So there we were, my husband and I, all ready to christen you and Jeff the new “Texperts” and it all went horribly wrong from about lap 11…just when you could have taken advantage of the 48's smack-up. What happened? Was the 24 only set up to run in clean air? Was it too hard on the tires? Please explain. Appreciate it.
Katie, you bring up an excellent point: going into Texas, we had a lot of confidence, but what makes TMS so difficult to judge is the length of time between the races. We're there in the spring, in the very early part of the season and return in the very latter part. That gives teams a great amount of time to change and improve, and I think that's what you saw. At the first Texas race this year, we unloaded with a pretty big advantage on the competition and we were not successful at maintaining that through to the fall. We went from above average on speed to average on speed, from above average on car setup to average on car setup. We took there what we ran in the spring, for confidence sake, and it wasn't fast enough. As we adjusted the car we got it better but, in the race, it wasn't as good as it needed to be, communication between Jeff and I wasn't as good as it needed to be and we may have over-adjusted it early on. Then we struggled on one pit stop which lost us track position and we didn't have a car good enough to recover from that.
What was it that made it problematic? If I had the answer to that, I'd have the answer to the million-dollar question! I feel that was one of the races where Hendrick Motorsports as a whole didn't have the speed we'd had at other tracks. As a company we need to stay ahead, and this winter will be very important for us to find some more speed. That's very hard, of course, because of the restrictions on testing. We have to get our heads together and decide what direction we want to go in: Is it aerodynamics? Is it chassis? Is it shock and suspension testing on seven-post rigs? They're very important conversations to have, because if you choose wrong, you will be behind for a long, long period of time.
OK, we finished third in the championship, but what we pride ourselves on is that we'll consider that disastrous, we'll go to work as if we finished 4oth, because if you wait until you do finish 40th, it will be years or decades before you get a chance to win again. Regarding third as disastrous is what sets us apart.
If you weren't a race engineer in NASCAR, what would you want to be doing? Another branch of racing, or a completely different life? I'm not hinting: I think you're doing fine.
I think another branch of racing is probably right. If your dad's a golfer, you're a golfer; my dad's in racing so since I've been knee-high to a grasshopper, all I've ever wanted to do was be at a racetrack. Any memory I have since 5 years old is racetracks, and I don't really remember anything else! You hear about these drivers who have been groomed since birth to be a driver. Well, I wouldn't use the word “groomed” to apply to being a crew chief, but definitely I was persuaded and groomed to be in racing in some capacity.
So, if I wasn't in NASCAR, I'd definitely be in another branch of racing. The thing I learned is that I truly enjoy team building, truly enjoy that structure – the tough conversations, the hard boardroom meetings, and so on. One of my weaknesses is that I'm not a very good details guy, while that is one of Chad Knaus' strengths. But I'm a very good guy to come up with plans, goals and aspirations, and methods of achieving them. So, if I wasn't in racing, I think maybe I could be doing some consulting with different companies, regardless of what line of business they were in: I'm not afraid to lead people, motivate them and ask really tough questions.
Been a 24 fan since conception in '92…but when are you going to tell Jeff to race like days of old? Move the 48: this is for the dang championship. Break out the ''blocker'' and ''butthead'' paint schemes. The original rainbow colors had magic. Get back to this, please.
OK, for people who don't understand Cody's references to the “blocker” and “butthead” paint schemes, for a long time we named all of our cars and it seems like those cars we named had some personality to them – and they seemed to win a lot! The truth is, in today's sport, it's engineering-based. What happened in the 1990s is over, just like a lot of teams that were successful in the '80s then struggled in the '90s.
I wish it was as easy as just motivating Jeff or going back to our roots, but I think, in a strange way, that is the reason we are behind. For too long the team leaned on Jeff's talent and his ability to be a play-maker, and we need to put some weight on our shoulders and say as a team, it's our job to carry our end of the burden. Jeff is a phenomenal talent – although I think he could improve just like everyone else on the track – but the No. 1 concern is to make sure the 24 team provides Jeff the opportunity to go out and do what he can do.
I've been a 24 fan forever, and the past three years I've been listening to Track Pass, and now can't watch a race without it. I realize you guys probably have some "code talk" in things like "Watch your shift" (probably should get a new one for that) but I keep hearing the phrase "pull lefts" when you discuss pit stops and adjustments to be made. Is this code, or what do you mean?
Kevin brings up a good point, although it's not code in terms of trying to keep it from everyone else. It's just our communication within the team. “Watch your shift” is about when you only take on right-side tires, and is a command to Jeff to shift from neutral into gear, and the timing of that is very important.
The phrase “pull lefts” is very simple: when you have the opportunity to pit, when you take roughly less than eight gallons of gas, the fuelers have time to dump the fuel, return the can to pit wall, and then also remove the left-side tires for the tire changers, so they don't have to set their guns down. So it's just my job to communicate to all the team members what style of stop we're doing.
In your first article for RACER you briefly talked about Jeff's and Jimmie's driving styles; could you elaborate on that some?
The difference between steering and throttle control is hard for me to understand – what kind of setup changes would be made to accommodate that? I've heard the reference before but didn't understand then either. Been a fan of both these drivers since they started and hope to be for many years to come.
Fred, I've got to confess that driving style is one of the hardest things to discuss – fortunately for me, as that's one of the reasons I have my job! – and to be understood in the real world. But let's give it a go.
Very few people in their entire life have the opportunity to drive a vehicle on the edge of its performance, consistently. I can't do it. I get to the edge but then fall over the edge. If you consider a car's 100 percent potential, I can get it to 80-85 percent. Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson can run those cars at 97 or 98 percent. The real world can't fathom that: we have no concept of what that is, so it's very hard to understand a driving style.
The simplest way I can explain it is this: When we drive on the street, some people left-foot brake, some people right-foot brake. Some people drive with their hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, some drive with one hand at 12 o'clock. That is a comfort-level at which you or I drive up and down the street. If you can transfer your thinking about that to the top level: a driver has senses that have to get feedback from the car, and he, like us, has a certain comfort level, whether that's the steering wheel talking through his hands to his brain, or in Jimmie's case it's his body and the lateral movement he feels in the car, and responding to that with the gas pedal.
It's hard to explain, because I can't explain what my driving style is – because I'm not good enough to have one. But I understand through dealing with Jeff for so many years that he describes a car through the steering wheel, and Jimmie describes his car through the gas pedal. And that's why you need crew chiefs, and I'm thankful for that! Otherwise, if everyone drove the same and described their car in the same way, even in a company this size, we could have one leader, he'd set up all the cars the same and then they'd go race! The lack of telemetry available on a race weekend, of course, focuses the team on the driver-crew chief communication: you have to have a very honest relationship because you have very little fact, and a lot of opinion, from driver and crew chief. The only fact you have is the stopwatch.Do you think too much emphasis is placed on the crew chief when it's time for someone to carry the can? I'm thinking of Steve Addington over at JGR. Who's saying it's not Kyle Busch's fault or the Toyota engines? And does the fact that Hamlin won races during the Chase and Busch hasn't won forever put more pressure on a team to make changes?
I'll be honest, Aaron, this is how the world works when you become a crew chief. It's not a question of blame, it's a question of business. Kyle Busch is the face of the 18 car, the face of M&Ms, the face of Pedigree – he's not going anywhere. If you mentally or emotionally have a problem with that, don't become a crew chief. That sounds cold but those are the facts.
I think the outside world sees a crew chief change as blame: I see it as the need for team improvement, and the driver is not on the list. He will be eventually…but a driver change is never the first change you make because of financial implications. We want to say it's all sport, but there's business behind us and you have to have enough money to race. I don't know why they dropped Steve Addington, I'm not sure what their motivation was, but I'm sure they had it, they believed in it and I cannot question that without all the facts.
Some day I might not be the right guy here and so long as we can talk about it like adults, I'd accept it if Rick Hendrick said there needs to be a change, whether I agree or disagree. Sometimes change is for the better, sometimes it provokes new conversation – not necessarily better conversation – and sometimes it motivates guys. It's not a question of blame: it's a question of business.
A bit of a personal question this one, regarding Jeff. Is he the clean-cut, well-behaved gentleman off-track that his image has always been? Even when he first came into NASCAR back in the early 1990s, he never seemed like a brat, and always seemed better behaved than most of his rivals. I never hear of him getting involved in anything wrong. I'm not one of those who'd criticize him for this or accuse him of being boring. I think it's good when adults behave like adults. I just wonder if he's in the wrong sport!
Hard question to answer, this one, Liam. If you're asking my personal opinion, I think Jeff is a great guy. He is human like everyone else; he's gone through personal trials and tribulations like everyone else, and I can personally thank him for not only helping my professional career a tremendous amount – 95 percent of everything I have in life is because of our commitment to each other – but more than that, he has helped me deal with a whole personal side of my life regarding what it's like to be in the media, what it's like to have the stress of competition every day, what it's like to perform in the spotlight.
Is he a perfect person? No, no one is. Has he made mistakes and learned from them, and more than anything in the world, helped his friends, his team and his guys on the team, guiding them and keeping them on a correct path? Oh, yeah, I think so. Personally I hold him in very high regard.
He's also significant, I think, in NASCAR history and not just in terms of results. I think he forced NASCAR drivers to become mainstream athletes; he had success, his sponsors demanded a lot of him, and he committed himself to more than just driving a racecar. That, in turn, forced other drivers to do the same.
If you and Chad Knaus swapped teams and drivers for a year, what do you think the outcome would be over the course of a whole season…on track and off the track?!
I'll be honest, Amy: I think both the 24 and 48 teams would be less successful. Everything Chad and I do has our own individual signatures on it. I think the people I surround myself with and the way Jeff and I communicate – there's a lot of things built around me. On the 48 team, there are a lot of things built around Chad. That's natural: Chad and I hire our teams.
If you were really honest and sat down and wrote the 10 things you were best at and 10 things you were worst at, you can either manage to your strengths or manage to your weaknesses. You can either find what you're weakest at and learn that to make sure you improve, or you can focus on your strengths and hire people to overcome your weaknesses. I feel Chad and I have both done the latter and, with that said, I don't think my team would support him so well, and his wouldn't support me so well because, obviously, Chad and I have different strengths and weaknesses. So, while you see other team owners swap crew chiefs, swap engineers, swap drivers, and so on, I don't think that would ever induce more results. Do we swap team members sometimes? Yes.
Chad and I have a very interesting relationship: we can go in a room and shut the blinds and we will argue and tell each other what we really think and be brutally honest with each other. I respect him for that, I believe he respects me for that, and I think the success of the building has a lot to do with how honest we are with one another.
Drivers usually have heroes, usually from a different era. Do crew chiefs have heroes – other crew chiefs who you used to look at and say, “That's the way I want to be?” and is it all based on what they've achieved, or how they interacted with their drivers, or how they were as people?
-Reggie Jackson (no, not that one)
I have a few people I have been molded by, who I guess you could call my heroes. My father's in racing, and I learned a tremendous amount from him. Ray Evernham hired me and guided me early in my career. Robbie Loomis gave me some more direction later in my career. And I've had the opportunity to work for Jeff and Rick. Pile all those people together, and that's what has molded me into who I am today. What you see and hear is the product of them, so they're all sort of heroes to me. Rick is a hero of mine because of what he's come from and what he's accomplished. Ray is a hero for breaking the mold and what he's accomplished in the sport. And my dad has always been my hero because he raced when racing wasn't cool and provided for the family and worked really hard and made sacrifices. Without him and what he taught me, I couldn't come up here and do what I do each day.
With reference to Talladega and the fact that the 24 looked as likely a winner as anyone right up to the last few laps, can you tell us how accurate the fuel gauges are in the car, and how close to accurate your fuel calculations are up in the pit box?
Also, are NASCAR cars like open-wheel cars in terms of the guy behind being able to save more gas than the guy who's breaking the air at the front of a line? How much does that save and does it depend on the circuit?
OK Ashley, first half of the question: there are no fuel gauges in the racecar. The Talladega problem was purely a communication gap between driver and crew chief. When that car ran out of gas after the red flag, there was a gallon and a half of gas left in there and I didn't do my job in telling Jeff to run on the flat part of track, and he didn't take it on himself to do so, and so on the banking, the fuel fell away from the pick-up point in the fuel cell. So we ran out of fuel in the carburetor, but there was a gallon back in the trunk. Would we have finished the race? I don't know.
The second part of that question, regarding the accuracy of our calculations in the pits – I can tell you the engineers that day were much more accurate than the crew chief, because they had it figured exactly when we'd run out of gas, that's when we did run out of gas, and I didn't do my job and that's why we ran out of gas under that yellow.
Regarding saving gas, at Talladega the cars at the back actually don't save much gas, because the drivers back there are on and off the throttle – if they were flat-out the whole time, they'd just run over the guy in front. So you sometimes burn a little more fuel at the back of the pack, because you're squirting more gas into the carb every time you get back on the throttle. At a big, open track like Indianapolis or Pocono, yes, the cars in the back can get a little bit of a tow and there is an opportunity to save a little bit of fuel. However, having said that, it's nowhere near as big a saving as in open-wheel because in IndyCars, once they're in a tow, they can reduce the richness of their fuel, reduce the horsepower output. Of course, we don't have that facility, so it's up to the driver to manage – and it's very, very hard.
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