Given how different Nationwide cars are from Cup cars, is the Nationwide Series still a good driver training ground for Cup?
Jill, this is an excellent question because it's a real fundamental. If you want drivers without a lot of racing experience to learn how to race – learn how to make it through a race, learn how to be patient, when to push and when to not, get experience racing on and off pit road, and so on – then of course it's a wonderful training ground. If you're looking for someone to learn how to drive a particular racecar, then it isn't useful because I'm afraid the NNS cars just don't drive anything like our CoT cars.
I think the reason you see Cup guys doing Nationwide is a financial one. They drive it to not necessarily benefit themselves but to keep a team alive. I don't know the details myself, but I'd bet that Dale drives for JR. Motorsports because that brings funding in that allows Brad Keselowski to run the whole season. Those are business decisions; I don't believe Dale is racing in that series to improve his driving ability. Racing Nationwide helps you learn a racetrack – so a Joey Logano, for instance, can learn, “Wow, the entry to this pit lane is very slick,” or, “This track rubbers up,” or, “The groove gets wider or narrower as the race goes on” and so on. But he has to apply that knowledge very differently when he races a Cup car.
I haven't seen any rules per se, but from what I've heard, they're going to make the new Nationwide car different enough that we can't just transfer our setups – and that's probably a wise idea – but I think it should probably drive handle a little more like our current Sprint Cup cars.
Every week I hear you telling Jeff that it is about time to “take a packet.” What are you referring to?
Simple explanation for this, Jay: Our races are very long, and Jeff has embraced the fact that he's not 25 years old any more. He works out very hard, takes his health very seriously and so he has a nutrient pack in the car as a snack. To make sure at the end of a race he's as sharp as he needs to be, he takes a nutrient pack every hour to re-energize.
I have noticed Jeff uses a steering wheel that isn't perfectly circular. It looks shorter on the top half. Do all the Hendrick drivers use the same steering wheel, or is that something Jeff uses exclusively, and are the grips on the side molded to his exact hand shape?
Well spotted, Chris. The Hendrick drivers all use different wheels, and we also run different wheels according to the track. We run a different wheel at a short track than we do on an intermediate track – sometimes it's the size that's different. We don't have a rack and pinion, so our steering ratio choices are 10:1, 12:1, 14:1 or 16:1. So instead of investing all the money into different ratios, we just give them bigger or smaller steering wheels. It also means a much quicker change in practice. If the driver says, “I could use quicker steering,” then I can say, “Here, try a different wheel!” That's way better than a 45-minute change on a steering box.
And drivers' steering wheels are like gas pedals. I will give Jeff my opinion on what works, but they're like football players and gloves: Every receiver wears different sorts of gloves because it's just what he's comfortable with. We're not going to tell drivers what to use; they're adults, the best drivers in the world, so we give them every tool we can to help them win, and if that means a different steering wheel, that's what they get.
What are the rules regarding final drive and gear ratios, and how much of a variance are you allowed to have? Could you, for example, have really short second and third and then a long fourth so that Jeff was very quick on restarts but still able to reach the same speed as all your rivals and save fuel?
Good question, Jeff, the concept is very good. Years ago we worked on gearboxes quite a bit, but now it's very simple. Every race we go to there are two options for the rear gear, set by NASCAR. At Martinsville, for example, you can run either a 6:50 or a 6:33 rear gear. The requirement is that your fourth gear must be a 1.0 ratio. So they have locked in what your high gear is going to be. That and your pit-road speed are your two windows: you know you've got to have a ratio in there to make it comfortable to go 40mph down pit road, and you know you have to have a ratio in there to race with a 1.0 rear gear. Then you connect the dots. We do play with second and third gear taking into account tire circumference and tire grip, night or day race, which tracks demand the most acceleration. But we cannot vary them enough to put in a fuel-save gear.
The car guy in me is of course frustrated that it is one more thing that we can't work on, because I like to turn over every stone, every branch, every tree to make the car go faster. That's my job, and I love it and that's why I took this role. But NASCAR did it because our motor packages were getting extremely expensive. If one person has an engine that can run 10,500, it's going to be faster off a corner than one that only revs to 9,500, and so we'd change cams, and valve-springs, and so on. Well, NASCAR naturally doesn't want that: they have to control costs and allow multiple competitors. So I'm frustrated that I don't have that choice of adjustment, but at the same time, I really agree with the rule to save teams a lot of money.
How long can a set of brake pads last? Do you go through multiple sets each weekend at a place like Bristol?
Generally, brake pads last a single race weekend. We might qualify a set of brake pads we've raced before, but realistically at a place like Charlotte you'll show up and run the same brake pads the entire weekend. Going to Martinsville, we will do race practice using one compound and then we'll run a new set for the race, because a short track with heavy cars like these will take a whole set of pads and still leave you concerned that you might not make it. There's a lack of downforce on our cars compared to a Formula 1 or Indy car, so whereas an open-wheeler can use a lot of rear brake to stop a car, we can't do that because that would make our cars way too loose at corner entry. We'd lock the rears too easily.
Well, thank you for these questions; again, you've covered a good range of topics, and I want you to send me more. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll get back to you next month.