What would you say are some fundamental differences between you and Ray Evernham? You were a member of his championship team during the late 1990s. After seeing the success he enjoyed on top of the pit box during that time period, do you try and model the way you lead the team on the way he did it, or do you utilize your own unique approach?
Good question to start with, because, yes, I'm very different from Ray. I hope I'm doing some of the fundamentals similar to Ray, given how successful he was, but you have to manage according to your personality. If you try to manage like someone else, you're never going to be as good as they were, because they were managing to their own personality and you're trying to copy them without having that same personality. I believe you should learn from everyone and then incorporate that into your own management style.
He was much more of a car guy than I am, and I'm much more of a people person than he was. But he led by example: he was the first one in the shop, and the last one to leave and had a lot of devoted people to work with him – and I hope I have the same.
But when Ray was calling the races, there were between five and eight strong teams to race against; now there are probably anywhere between 15 and 20! There are more cars on the lead lap these days. So, I think racing has changed a lot since he did it, but I can assure you I took a lot of mental notes while I worked for him, and I've tried to be as much like him as I can be.
The great thing is, we're good friends and he's still a sounding board that I use. I talk to him on the phone, or he'll come up to me in the lounge and ask how it's going. He's a very big supporter of the team and me personally – a very good mentor for me to have.
Is there any track that NASCAR doesn't go to anymore that you wish it did? Or a track that you've seen used by IndyCar that NASCAR's never been to but you'd like to try out? (I'm from Iowa so I'm dreaming!)
Alison, if I were king of the world – or at least of NASCAR's world – I'd race everywhere once per year. We'd have 36 different tracks. I love most of the tracks we go to now, and we definitely don't need more races than we have already, but I would be a big fan of the idea of going to every racetrack one time. So we could go to – using your example – Iowa Speedway and maybe some of the beautiful road courses in this country, including Laguna Seca, maybe a cool street circuit – Long Beach, perhaps! However, I realize that it costs so much to maintain one of these venues that they probably need two races to keep up their maintenance. If we went international, I can think of even more venues I'd like to go to – Motegi, for example, was great for that exhibition race we did. Nice and flat and challenging.
Jeff looks like he's gotten more aggressive in his driving this year, and I was sorry to see him miss out on the final restart at Martinsville. Is being a harder guy on-track something you've decided to do?
I agree. I think Jeff is more aggressive with his style on the racetrack as much as we're getting more aggressive with our pit calls and race setups. I feel that, overall, we have a very good race team, but if we want to contend for the championship, we need to convert into the “great” category. Right now, we're not quite there, and that transition comes with race wins. When you only have a 10-race schedule, it means you can be much riskier in the first 26 races and try to get the bonus points – and I think we were a little slow in coming to the table with that theory. So, in order to deliver more results on Sundays, now you'll see a more aggressive No. 24 team overall, and yes, that extends to Jeff's driving.
I've always thought to improve the racing it would be good to totally change the points system, and only reward the top 15, and have big gaps in between. So, you'd get 200 for a win, but maybe only 100 for second. And do the same with prize money. Too many drivers seem to just go for consistency and don't look hungry enough. Your thoughts please (although I realize consistency has helped the No. 24 over the past couple of years!).
Thank you Andrew: another question involving me creating my ideal scenario! I think that the points system could definitely be revamped. I would love to see them stop giving points (or give the same number of points from 26th place backward). That would improve the racing by not having a car that gets wrecked early riding around trying to finish more laps than another wrecked car. It would save the teams money because we wouldn't have to bring people and parts for repairing crashed cars midrace. So having a rules system where, if you were four or five laps down, there'd be no point in continuing would be a big help. Right now, from 35th to 40th is worth 15 or 18 points, and those are valuable – so patched-up cars come back out.
I definitely agree that you could have bonuses for wins, although you'd have to be careful that the bonus isn't so big that the championship is decided before the last race. One interesting thing they might consider is a knockout system like drag-racing where maybe you start with 12 drivers in the first race of the Chase, but maybe knock one out every couple of races, so you only have two or three guys in it by the time you get to Homestead. You normally only have three or four in it by then, anyway.
However, if we did that, I think you should diversify the tracks that are in the Chase. You need a Bristol or Martinsville in there and maybe a road course. There are a few too many similar mile-and-a-half tracks in there currently. They did a good job of putting Loudon and Phoenix in there but maybe switch out one of the mile tracks and put in a half-miler.
Overall, I think the Chase was a great idea though. Our seasons were starting to get a little monotonous, especially for the fans. So maybe a points system change could arouse further interest.Do you think you and Jeff would benefit from doing the occasional Nationwide race? Would you be interested?
To be honest, right now, I feel the Nationwide races are a huge distraction to the Sprint Cup drivers and I feel it's unnecessary for a guy like Jeff, with so many years under his belt, to get more track time. There are rare occurrences when it might benefit – if we'd had a major change in tire compound or if we went to a new venue, then it would be good to get extra track time. But until the Nationwide cars get a little more similar to Cup cars, I don't see how it would benefit Jeff.
As far as I'm concerned, I'd love to! Given the choice, I'd work in the Trucks, Nationwide and Sprint Cup if I could – any weekend. Racing is what I love. We took Jimmie to Watkins Glen for the Nationwide race a few years ago and Chad Knaus ran him in practice, and he asked if I wanted to come up on the pit box and we had a blast calling that race: There weren't points involved, it was very relaxed and Jimmie had a good time, too. I love Nationwide racing, but it would be a distraction if it wasn't done correctly. It would be rare that it would benefit our Cup program.
What's happened to Mark Martin this year? The No. 24 has moved forward and No. 5 has gone backward, in my opinion.
David Vernon (longtime Mark Martin fan)
It's an interesting observation, David, and I'd say we should be careful setting opinions too early – we're only at race six of 36. A few years ago, people counted the No. 48 out at this stage, and the last time I checked, they'd won the last four championships… So I think what you're seeing from the No. 24 and No. 5 teams are two groups that are very, very aggressively trying to beat our teammate. We're doing that with new setups and new concepts, and the No. 24 has had some success with speed, but very little in terms of finishes, and the No. 5 is in the same boat. They know they need to make the Chase, and they don't want to get behind like they did last year, but at the same time, the No. 24 and No. 5 want to make sure we have enough speed come September to compete with the No. 48.
The current era No. 48 team has changed the sport's direction and intensity, just as the No. 3 did in the mid to late '80s and the No. 24 did in the mid to late '90s. The No. 48 is setting the precedent and has raised the bar on how much they expect the drivers to stay physically fit, how involved the driver should be with the race team, and Chad is setting a precedent with how prepared you need to be each race weekend. It's easy to say, “Oh, you just need to do more,” but no one knows how far you can jump until someone goes to the Olympics and sets a record. That sets the bar. And that's what the No. 48 team has done in the Sprint Cup garage.
Are you allowed to change wheelbases on your cars from track to track? Surely a shorter wheelbase would be better for tracks like Martinsville and Bristol for getting the car to turn in and it would make the tracks quicker. And if you're not allowed, how do you compensate?
Richard Roush (no relation – I'm not trying to get secrets for Jack's team!)
Richard, there are some variances allowed in the wheelbases, but you must maintain 110 inches on one side of the car. You can be a half-inch longer on the other side but there's not a lot of variance. A few of the short tracks we might adjust it a little bit, but overall you must maintain 110in. To get sharper corner entry for the tighter turns…well, different people have different theories on how to do that. As a short-track racer, my dad taught me to lead with the left front and I'd say that's what you'd tend to do rather than adjust wheelbase. The car's setup would be more like a parallelogram: I've seen that be successful before. A lot of it is also down to driver preference in whether you make the left or the right more loaded. There are multiple ways to get around it.
If you could have worked in an era when cars were more stock – not templated – and NASCAR engineers could be more innovative, do you think your way of working would have gotten good results? And do you think Jeff would have done as well in, say, the '60s as he has over the past 15 years?
Randy, I don't know how successful I would be going back into the 1960s, because I'm only 30 years old and so I don't think I've ever worked on a truly stock car. Everything I've worked on has been pure racecar. I should also add that I feel that you learn so much every year, that if I went back five years, I'd be real successful with what I know now!
I don't know if the cars being more stock would make me successful so much as having more freedom to be innovative. I am not a great guy at working out, "We need 30 thousandths of shock packer or a half-click of rebound." I am more a “Let's mount this upper control-arm a different way,” or “Let's construct the rear end-housing a different way” kinda guy. And that's really been taken out of NASCAR – there are many more blueprinted parts and more rules, and that's definitely hurt me as a crew chief. I'd definitely shine more if you could have radically new ideas and concepts, so I've had to adjust over the last few years with the tighter box that we now work within.
As for Jeff, well, he has a phenomenal feel for a racecar, so any situation where you have more tools to give him what he wants will make him more successful. He's very, very particular on how he feels a racecar, and very good at leading a team down that road, so any time in the past where there were more tools for his crew chief to tune his car, he'd have been very successful.Steve, I don't know if you're allowed to say what you think, but do you agree with me and a lot of NASCAR fans that the current car is uglier than hell? If you ignore the paint jobs, what was your favorite car you've worked on?
Good luck in Talladega. I'll see you there!
I'll be honest, Will: When they first came out with using the wing, I thought the car was ugly. And then, as we've raced it, it's grown on me. I think the spoiler and the longer quarter panels definitely give the cars a better look. I think we have to work on our paint jobs. DuPont does a great job with the No. 24 car and the bright colors make it stand out well, but I think some of the other teams' liveries could do with a makeover. As we've changed the height and shape of the car, the old car's paint job won't complement the current car so well.
In answer to your second question, my favorite car was toward the end of the old-style car, the Chevy Monte Carlo, when it looked like a Late Model! You could really twist the bodies, make the noses flat, and they just had a great look to them on the track. The best-looking example was the one we won with in the fall of 2007 at Charlotte (shown below -Ed.). It was one of the most tricked-out cars we'd built and it was just beautiful, in my eyes.
How long in the life cycle of a NASCAR car does it take to reach its peak? Will these cars be any quicker in 2013 or '14 than they are now? I only ask because Indy cars have run the same car for about 6 years, but they still seem to make a tiny little gain each year. Does NASCAR ever lift restrictions between seasons so engineers can find new parts of the car to develop?
I don't think you ever reach a car's peak. Even in one year, we can go back to the same track in the fall with the same driver, car and tires and we'll find a tremendous speed increase. Engines get more horsepower, bodies get more downforce, engineers do a better job with setups, and so on. You don't necessarily need new parts to get car development: you can just apply the parts in a different way.
Every year NASCAR looks into an area of the car that we should improve upon. The reason we have the current car is because safety was the No. 1 priority; we had to get the greenhouse bigger, we had to give the driver more headroom and now the drivers are better protected. Now NASCAR is onto the performance of the car, starting with the aerodynamics; that's why we have the spoiler coming in and they're looking at new front fascias in 2011. From there, I think they'll move onto the mechanical side, maybe with some different suspension components and, as everyone is aware, fuel injection. I think NASCAR is smart to do it area by area and not bite off more than they can deal with. We want to make sure the owners can afford to go racing, and we want to make sure that we don't have 50 percent of the field failing. That wouldn't put on a great show.
The way it works is that NASCAR's favorite test lab is the racetrack, and they will lift small restrictions in the area they want to develop. They'll let us work on that for six or seven races, before reconvening and closing the box back down and building the regs around what we've found. For example, when we first got the new cars, the rules on the splitter, the duct work and some of the aerodynamics were very open. After eight or 10 weeks, they saw all the teams' solutions, they liked the path that the majority had chosen, they made rules off of what we'd done, and put everyone into that box.
It can be frustrating, though – we have a very talented group of engineers at Hendrick Motorsports, so you mentally have to accept that when you find an advantage, don't put it on the shelf. You better put it in the car and run it this week, because it might be gone next week! Similarly, NASCAR has an open forum with inspections: The winning team has to dismantle its bump stops and shocks, etc., in front of other teams. So we spend a lot of time ensuring certain components don't look exactly how they should. If it works one way, we really try to make it look like it works another way so that rival teams will see it and not know what we're doing!
As you'd imagine, for the last four years, everyone's been gathered around watching the No. 48 get dismantled. Here on the 24 team, we already know exactly what the 48 ran, so if even we are still trying to play catch-up, it makes you (almost) feel sorry for the teams who are left trying to figure out car 48's inner secrets!
Thanks for all your questions and keep them coming! Just e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.