The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads this weekend to the only track on the current schedule that was on the original Cup schedule, Martinsville Speedway. After winning the Daytona 500, the No. 3 of Austin Dillon has been struggling to be a factor on the downforce racetracks of the last four races.
Things, however, picked up last weekend, with Dillon scoring a top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway, his first since winning the 500.
Dillon’s crew chief Justin Alexander gives some insight heading into Martinsville. Brake cooling and tire pressures are an important part of the formula for success at the smallest track on the schedule, along with pit box selection.
Mike Neff – You won the Daytona 500 but seemed to have a dip in performance. It seems as though you begun to have an upswing. How do you feel your weekend played out in Fontana?
Justin Alexander – I was … happier with our performance at California than I had been at Las Vegas [Motor Speedway] and [ISM Raceway]. We’ve been working on the Camaro. We’ve had it for three or four downforce races, whatever it has been. I think we’re making gains on it every time we go to the racetrack, and we’re learning more every time we go to the track. We’ve been on a steep learning curve and took everything we learned and put it into the California car. We’ve run well there in the past and qualified well. Off the truck we were fast and qualified fifth.
We practiced really well, and we really didn’t race as well as I thought were going to. I thought we were going to race a lot better, but we ended up hanging around and working on the car all race. We picked up and got back up to the top 10 before the end of the race.
I think we made good gains at California. We’re still not where we want to be, but we’re certainly better than we were the last couple of races. I think we are on the upswing for sure.
Neff – Tires were a factor at Auto Club Speedway, but it seemed like the cars were more aero dependent this race than they have been the last couple of years. What’s your take?
Alexander – I think they were. We’ve made some slight modifications in the downforce levels of the cars, and we’ve changed the splitter from last year and some other things. I do think there was a little more sensitivity to other cars this year, it seemed like compared to the past. I think you also didn’t see as many cautions this year as you have in the past races there. Every time you get a race with fewer cautions, you get longer green flag runs, and the fastest guy usually checks out. That is how it kind of played out on Sunday. I think between that and the cars being a little more aero sensitive, it just wasn’t as good of a race as it has been in the past.
Neff – It seemed like on Sunday everyone was on the same pit strategy, and there really wasn’t anything to break that up. There wasn’t much of an opportunity for them to get on different schedules.
Alexander – Yeah, there were definitely fewer cautions than we’ve seen there in a while. It is one of those things. Usually at a racetrack like that, you do get some varying strategies thanks to the tire falloff and things like that. We didn’t really see that as much this race, but I don’t know.
Neff – You’re going from complete aero dependence at California to minimal aero dependence at Martinsville. When you roll off of the truck there, what is the first thing you want to make sure is absolutely right for the No. 3?
Alexander – Hopefully we hit our balance off of the truck. That place can change so much when it is cold vs. when it is hot [or] vs. when there is rubber down or when there is no rubber down. The good thing about Martinsville is that the setups have not changed very much there over the past lot of years, really. We’ve been pretty competitive there over the years with our No. 3 car. Really, [Richard Childress Racing] in general has been competitive there.
I feel like we’ve got a really good setup. We tested there last fall before the playoff race and learned a lot more then. Applied that to the fall race and thought we were pretty good.
We had some brake issues for most of the race. I don’t think we saw what the performance of our car really was going to be just because we had to deal with those nagging issues for a lot of the race. I feel like we have those cleaned up. I look forward to going back and seeing what we can really do.
Neff – Brakes are a huge factor at Martinsville, and cooling them is an important piece of the puzzle. One thing we’ve learned over the years is that it’s actually possible to cool them too much. Do you have a calculation that you utilize during setup, based on the cubic ft. per minute of your fans and the size of the openings, in order to get an optimum temperature for your brake package?
Alexander – We have a few tools to get to where we need to be. When we practice, we look at our temps after every run and constantly monitor them throughout practice and modify the tape on the nose to get it to where we feel like we need to be. And then when we get into the race, we might adjust it a little bit more based on history and what you feel like is going to happen based on that. We have a good history of what has happened in the past, and we rely on that. We use all of practice to look and see what we’ve got and tune it in.
You are absolutely right that you can be too cold and you can be too hot; brakes don’t want to be too hot and they also don’t want to be too cold. We have an optimum temperature range that we really need to be in, and that is what we shoot for and strive to maintain. Martinsville is a tough place on brakes — one of the hardest places we go to all year for brakes. You always seem to have someone there who has some kind of brake issue because it is so hard on brakes.
I think we’ve done a lot of work in the off-season to our racecars, our brake systems and everything. I feel really good about what we have. I thought we were really good at Phoenix, which is a moderate- to heavy-braking place, and we feel good about what we’re taking to Martinsville.
Neff – Does your brake manufacturer give you an optimum brake temperature range?
Alexander – Yes. They have recommended ranges that they want us to be in. We also do our own testing, and the manufacturers do testing on brakes, too, so we all know what kind of a range we need to be in.
Neff – At Martinsville, the air pressures that you start the tires for the actual race are ridiculously low. It seems like you can’t go too low provided you don’t damage the tire. Without giving away industry secrets, is the main concern with going extremely low on your air pressure that your rim will cut through the tire before the temperature, and ultimately the pressure builds up?
Alexander – Yeah, Martinsville is one of those places where you run super low. Typically all of the short tracks that we go to, we run really low. A lot of the tracks we go to nowadays, we run fairly low. Really, how low you run at some tracks, Martinsville included, can affect how you take off with your short-run speed.
Just like the brakes, the tires have an optimum temperature and pressure that they want to be in. If you start super low, you may start under the pressure that the tires want to run, so it may take five, 10 or even 15 laps for those tires to reach that optimum pressure. Your goal is to spend the longest amount of time you possibly can in that optimum pressure range. You try to get them as low as you can without sacrificing too much of your short-run takeoff speed so you can operate in that window.
You also have to worry about damaging the tires. If you run the tires too low, you can do damage to the sidewall of the tires or the tread of the tires. You could end up blowing a tire or tearing it apart by running it too low. There is a fine line, just like everything else we do; there is a small range that you have to work in. You try to be on the low side, but not too low. Martinsville is one of those tracks where we do get really low, and you will see that at a lot of short tracks.
Neff – When it comes to race strategies, there are two openings on pit wall, so there are six spots where you come in or go out unobstructed. If you don’t manage to get the first pit stall or one of the other five, is it better to get a stall closer to pit in so that if you have race damage, you can get to the car faster? Or do you want a spot down in [Turns] 1 and 2 so you’re away from all of the chaos of cars diving in and out of their stalls?
Alexander – Man, pit selection at Martinsville is really a weird thing. It’s honestly crew chief-dependent and driver-dependent. Some drivers don’t like to pit on a turn or radius on the inside of the turns. Obviously, if you get box one you’re going to take that. Some drivers want to pit on the straight. I’ve been in some situations where I have been down in Turns 1 and 2, and watching the cars continually go round and round has made me dizzy.
There are a lot of different reasons for choices. Timing lines used to be a big deal, but those have gone away a little bit in determining optimal pit stalls. Every crew chief has their own strategies, methods and ways of how and where they pick pit stalls. We kind of have our own ways and strategies and things we like about certain pit stalls at certain racetracks.
Having a pit stall with an opening is ideal especially at Martinsville. because pit stalls are really small and pit road can get really crammed and really tight. Every crew chief, across the board, has a little something different that they like to do. Some may even have superstitions about where they pick pit boxes.
Neff – After you won at Daytona International Speedway, several of the boys went and got tattoos. You said you aren’t going to get one until you win the title, but once you win that, Austin and the team can decide where you’re going to get it. That immediately led to a discussion that ended with a consensus that you’ll get a face tattoo to celebrate it. Have you had a discussion with your wife yet about the fact that you are basically committed to get a face tattoo if you win the championship?
Alexander – (laughs] You know, I don’t think I have talked to my wife about that one yet. I am not exactly sure if she’d be too proud of me if I showed up with a face tattoo. But you never know; guys do crazy things. Winning a championship will make you do crazy things. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
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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