The crew chief for Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy answers your questions in his usual candid manner.
What goes into selecting a chassis for a given race? Do you take into account the banking and other characteristics of the track and solve for the geometry of the setup you want to run or are there other factors that determine what makes a particular chassis better suited than another?
Good question. With the current CoT, we have a little less variety than with the old cars, where we'd have seven or eight different styles. With this car, we have a short-track car for Martinsville, Richmond, Loudon, Phoenix. We have an intermediate car which we run everywhere from Dover to Michigan – 1.5-mile to 2-milers. Then we have road course cars, and superspeedway cars. So the variety is much less. What goes into the car for each race? Well, we have a comfort level with certain cars. Over the summer, we run just about every car we own, and then see which one performs the best, has the best feel or the best characteristics, and then we set those aside for the Chase to run at specific tracks. For instance, the car we take to Chicago more than likely will be the car we race at Kansas. It's the same style track and these cars are so finicky with their bumpstops, that if you can figure out the front heights and the travel at Chicago, it will give you an advantage when you go to Kansas during the Chase.
The other interesting point is that there used to be variations in cars that appeared to be set up exactly the same. But there's much less of that
now. As the teams have become smarter in terms of knowing how to order our steel (whether we order it oversized and machine it to the right size) or the way we sonic test the metal – a lot of the variants we had 10 years ago have gone. We now measure even rotor arms to the thousandth of an inch. So the cars are more consistent now than they've ever been.
Some team members switch between organizations (occasionally a few teams in a few years), so does NASCAR have a program that provides insurance and benefits for the team members or are they taken care of by the individual teams? By the way, congratulation on the success this year (without the Talladega and Texas wrecks and the engine at California, I believe the No. 24 would be leading the standings)!
Sam, you've written in before as a fan and now I'm wondering if you're also in H.R., because this is truly a question I didn't expect! Some 15 years ago there were no benefits. Teams were very small, most everyone was paid by the hour, and if you were salaried, you worked night and day for not a lot of money. That's really changed in the last decade: these are big organizations now, and all the programs are by the team. There are no NASCAR programs or benefits, and there are no unions like there are for NFL players. So here at Hendrick Motorsports there are insurance plans and 401K plans – it's no different than going to work at IBM or Bank of America or any other industry. Just as there's no general banker insurance that covers a Bank of America employee if he leaves to go to another bank, there's no NASCAR policy that covers you across any team. NASCAR only provides insurance and workers' comp while we're at events; at the race shop, we're covered by our teams.I wonder if this is more a question for the drivers of both, but I couldn't help noticing that Kyle Busch's pole time in the Trucks at Dover would have put him 12th on the grid for the Cup race! How big are the differences between them in terms of where the vehicles pick up their time from and do they use the same lines? And how big a difference are the Nationwide cars in the same respect? Good luck.
Excellent question, Andy. Five years ago, I'd say the three categories were very similar in terms of where they drove on the track. Now, there is a huge discrepancy. The Trucks have a tremendous amount of downforce and so do the Nationwide cars, and they're very short on horsepower compared to the Cup cars. Nationwide cars have a tapered spacer to restrict power. The Cup cars have quite a bit more power, but quite a bit less downforce. So if a Nationwide car and a Cup car run roughly the same speed on a 1-mile or 1.5-mile track, the Cup car has much more straightaway speed and the Nationwide car carries much more speed through the corners. I think the new Nationwide car will continue to be slower than the Cup car in a straight line because of the spacer and, as for the corner speed, let's see and what happens once they've got everything fine-tuned in terms of aero balance. The Truck downforce is huge: I was speaking to Aric Almirola about his win at Michigan, and he said from the final restart with eight laps to go he never lifted off the gas once. Believe me, you can't dream about going wide-open around Michigan in a Cup car.I've been reading these – they're great, and thank you for your honesty. What's your policy now at this part of the season? Are you still going all out for wins, like you were in the first quarter or is it just about keeping Jeff in the Chase? Thanks.
Appreciate the fan base Lyle. We really were aggressive in the first quarter and it hasn't changed in the second quarter. While it appears that the No. 24 lost a little speed, that's more about the cycle of NASCAR: we really had our chassis figured out at the start of the season, and they're driving just as good as they did in the spring, but they look slower because other teams have caught up. That's normal. So we need to find what setup or what part of the setup it is that we need alter to gain some speed and re-establish ourselves. Running in the top five is good, but we can't continue to do that without being contenders for the win. We need to make sure we're leading laps. I truly believe that 10th-6th place finishes are not going to be enough once the Chase begins. You're going to have to have wins and bonus points.Hendrick has done a lot less winning this year. Is this because people like Penske and JGR have stepped up their game? Do the 24 and 48 teams have something in reserve for the Chase to mash everyone else like the No. 11 is doing to everyone at the moment?!
Obviously this question came in before Sonoma and Loudon, but it's still an interesting question. Ken, as a company we would always like to win more and we have to be realistic about what we expect in terms of total number of wins. Of course, we want to win every week, but I think Penske and JGR are definitely great competitors and we chase them, it seems, at almost every race lately. But a lot of this is about what direction your company is going, no different than say, what Apple does with the iPad. When Apple developed the iPad, that didn't just happen in the last month. Two or three years ago, someone had to decide that was the way for the future, that's what will sell two years from now. Well, we're the same way in racing: we decided months ago what to work on, be it wind tunnel testing, straight line testing or KMC testing. I think if you pick the right thing and it matches the tires and you get the cycle of the sport right, then you will achieve a lot of success. For example, I think we need to reinvestigate some of the areas with the spoiler, because I think we have the balance we need but maybe lack a little bit of speed. So we'll go back through our check list and verify we have everything where we need it to be.I understand that Stewart-Haas Racing utilizes Hendrick motors. Is it just engines or is there a total information exchange? And do you get data from them? Is Hendrick a six-car team? And doesn't that make your rivals pissed?
I can honestly say I don't know – I'm not privy to that. But I do know that although Stewart-Haas not only utilizes our engine program but also has a technical alliance, Hendrick certainly isn't a six-car team. We don't manage them or have any say in the financial side of Stewart-Haas Racing, and they're not in our debriefs or included in our company meetings. So it's not a complete technical exchange of data, although there are aspects that we've agreed to share to increase the strength of both teams. There are things that we feel need to be shared and things we feel need to be kept within our four walls, and I'm sure the same applies the other way around. For example, if we found something during a race weekend that boosted the performance of the 24, we'd absolutely share that with our teammates – the 48, the 5 and the 88 – but not necessarily the Stewart-Haas teams, unless they asked about it specifically. Now, a week or month down the road, if there's a technical meeting and they ask about a certain race weekend or style of car, it will be determined at that point whether or not that covers an area included in our agreement, and at that point the answer will or will not be given.
It's not just a Hendrick and Stewart-Haas agreement: I know RCR has similar type agreements with other teams and JGR does, too. It's quite common in NASCAR.I love all forms of auto racing, but I find the wall-to-wall coverage of NASCAR is a bit embarrassing. There's only so much to discuss, even with 43 cars in 36 races – especially as it's pretty rare to find any secrets being revealed. I don't see much insight: a lot of the so-called experts just state the obvious. Reading Ask Letarte each month is 10 times more useful. Anyway, I wanted to ask if you ever watch NASCAR on TV or whether you just want to get away from it all when you don't have to actually be trackside? Or whether it annoys you when the commentators get stuff wrong?
Hmmm, multiple aspects to this questions, Anna. I can tell you that before I go to any racetrack, I watch the broadcasts of the last two races; during the race weekend I watch the broadcast of practice. But I can tell you I do all of this with the volume off! I actually listen to Jeff and my radio communication from every race, but don't listen to the commentator coverage. That's there for entertainment purposes and I don't really need to be entertained because that's about opinion, not necessarily facts. For example, in my motor home, I have ABC East and ABC West, and although I loved watching the NBA Finals, of course the East is all Boston this, Boston that, and the West is all about the Lakers. On one channel the broadcasters are saying how good the refereeing is, the other side is saying the officiating is just awful, and I think, “Hang on, is it the same game that everyone's watching here?”
So in watching a race, I don't want to hear opinion. I watch the race for some factual stuff that I need to see like pit strategy, car attitude or a driver's line, and so on. I try to pull as much out of a race as I can from watching it over again.
I think it's a struggle to promote NASCAR and show any secrets: there are very few secrets in NASCAR because the rules are so tight, so most of the cars are the same. If you're disappointed by what you hear on a race broadcast, well my feelings are this: the NASCAR coverage is in so much detail now that it's almost exhausted topics to talk about, technically. The broadcaster has to promote the sport and I think they do that very well, and it makes the programs great to watch. Simple question: do you need more than one spotter on the big tracks like Indianapolis for the Brickyard 400, and also how many do you need for Sonoma and Watkins Glen? And do you need an extra one? I'll be at The Glen!
The tracks we use multiple spotters are Watkins Glen and Sonoma and that's it. At Sonoma, one spotter handles the entire track except for the exit of Turn 11 which I handle from the pit box. At Watkins Glen we use multiple spotters – one going into Turn 1 and up the Esses, one going up the back straight into the Bus Stop, and sometimes we put another one in what I call Turns 10 and 11 – everyone numbers them differently – but basically the left and right before the start-finish line. So three spotters there.
For The Brickyard, the spotters basically have to criss-cross around on top of The Pagoda. Our spotter there can do Turns 2, 3 and 4, and from pit road I do the entry to Turn 1. It can be hard to get all the details from that distance, but, of course, Jeff will be fully aware of where the spotters can and can't see, and while it would seem obvious to get someone else to clear up the blind spots, sometimes adding another person on the radio will cause confusion.
Have you noticed any particular strengths and weaknesses between the Chevy and Toyota engines this year? Does one have more top end, does one have better torque out of corners. What should we look for in the coming races? And also, why do you think Ford has sucked so bad?
Fred, that's a bad question to ask me, because I think that Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports have a great handle on our engines. When you ask who has better top end or better torque, that changes according to the cam packages from track to track and while you can't directly compare track to track, if you gave motor programs batting averages, I'd put Hendrick Motorsports at No. 1. We don't always have the most power, we don't always have the best everything, but if you took power, reliability, tune-ability and fuel mileage and averaged it out, I'd say we're at No. 1. There's no engine I'd rather have, so I can't help but be biased.
Regarding Ford being behind, I'd say it's because there's only one team running Fords, and that's the Petty-Roush camp. When you don't have a wide variety of teams, it's hard to develop a car. At Chevy, there's Hendrick, Earnhardt Ganassi, Stewart-Haas and Childress – three complete separate entities giving feedback to Chevrolet – “this is better, that is worse” sort of stuff. If you only have one team telling you information, that's a big burden to try and keep a manufacturer ahead. Because of Logano's rude remarks about Mrs. Harvick, there's been a lot of chat about fire suits recently. And someone noticed that Chad Knaus wears one and you don't. Is it because you've lost so much weight you can't find one that fits?
Simple: I carried tires for a long time in my career, and I've sat on pit road in Indianapolis in 105degF and was just so uncomfortable I could hardly think! In my opinion, there's not a safety issue where I sit, and the 24's sponsors like the appearance of the uniform shirt I wear. There's no reason I'd ever go over pit wall, so I just choose the most comfortable thing I can to keep my mind cool and ready to work. Chad wears a fire suit because he thinks that looks more professional, whereas I want myself and my two engineers to wear the same uniform. Different opinions, that's all.
I have been a Jeff Gordon fan for 16 years (I was 6). I became a fan because, like me, Jeff was from California and he drives a Chevrolet (I'm very brand-loyal). My question is, why haven't you tried more out-of-the-box things like Chad has in the past, or, better yet like Ray Evernham? If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying. It's hard for a long-time fan like myself who saw Jeff's glory years to now watch him only win one race in two-and-a-half years. He should be winning 10+ every year and it's your responsibility to give him fast racecars. Yeah, 2007 was OK, but you lost to the 48. As a fan, I see Mr. Hendrick on top of Jimmie's box because he knows he's going to win and the 24 is just a field-filler. At least that is how I feel.Steven Reinholtz
Well, I appreciate your support of the 24, and I'm as disappointed as you are that we can't seem to get to Victory Lane, but I can promise you that it's not because we're not thinking outside the box. We're out of our comfort zone and trying new things but I don't feel anyone we race against in the top 25 purposely competes outside the rulebook. NASCAR has said it very plainly that won't be tolerated and anyway, it's just not fair to our competitors or our sponsors who invest a lot in not only our performance but also our reputation and integrity. I mean, we're prepared to push every rule to the letter – if it says one inch, we'll make it one inch. But if it says that, then 0.999 of an inch is too narrow and we won't build it. We don't give anything up, but at the same time, I don't think it's fair to the reputation of the driver, owner or sponsors if outside the box becomes outside the rulebook.
In 1997 to 2004, the rulebook was less defined – there'd be areas where you worked and then NASCAR would either say that's OK or tell you not to work there. Now, they want you to come and ask first, so the mentality has really changed. I feel the envelope was pushed much more by ourselves and everyone else a lot more 15 years ago. These days, I honestly believe that NASCAR does a great job of making sure that we and everyone we're competing against is within the rules.
Hey I watch every race and every lap but one thing I've noticed is that you guys are running so good on long runs and when you make green flag pit stops, Jeff will go back on the track and will have lost three to six seconds almost every time. The two guys I see every week that make up time are the 18 and 48. I want to know if that's something that you practice and how do they almost never get busted? Is Jeff being too conservative?
Great question, Mike, and very interesting timing. We have that data every week – how fast we get to pit road, how much time we spend on it, and how fast we leave – and we're starting to see some trends. I'm afraid I'm going to have to keep a lot of this to myself because I can see a performance advantage coming up, and we are going to practice some new things. But I can promise you that we see the same thing as you and we don't just chalk it up to “Oh, well.” We practice every single area and I think that is absolutely an area we need to work on. Loudon was a perfect example, where we held our own against a lot of teams, but the 18 was still the standout. He advanced his position every green flag pit stop, and we need to work on that because we can't give up time to the 18. So watch this space! I prefer races that go green, rather than seeing everyone pit under yellow. Green flag pit stops enable me to strategize more, whether to short pit and make up time. So I loved Loudon with a nice long green-flag run; it made a nice change from the “run 50 laps and pit under caution”-type races. I was proud, actually of the sport. NASCAR's taken a lot of heat lately about creating cautions for good racing. Well we ran around 200 laps green and there was only a second difference between first- and second-place cars. I think the racing was just as good as it would have been with cautions every 50 laps.
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