Race Weekend Central

Tech Talk: Slugger Labbe on Talladega Struggles and Darlington Demolitions

Richard “Slugger “Labbe has been crew chiefing in the Cup series since 1997. The last four seasons he’s been on top of the box for Paul Menard, both at Richard Petty Motorsports and now with Richard Childress Racing. Throughout his career to date, he’s notched five wins, 26 top 5s and 74 top 10 finishes. Labbe has won his five Cup races with three different drivers.

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2013 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega

NASCAR used all of the tools at their disposal to restart the race and run it to the advertised distance of 499 miles, plus a few more, rather than calling it when the red flag flew for rain on lap 124. That threw out a ho-hum finish, turned it wild and gave the Davids a chance to beat up on Goliath.

Tech Talk: Alan Gustafson Tells Gordon’s Talladega Tale

_Jeff Gordon has not exactly set the series on fire this year, but believe it or not, the four-time champ is actually having a better start than 2012. A year ago, he was 17th in points after Richmond in the Spring, while this year he’s 14th, boasting one top five and four top 11s to his credit. When the Gen-6 car came out, many people felt that it would be a better fit for Gordon than the Car of Tomorrow, and it has proven to be so far although he’s a step behind teammates Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Kasey Kahne in the Hendrick stable._

Gordon’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson has been turning the screws and making the calls from the pit box as always, trying to mold this No. 24 team back into championship form. As he works on guiding Gordon onward and upward, what’s the key to bringing back the dominant driver of old? Gustafson took some time to speak with Frontstretch bringing back the swagger to his team, the past week of gains at Richmond and the trials ahead for all teams at Talladega._

Bristol Racing, Bad Crowds: Can Bruton Smith Ever Win?

The folks at Bristol Motor Speedway had the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg. They threw open the gates and sold out the joint for a generation: 27 years, in fact, from the summer of 1982 straight through 2009. Then, nearly a half-dozen years ago the powers that be made a fatal mistake; they repaved the goose. While the simple act of repaving is not a bad thing, especially with a concrete track, the process of adding progressive banking and trying to make more than one lane of racing — especially on a place that made its reputation by people wrecking each other to pass was the kiss of death.

Tech Talk: Jason Ratcliff Tries For Two In A Row

_Jason Ratcliff spent his first full season in the Cup series in 2012. Many people might think he was an overnight success, but he's been crew chiefing at the national touring series level since 2000 when he started with Casey Atwood in the Nationwide Series. He's been on top of a pit box for nearly 400 races between the Nationwide and Cup series and his drivers have gone to victory lane 38 times, most recently last weekend. Frontstretch spent a little time with Ratcliff this week to talk briefly about his win with Matt Kenseth at Las Vegas, pit speed enforcement and options that teams have for Bristol._ Mike Neff: First of all, congratulations on winning your first race of the season and the first for Toyota in the new car. It has to feel pretty good getting there so quickly with a new driver. Jason Ratcliff: Yes it does. I feel like we have a strong race team and obviously we have a strong driver. I knew we'd have some success in 2013 with Matt coming onboard with Dollar General and Husky partnering with us. It would be crazy for me to say I didn't think it would come this soon but honestly, I'm surprised it came this soon. I thought it would take us a little bit longer to gel and get the chemistry where it needs to be. It just goes to show you that the things we did in the off-season have really paid off when it comes to communication when it comes to chemistry between the driver and the race team. MN: Matt's not a very outwardly emotional guy but seemed very emotional about the win. Do you think he put more pressure on himself because of the way the season started? With him blowing the motor in testing and the trouble you guys had right out of the gate at Daytona? JR: Now that I know Matt, he's a guy that puts a lot of pressure on himself all of the time. He's very competitive, obviously. He pushes himself and puts more pressure on himself than anyone. He has some high expectations for himself and the race team. So far we've been to three races and he has pushed himself as hard as anyone I have ever seen to try and be competitive and put himself in a position to win. Y'know you're leading the Daytona 500 and fell out and started the season off in a hole that way, it kind of puts you a little bit behind. At Phoenix and Vegas, was he pushing a little harder. Yeah, he was trying to get back up there and put himself back in the top 10 where he feels like he and his race team belong. I don't think he pushed himself any harder than he normally does. He's a pretty hard charger no matter what the situation is. MN: With the way the new car is reacting and the advantage that clean air has. Is track position still the biggest factor? With the tires they had at Vegas that just didn't wear out, did that play into your strategy? Knowing how important track position is. JR: It is a little early to evaluate this car. There was a discussion about Phoenix and the fact that it was hard to pass. Most of the time, if we go to a track that has a new surface, and Phoenix is one of them, most of the time if it is a track that has a new surface, we see that. They have a lot of grip and everybody can run the bottom and until the track wears out a little bit and widens out, like Vegas did, you have a hard passing. It is just the race track. At Vegas, I thought there was a lot of passing. We started 18th and passed a lot of cars throughout the day. Matt, and a lot of other guys, were able to pass the slower cars easily, along with a lot of the other guys. At the end, Goodyear brought a good tire that was durable and the fall off wan't that much. The track conditions were a little bit cool but that isn't what I meant. Once you get into the top five, the cars are so competitve that someone has to make a mistake for us to take advantage of it. The competition is so close that someone has to make a mistake. I knew, as we got close to the front, our car would get better. They always do. Was it going to be enough to hold off the No. 5? It seemed like it did. MN: Two of the JGR cars got busted for speading on pit lane. Would you like to see them make the speeds for everyone on pit lane visible to everyone and would you like for them to go to a GPS system where it is actual speed, not the average speed? JR: I think, right now, they give you enough information that you can control it. They tell you where the timing lines are, you know how many feet are between them, they tell you what the speed is, they give you a five mile per hour cushion. They give you all of the information you need to play the game, so I think it is a race within a race and I like that. The guys who want to push it, push it, You get caught, you knew what the rules were. The thing I don't like on the GPS, I don't feel like we'd get to see that information. It would be hard for us to calculate off of it. Right now, if we make a mistake, we usually get to do an evaluation that says this is where we went wrong and what to do to make it better. I like it the way it is. Guys getting busted are just pushing it. MN: The fans spoke out about Bristol. The ground the top of the track. By the time guys were done, the guys were making time off of the bottom by running around the top. Are you setting up your car to run the top, bottom or inbetween? JR: To me, you always set it up to run the bottom. If you have a car that can run the bottom, it can run the top. If you go to a track and the driver tells you that they can't run the top, that is a driver preference thing more than a racecar thing. A lot of times you'll get cars that can run the top or the bottom. We'll work on the bottom until the race gets going. We'll see if there is some grip at the top but we won't live up there. If everyone is running the top, I'll work it for a good option but the fast way around is the bottom. We're going to work on the bottom and use the top as a bonus optoin. We'll try to make sure we can partner with Rocky in the car. Hopefully there will be some differences with this car . Until the top takes some rubber, we most likely will learn nore. MN: Is the new rear end camber change going to be exploited at Bristol? Will teams be maxing out the rear end camber or just trying. JR: I don't think we'll know until the weekend. This is the first time we've been to a track of this style. You'll need to be prepared. A lot depends on how the car reacts. It is always a compromise with every corner of the car. If you put more camber in, you'll have more lateral grip but you'll give up longitudinal grip and some forward bite. Until you get there, I don't think you'll know. I really think it will be setup specific. I feel like a lot of guys will unload with a fair amount of camber. Will they be maxed out? Probably not, but they'll be closer to that than any other way. Throughout practice they'll take some away slowly to see if they can find some speed. MN: When they repaved the track, there was progressive banking. Now that they ground it at the top, did that result in the middle of the track having a hump or is the banking still progressive? JR: It is hard to tell with the naked eye. Best I recall in the fall, it seemed like there definitely some change there. I don't know if it is as much banking as it is the texture of the surface. They definitely decreased the angle, but to get it to cover the top to bottom with the same banking, I don't think there is enough concrete there. I think you'd have to dig so far that you'd hit the rebar. It is still progressive but there is definitely some change to it. MN: You don't have to move people any more but do you still add extra bracing to the nose and back bumper in anticipation of the contact? JR: The bars in the nose are there every week. NASCAR mandates what goes in. The car is pretty stout out front. In the rear end, they give you a couple options. You can add or take away a couple tubes but the basic structure is in the rule book. And that is what you have. The days of going in and bracing the bumpers up, are gone. To me, they're pretty stiff everywhere we go. MN: I would like to see some air get under the cars. I'd love to see the front valence come off the ground by two or three inches. That would get air to the car behind and their cooling system which would help them coo.l. JR: You would think that it would, but I don't know if it would change it that much. The biggest problem is we have this period that is resulting in explosions of changes to the car. It wasn't one single thing that changed. So to go back and make a couple of changes for the betterment of the car in front of behind there will be a lot of other changes required to make the cars go around the race track. The biggest thing will be the tire itself. Goodyear has kind of followed the race car. It has turned into we'll build a tire for this year and then next year and then year after year after year. Now they have a tire for what we're currently racing. If they change the car, then the loading and grip and tons of other things change. As Aero grip is taken away, you have to make up for it somewhere. Otherwise you'll still have ill handling cars that will not be able to pass because no one can drive them. So do I think lifting the cars up will help? Yes. Unfortunately it is going to require a ton of changes to go along with it and I don't think all of them will join in on that feeling. _The No. 20 was in Victory Lane this past weekend. Kenseth has won at Bristol before, and with Ratcliff on his box, they could form a formidable combination._ *Connect with Mike!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/mneffshorttrack\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Mike Neff\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/14354/

Side-by-side – Bruton Smith threw bad money after good by grinding the top of the race surface at Bristol

In the Summer of 2007, Bruton Smith spent a truck load of money to put truck loads of new surface onto the race track at Bristol Motor Speedway. Not only was a new surface put in place but variable banking that allowed drivers to, say it with me, RUN SIDE-BY-SIDE competitively on a half mile race track. Unheard of in the modern era of NASCAR, fans were allowed to see people on the outside at Bristol actually make passes and advance their position. Better yet, they were able to pass people without having to at least shove them out of the way or at worst, wreck them to get by. Races were filled with two and three wide racing throughout the pack for laps on end without detriment to one lane or the other. Somehow, that irritated or bored fans to a point that more than a third of them stopped coming to see the races there. As a result, Bruton Smith ground down the banking at the top of the track and attempted to return the single grove bump, dump and wreck racing back to the facility. Thanks to Smith at least trying to bring the old parade back to town, the track was nearly sold out last August for the Night Race at Bristol. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, the drivers figured out that they could make the top groove work and the race ended up being a two groove race still. While the race was fantastic from start to finish and the ending was edge of the seat theater, the number of cautions was limited and almost know cars were wrecked. As a result, the jury is still out on whether the fans will like the new surface more than the altered surface before the grinding. From where I sit, which was near the top of the grandstands in turn two last Summer, there is nothing more enjoyable that watching cars racing side-by-side with first one and then the other gaining slight advantages each lap. The great thing about Richmond is that a driver can get to the inside of another competitor but has to struggle to complete the pass because they can't use the whole race track. That never ending battle to gain the inches necessary to eventually complete the pass is why Richmond is still one of the best race tracks anywhere. When Bruton Smith added the progressive banking to Bristol, he put the track on the same plane as Richmond and the racing became fantastic from the front to the back and everywhere in between. With the ground top of the track, the surface at Bristol is offering enough grip up top to give drivers an advantage running up there, but going to the bottom won't give the drivers enough of an advantage to make a pass so the race is going to lend itself to a single groove, it will just be around the top now instead of the bottom. Close racing and passing are the two things that make for great races. With the varying degrees of banking the “old” new Bristol had allowed drivers to run on all three lanes around the track and make passes in any of them. The drivers could pass someone on the top at one point in a run then on the bottom another part and finally in the middle at yet another point. However the drivers were running, and wherever they were running, they put on a fantastic race and did it all without tearing up a bunch of race cars. And that is the rub right there. Based on the statement made by fans with their wallets and their keyboards, they don't want to see racing at Bristol, they want to see wrecking. If what you want to see is cars destroyed for no reason, then the “new” new Bristol is more for you than the old one. I'll stick with cars running in three lanes on a half mile race track with any of them having a chance to win.

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2013 Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas

Editor’s Note: Mike Neff is writing Matt’s column this week. The Key Moment – On the penultimate caution of the race, Matt Kenseth took fuel only while Kasey Kahne, who appeared to have the dominant car, took two tires and had to check up exiting his pit box. As a result, Kahne restarted sixth, had …

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Side By Side: Should NASCAR Award Bonus Points Throughout Each Race?

_Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we're going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!_ *This Week's Question: NASCAR is looking at all sorts of ways to make the racing early in events more competitive. To do so, should they begin awarding point \"bonuses\" for segments of events (first 100 laps, second 100 laps, etc.) so drivers will be encouraged to race harder?* <span style=\"color:gray; font-weight:bold\">Mike Neff, Senior Writer: Segmented Bonus Points Are a Must</span> We’ve heard the same ol’ song and dance for years and it has never been more prevalent since the advent of the Chase. Drivers ride around for most of the race and then drive hard at the end because that is when they pay the money and the points. There is no incentive to go hard during the middle of the event unless you’re trying to lead the most laps, and with the current point system, where you only get one point for leading the most, the danger of losing twenty or thirty points due to a crash is far more daunting than trying to get the one bonus point. As a result, fans are turning away from the sport more and more because the only parts of the race worth watching are the beginning and the end. The time has come for NASCAR to give the drivers a reason to push hard throughout the event. The tracks on the NASCAR circuit, as well as the events themselves, come in a variety of different lengths, so it would not work to pay points at a specific numbered lap. Instead, what NASCAR must do is decide what percentage of the race will result in the awarding of in-race points. The most logical, and easiest for the fans to understand (which is a priority apparently for the folks in Daytona) is to pay points at the quarter marks of the race. However many laps are to be contested, divide that number by four and pay the points after each segment of the race that contains that many laps. <div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/15500.jpg\" width=\"275\" height=\"172\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Would awarding points in designated segments throughout each race create close racing…</p></div> In simple terms, the Daytona 500 is 200 laps long. Divide the total number of laps by four and you get 50-lap segments. When the first 50 laps of the race is completed, points are awarded. Then, you do it again at the halfway point and finally at the three-quarter mark before the ultimate points are awarded for the finishing order. You will have the same formula at every track; there will just be different numbers of laps in the segments. The drivers will know before the race starts what the lap numbers are so that they can focus on being in the best position at those points in the race. You wouldn't want NASCAR to award full race points at each of these segments, but rewarding the top 5 or even the top 10 would make things much more interesting. If they paid 10 points for leading at each quarter point of the race, a driver could actually score more points than the winner by leading at the three-quarter mark but coming home second in the race. Some fans might object to that, though, and NASCAR could obviously tweak the points so that the winner is guaranteed the most points on a race weekend. But the point is that it will give drivers an incentive to go hard for the whole race and someone can actually make up some ground in the standings, something that is extremely hard to do these days. Paying points for more than the quarters might give too much to the drivers leading or near the front of the pack for most of the race but not at the finish. However, it will encourage the drivers to go hard early and often during the race to keep themselves in contention for the bonus points throughout the event. Race strategies will develop around these point milestones. Some teams might stay out under a caution to garner the points while other teams pit. When the points are earned the teams who stayed out will then pit and the cars at the back of the pack will now be up front. It will open a myriad of possibilities which will all add excitement to the event. Would this idea be harder to follow than the current point system? A little bit. However, the thing that most fans want to know is where does their driver sit at the end of the day? They really don’t care about the points that are earned throughout the race or where their driver runs. As a result, the drivers will know when they want to be up front and getting there will add excitement to the events. It will also open up sponsorship opportunities for race promoters because each segment could have a sponsor paying a purse to the leader. It would hearken back to the old halfway bonus. For those who don’t remember, there used to be a halfway bonus of $10,000 for the driver leading at the crossed flags. It cost Dale Jarrett the Brickyard 400 one year because he tried to stretch his fuel to the halfway point and ran out. Racing should be about trying to lead the most laps and beating the competition. Unfortunately, it has come down to a points management game now. The only way to get the competitive excitement back into the sport, while still allowing the bean counters the chance to keep track of points is to offer them more often throughout the events. In the end, it will make for a much better show. <span style=\"color:orange; font-weight:bold\">S.D. Grady, Senior Editor: There's no need for more bonus points</span> And welcome to the New Hampshire 100, three times the charm, trophy awarded to all comers, presented by NASCAR and your local T-ball team. No, it is not worth your while as a top-notch professional stock car team to go balls to the wall all 500 laps, proving to the world that your machine is the most durable, that you've hired a pilot with both endurance and wits, and that you've the wherewithal to garner enough sponsors to pay your bills. No, it's quite all right. We've got you covered. <div style=\"float:left; width:250px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/15495.jpg\" width=\"250\" height=\"375\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">…or would it simply mean everyone gets a ribbon while the winner's accomplishment is diminished?</p></div> Instead of pushing every limit on man and machine, we've got a brand new way of doing business for the Sprint Cup Series. We're going to fully embrace the title sponsor's name and turn Sunday's marathon into a Saturday Night Special. Every 50 laps we'll award a ribbon to the boy or girl who slips past the start/finish line first–there's a new flag designed for the moment – it features a cartoon character. We're just waiting for the fan poll to come through so we can name it. We've also decided to print a certificate for the best fuel mileage, snazziest pit crew uniforms and most dramatic performance by a crew chief. If that's not enough, there's the 75-lap, 50/50 raffle to keep the fans interested. During the lap 150 scheduled break, the track mascot will scamper up and down the stands awarding the brightest fan (that's brightest…as in t-shirt color) free tickets to come back again. On lap 225, there will be a Twitter poll with random participants earning points toward a meet n' greet with the lap 275 leader. Victory Lane? That has been abbreviated into a photo op with the State Troopers in the parking lot while the team tries to escape the traffic jam. No, you cannot improve the racing of the Sprint Cup Series by chopping up the event into shorter, lucrative segments. By doing so, you will have devalued all that the teams have worked so hard to achieve in reaching the upper echelon of stock car racing in America. There are no 500-lap features at your local Friday night track. The cars won't last. The drivers aren't as good. The ruts in the surface would probably crumble. By reaching the Sprint Cup Series, you have proven that you've got the goods to go the distance. When you take the trophy, you've done what many others have only dreamed of accomplishing: beat the competition by being the brightest, fastest, strongest, most adaptive, focused, intelligent and on the occasion just plain lucky. And yes, by driving smart for the first 499 laps. The fat lady only sings once a race. That's what we hand out the big checks for and that's the way it should remain. Otherwise, we should close every major racing venue and excuse ourselves to the splintered benches of Thompson, Irwindale, and Eldora. *Connect with Sonya!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/laregna\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact S.D. Grady\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/14360/ *Connect with Mike!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/mneffshorttrack\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Mike Neff\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/14354/

Tech Talk: Comparing Loop Data To Analyze The Gen-6

_Author's Note: An unexpected scheduling conflict caused our crew chief to be unavailable this week, so we're going to take a look at the loop data statistics from last year's Phoenix race vs. this year's to see what the performance of the Gen-6 vs. COT looks like from a purely data-driven perspective._ NASCAR compiles a mountain of statistics each week that allow digit heads across the land, and in the garage area, to make unbiased comparisons on many different levels. Since Sunday's race was the first unrestricted event for the latest version of the Cup Series car, it just might be interesting to see what the numbers reveal. The first numbers we'll look at are quality passes. A quality pass is one that occurs on a car running in the top 15 under green flag conditions. In last year's race, Jimmie Johnson finished fourth but had the most quality passes during the race with 63. Interestingly, in 2013, Brad Keselowski finished fourth and also had the most quality passes; however, the defending champion only notched 35 of them. In looking at the quality passes, the top 11 passers in 2012's Spring Phoenix race made more than the top passer in 2013. That's sign that to pass someone, last Sunday it was far more difficult than during the race a year before. <div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/15503.jpg\" width=\"275\" height=\"102\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Much has been said of the Gen-6 cars leading into the 2013 season, but are they really that much better than the COT was?</p></div> Next up is the speed in traffic stat. It gives you the average speed of the driver when he has another car within one car length of them during green flag laps. This year's top runner at Phoenix was Matt Kenseth with a speed of 129.807 mph. Last year's best in traffic was Jimmie Johnson who clocked 130.260 mph. When it was all said and done, the speed of the top runners was nearly identical from one year to the next. Third up is the statistic that backs up the argument that you always hear from the people who attend the race in person. They always maintain that there is so much more action back in the pack than what you see on TV. Green flag passes will most definitely let you know which race had the most excitement from front to back of the pack. In 2012, Jimmie Johnson once again led the category with no less than 90 passes during green flag competition. That was nearly 50% more than this year's king of the overtake, AJ Allmendinger, who put the move on 61 cars throughout the length of the race. The top 12 drivers in the 2012 green flag pass statistics made more green flag passes than the top passer in 2013. Laps led is another category that indicates the competitive nature of a race. More drivers leading laps means more drivers were at the front. Certainly some laps led occur when drivers stay out during cautions, but in the long run, more drivers leading laps indicates more competitive races. 2013 saw nine drivers lead laps, with five of them leading double digit laps and Carl Edwards leading the most at 122 circuits. In comparison, 2012 saw 15 drivers lead the field across the line, but only five of them led double digit laps. The mandate that came down from above as the manufacturers and NASCAR's R&D center started working on the latest edition of the Cup series car was to have more side-by-side racing and more passes for the lead. While there is a long way to go and many things to be learned about this new car, for now it is looking like the older car was a bit more competitive. However, the older car had been around for six years, and there had been a lot of tricks and techniques learned to make it better. For now, the jury is still out on the new car. But, looking at the numbers that were accumulated last Sunday, the older car was faster, had more passing and more leaders. We'll see what it looks like when the series rolls back into Phoenix in November. *Connect with Mike!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/mneffshorttrack\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Mike Neff\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/14354/

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2013 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona

On lap 16, Tony Stewart attempted to change lanes and make a move on race leader Matt Kenseth. While he wasn’t cleared by his spotter, Stewart chose to shift down low which resulted in his left rear corner making contact with the right front of Marcos Ambrose. Stewart’s car got out of shape, made contact with the apron and sent a shower of sparks over several cars that were pursuing him. Jimmie Johnson checked up in the high line, which caused Denny Hamlin to make contact with the five-time champ, turning him down in front of the oncoming pack and ultimately taking out one-third of the field. The accident eliminated defending champion Kyle Busch, two-time Unlimited champion Jeff Gordon, 2006 winner Denny Hamlin and 1999 winner Mark Martin. Just like that, the field was reduced by one-third, many contenders sat idle in the garage and the drafting – along with the racing – became a shell of its former self.