After the first break of the season, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series series is ready to head to the Lone Star State for another crack at the newly reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway. Teams have survived the West Coast swing and are settling in for a stretch of 10 straight weekends of racing until the second off-weekend. The off-week has given teams a chance to take stock in where they are six races in, what they need to change and who their serious competition is at this juncture of the season.
The Toyotas have not been the dominant manufacturer of the year so far, but it is certainly right on the back bumper of the Fords. Denny Hamlin‘s three top fives and sixth-place spot in points has him ready to make a charge at the top of the mountain.
In this week’s Tech Talk, Mike Wheeler, Hamlin’s crew chief, talks about how pertinent old notes are with the new track configuration, driver feel, rock hard tires and smooth racing surfaces. He also gives a feel of where the new Optical Scanning System has the tech process, among other points.
Mike Neff – Six races into the season and quite a few people are ranting and raving about the dominance of the Fords. However, you don’t exactly suck; Hamlin has three top fives and four top 10s in the first six races and is definitely knocking on the door of a win. Are you about to find that last little bit that will put you over the top?
Mike Wheeler – You said it well: We’re just enough off where we haven’t won races, but we’re within reach. A couple better executions and maybe a couple better cars, and we’d have some wins. We’re in a happy spot; it isn’t a terrible spot. Obviously we want to be slightly better, just enough to stay motivated to improve, turn the corner and hopefully get some wins here shortly.
Neff – This will be your third race on the new configuration of Texas Motor Speedway. How much of your older notes are applicable to the new layout?
Wheeler – At this point, pretty much none. Obviously, once they repave it, the tire and asphalt are completely different, and that is a giant chunk of your setup. We’ve obviously changed rules packages, splitter configurations, spoiler sizes and all of that kind of stuff since it has been repaved as well.
Pretty much nothing matters anymore. You can have some history there. We’ve run good and won some races there. At the same point, though, you’re basically starting from scratch once they repaved the place.
Neff – Hamlin ran quite well there in the fall. How much from that race carries over to the spring?
Wheeler – There is some that carries over. Obviously the rule changes from over the off-season changed things quite a bit, but not that much. We do have a good grasp of where we were in the fall. It wasn’t that long ago, kind of like [ISM Raceway], where it was just a few races between visits to the track. We haven’t learned a whole lot extra since then. Yes, the body and splitter/spoiler stuff has changed a little bit. We have what we are on now vs. where we were back then. A lot of that we can kind of simulate back out, know where we were, how we got there and then kind of match it back up for the next trip there.
Neff – When you get a change in the rules that essentially changes the balance of the car, are you able to eventually give drivers the same feel that they want, or do they have to modify their style to what the new configuration requires to run fast?
Wheeler – It is definitely a little bit of both. Once you get a driver a good feel for a racetrack, especially like new Texas where the corners are so different, that makes the car fast, you definitely work on getting the same feel back. Tires change and bodies change and all of that kind of stuff, but we will definitely search for that same balance for him. Sometimes when there is a huge change in tires or aero, you might have to compromise a little bit, but you ultimately want to get back to the same dynamics you had for the driver.
Neff – Is NASCAR bringing back the same tire as last year, or did Goodyear soften it up a little bit?
Wheeler – It is the same right-side tire that we had last year, but the left-side tire is different. Goodyear did a test in January and is coming back with a tire that is supposed to be able to wear a little bit more, which should mean it has a little more grip. That said, every time they go back to an event, even when they have the same tire, it is a new version of the same tire.
It is kind of like making cakes, in my opinion. You try to make the same batter, but things always change a little bit. We have some data on the right side tire and we know what it is like, but at the same point, you’re always wondering how it is going to react. The track is a little worn from the off-season and the winter, so it is always going to be a little bit different from what you had in the past.
Neff – With the no-ride-height rule, are you able to be extra aggressive getting the car on the track since you don’t have to worry about bumps?
Wheeler – As smooth as it is, this track definitely lets you achieve your platform very easily as opposed to some of the tracks that are really rough like a [Auto Club Speedway] or even Charlotte [Motor Speedway] or Dover [International Speedway], where there are some big jumps heading into the corners. It makes for some pretty pictures on the track, as far as the cars’ attitudes. However, you’re still trying to get every 50 1000ths of travel you can get and making the car the exact attitude you want it on the racetrack.
Neff – You’ve had six races with the new Optical Scanning System for technical inspection. It seems like NASCAR is cracking the whip a little more for teams that violate that. Do you think it has made the technical inspection process smoother than it was?
Wheeler – It is still a challenge, but we’re all still learning the box that we need to be in and making the most of it. Obviously missing qualifying is never something you want to do, or missing practice time is something you never shoot for. However, you want to maximize what you can without giving away too much. You always want to play within the rules and maximize what you can but don’t jeopardize yourself by missing track time or giving up on-track speed.
Neff – NASCAR tried to do a different tech process at Martinsville Speedway, although it didn’t pan out thanks to the snowstorm. It was supposed to be a combined tech between qualifying and racing. Did that give you some extra time to do other things without being in the tech line?
Wheeler – Yes, it definitely was going to shortcut the process a little bit. … Normally, you go through tech before practice even starts to get an initial inspection and safety check. You then have to go through two more times for the same inspection process, so it is definitely time consuming. With the emphasis on what little bodies count for at Martinsville, it was kind of neat for them to go back old-school and tell us to go qualify and they’d inspect us afterward. As long as there wasn’t anything egregious, you wouldn’t have to start in the back for a violation. With qualifying snowed out, it wasn’t actually put into play.
Neff – One rule change that we really haven’t heard a lot about this season so far is the limit on the total number of people both over the wall and behind the wall. Looking at it six races into the season, what challenges has the decrease in people thrown your way over this early stretch of the season?
Wheeler – It has barely limited us; the numbers they picked didn’t impact our normal competition group at all. The 18 we have that we bring on a normal weekend are still the same group that we brought before; it didn’t really get changed. We occasionally used to bring an extra race engineer or some body guys so that they could get some experience in case they wanted to travel on the road in the future. We have had to limit that process, which is a little bit sad, but our competition has stayed the same. The over-the-wall guys was knocked down by one, and we lost some of our race day help, like tire runners and gas runners, who just like to come to the track and support the race team and be part of it. It really hasn’t affected us a lot as far as the normal, day-to-day group that works on a race weekend.
Neff – Are there people that you’re allowed to share across the entire organization, or are you tied into just the people who are designated as members of the No. 11?
Wheeler – Each car number has their own roster, which has 12 guys for the road crew plus the five over-the-wall guys. Also, since we are a four-car team, we have four upper-level people who are allowed to come. For us, it is an IT guy, a couple of technical directors, those kind of individuals. For my knowledge, there is nothing frowned upon as far as the No. 18 crew [Kyle Busch] coming over and helping us push a car through tech or change brakes before a race. That isn’t what they are trying to limit, they’re just trying to keep us from having 25-30 guys each weekend working on the cars.
It is frowned upon us helping other organizations. We supply chassis and parts to Furniture Row [Racing], so I know we aren’t allowed to go over there and work on their cars. At the same time, it is an open garage area. Everyone plays by the rules and is aware of who is working on whose cars, so it is pretty easy to kind of follow those guidelines.
Neff – Was this off-weekend an opportunity for you to get the pipeline squared away and everything lined up where it needs to be in the process in anticipation of the next couple months?
Wheeler – No doubt. Having Easter off is a good holiday to have off, but it is also a good time of the year for us to catch our breath and kind of regroup. We had a new car chief start this year, so it is good for him to take a break six races in and evaluate where we are at. It is no different for an engineer than everyone else on the team. It gives us a chance to evaluate what we are doing well, figure out what we need to be better at and kind of work on that, regroup so that we aren’t a top-six-in-points guy but be a top-one or -two-in-points team. We should be able to get there with a proper evaluation and implementation of changes moving forward.
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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