end, Dillon’s crew chief, Justin Alexander, was able to guide his team to a 21st-place finish last weekend at Pocono Raceway, one lap down to the leaders. Guiding a team through the adjustments needed to get the car to perform without knowing what was damaged on the car can test the true mettle of a crew chief, but Alexander came through last weekend.
This weekend, the right and left turns of Watkins Glen International lay in wait for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams. The challenges for the Cup teams include body roll, springs and shocks, sway bars and the strategy that each team will need to employ. Alexander touches on how soft the suspension is for road courses, the forgotten tuning tool that is the front sway bar, and rear sway bars that are an option but not a requirement. He also breaks down how the transmission can actually be customized a little to driver preference this weekend thanks to looser rules.
Mike Neff – You just finished up at Pocono, which didn’t start well When you get into an incident on lap 1, even though you didn’t seem to have a lot of damage, do you spend the rest of the day worrying about trying to adjust to damage you don’t see?
Justin Alexander – You know what’s crazy? While it didn’t look like a lot of damage and it wasn’t a ton of damage, it was damage in the key areas you need aerodynamics on the racecar. We had the tail pushed in, and the right-rear corner was pretty torn up and bent in. The whole tail was essentially pushed over. It was damage in an important area for us. We fixed it the best we could.
When it happens on lap 1, you never know what you have. You don’t know if your car is good or not. … Damage can affect the car so much. We never really had a lot of speed the whole race, and I attribute most of it to that. You don’t know all of the damage you have, even though it doesn’t look terrible. That area where it happened is just one of the areas where you get a lot of juice out of the racecar.
Neff – This was the second weekend where you’ve had qualifying and racing on Sunday. For teams that is obviously nice because they get to spend a little more time at home. From a competition standpoint, what does it change as far as your strategy approaching Sunday morning?
Alexander – It is essentially the same as an XFINITY [Series] schedule, and I was over there for the past six or eight months before I came back over here. It is one of those things were the weekend gets kind of crammed together a little bit more. You have less practice time so you really have to show up fast off of the truck. You don’t have a ton of time to work on it in practice. There are good and bad points about the whole thing. It is good because you don’t have to constantly switch from qualifying to race trim and back and think about qualifying and race trim. You really just focus on race trim and then put a little effort into qualifying, because there is only so much you can do on it because of the impound.
On the bad side, you typically practice on Friday, and you get to see what the car does and then qualify it. Then you go back to the hotel and think about it and make a lot of changes and try it out on Saturday morning. Now, with a two-day show you have one day of practice and that is it. You don’t get to go home and think about stuff. There aren’t a lot of changes you can make on the racecar. You have to be good off of the truck.
There are a lot of positives about the schedule. It gives us an extra day at the shop or at home with our families and gives everyone more time, in the industry. I think it is a good thing. I think if we can do more of them next year I’ll be perfectly happy with that.
Neff – You’re heading to Watkins Glen this weekend. You normally deal with bumpstops and having these cars pinned to the ground. That isn’t really what you want to do on a road course, is it?
Alexander – No, aerodynamics are not nearly as important on a road course as the intermediate tracks we go to. Keeping the attitude of the car is not a No. 1 priority on road courses. Watkins Glen compared to Sonoma [Raceway] is a faster road course, and aerodynamics is a focus. We can never lose focus on that. Martinsville is probably the only track where you don’t care about aerodynamics. It does play a little bit of a role, but with the curbs and the braking and the transitions, you just can’t keep the car sealed to the ground the entire time or you’ll tear it up. You have to put drivability in the cars for these guys so they can manhandle it through the bus stop and the esses and some of the other sections of the track. You want to keep it as aerodynamic as possible, so there is a fine line. You want to keep the platform as good as possible but [to] still give they driver the drivability they need.
Neff – With the car rolling and the force of the car going down onto the tires on the corners of the car, do you use extra soft springs so that the full load of the car gets to the corner quickly, or do you use a stiffer spring so that it carries the load of the corner for longer as the weight shifts to one side of the car or the other?
Alexander – If you are comparing it to Sonoma, you typically run stiffer at Watkins Glen spring-wise, because it is a faster track. It is not as technical of a track. Typically setups are stiffer at Watkins Glen than they are at Sonoma. Now if you want to compare it to an intermediate track, we are running completely different things and they are way softer than an intermediate track. The road course itself is just a different track in general. You tend to be set up more symmetrical from left to right as opposed to an intermediate track, where you’re always turning left and you have asymmetrical setups. It is a little something different from what we’re used to. We typically have asymmetrical setups, and when we come here we are putting in more symmetrical setups and much softer than we typically are on a race weekend but stiffer than we run at Sonoma.
Neff – When dealing with bumpstops on a typical weekend, the front sway bar has kind of fallen out of favor as a tuning tool. Does it come back into favor at a road course?
Alexander – Definitely. You find the tuning tools at a road course are completely different from the tools you use at an intermediate track or a short track that you go to. The sway bar does a lot with controlling how much front roll stiffness you have in the car. On a road course you’re trying to find a balance between the front- and rear-roll stiffness so you can balance the car out between left- and right-hand turns. We definitely use the sway bar a lot at road courses; we use the track bar height at road courses, rear springs, front springs, all balancing out the front- and rear-roll stiffness. That is one of the key components on the front of the car, one of the peak tuning tools on the front of the racecars that we use at road courses that you’ll see guys changing a lot.
Neff – One of the other options that you have at your disposal on road courses is a rear sway bar. Is that something that you’ll employ this weekend?
Alexander – Some guys do, some guys don’t. … We’ve tried them sometimes; it usually depends on the driver and what they are looking for in the feel of their car. In the past we might use it for qualifying and not the race. This weekend we won’t because you have to race what you qualify. It will be a little bit different this weekend vs. past times we’ve been at Watkins Glen. It is one of those things that is primarily driver preference. Some guys can deal with them and manage them and some guys can’t. If it is a tool that you can use we have it in the bag and ready to go if we need it. We’ve used it before and we’ve not used it before. It is just one of those things.
Neff – On the transmission side of things, road courses have a little looser rules than the ovals. Are you able to tune the transmission to the driver’s preferences for a give road course?
Alexander – The transmission ratios are set up differently at a road course than they are at intermediates. We have rules in place that at intermediate tracks we have certain ratios that we have to stay above or below to try and keep everyone in check so that we aren’t shifting on most of the tracks we go to. When it comes to road courses, the window is opened up quite a bit and we are able to adjust our ratios a lot. That is something that is a driver feel thing. Some guys run different ratios than other guys, and we do tune with those a lot. We are able to change transmissions and ratios during practice. We can work on that stuff and it is something we use to get more performance out of the racecars. You work with the driver and find out what he wants out of the racecar and get it tuned in.
Neff – One other angle on the transmissions, since there is so much shifting, the opportunity presents itself for drivers to miss a shift. Can you make the shift pattern a little wider so that you reduce the chance of going from third to second on a shift?
Alexander – It is about the same as normal. These guys are professionals. Missing shifts is fairly uncommon, although we have seen it a couple times this year. The transmission is modified a little bit for road courses to make it easier for sure. In that retrospect it is a little easier on those guys at a road course. We run transmission coolers and a couple of other things to help keep the transmission cool that we typically don’t run at other tracks. It is just a different animal. These guys are professionals and the best at this. You rarely see guys miss shifts at road courses and blow something up.
Neff – With stage racing, starting back in the pack can influence what you do. Is your strategy still primarily driven by working the stages backward and the race itself backward, or do you have to read the cautions and how they are flying to determine your strategy?
Alexander – It used to be that you worked the race backwards at Watkins Glen. You pitted twice, in your windows, and outside of that you never wanted to come down pit road again. You’d want to spend the minimum amount of time on pit road you could. Now, with the stage racing we go to 20, 40 and then 90. Stage racing throws a bit of a wrench into it because some guys might want to stay out and try and get stage points instead of trying to set up for the end of the race. Last year Watkins Glen was newly repaved and the tires didn’t really fall off that much. It was one of those deals where you wanted to pit in your window and never come again. You had guys taking two tires or right-side tires. They have brought a softer compound tire this year. I don’t know exactly what that is going to entail or how that is going to change things. You have to figure out what your goal is. Are you trying to win the race, are you trying to get stage points, are you trying to do both? That will ultimately dictate what you do with your strategy.
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.
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