Teams speak about how much time they spend on the Daytona 500 car(s). Exactly how is the extra time put into preparing this car different from preparing the cars for the rest of the season, including the other three restrictor plate races?
Sam, I've got to say that's almost become a myth. We used to spend a tremendous amount of time on Daytona 500 cars back when we only had a few templates and a lot of areas to work in. Now, a Daytona 500 car doesn't really get a lot more time in preparation, but what does get more time is Daytona itself because of how long we're there. You have to have a 500 car, a Bud Shootout car and a 150 Duel car – so much track time with practices, too – that you have to have a really competitive third car. That's three speedway cars that you prepare for one trip down to Florida!
So, it's no longer about how much time you spend on one specific car: it's the depth you have on your bench. You have to have a lot of good equipment. I think you saw it this year: the 24 car got wrecked in the 150, so we rolled out our Bud Shootout car which had been wrecked in that Shootout and which had been sent home to get repaired. And then we had a great car in the 500. Jimmie wrecked his 48 in the last practice leading up to the 150 and then won the 150 in his backup car. That's what I'm talking about: you need more than one bullet in your gun if you're going down to Daytona for Speedweeks. You can tear up a lot of stuff, really fast.
OK, I know you're gonna be beating yourself up about the Vegas race. But what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, buddy! At least you were the quickest car there. I think what's been real impressive – and a big change from last year – is that the 24 is the only Hendrick car that's been strong in all the races. What changed in the off-season? Is it a new setup? Is it Jeff changing his style? He's looked/driven like a new man.
First of all, thanks for the support John. I have been beating myself up. I feel I personally let the 24 team down in Las Vegas. I stood up and made the decision, I stand by that decision – I'm not a Monday morning quarterback – but it's crystal clear that it was the wrong decision for the time as far as the results go. With all the facts that I had laid in front of me at the time, I feel it was a reasonable pit strategy that didn't work out.
As far as what changed since last year, it's what I've tried to give the team: direction and desire. That's what I feel the team lacked, and that's what we've worked on. There's no magical shock, there's no magical spring, no magical setup. What we have is a group of people who go to a racetrack every week to win – every practice, every qualifying, every race – and that includes Jeff and myself. We're in the group, we meet with them constantly and we now have direction and desire. We want to win the championship and our desire is there every week, and you've seen that in all the races so far, and the important thing is to maintain that through the long, long season.
Seriously: Vegas – what were you and/or Jeff thinking?!
Well Bryce, that's to the point – and also a very relevant question. To have a car that leads 219 of the 267 laps and doesn't bring home the victory, it's legitimate to ask for an explanation as to why we finished third. The thinking was this:
Earlier in the race, we had 10 laps on our tires, we did a gas-only stop and the lap times were actually faster in the next stint for about 23-25 laps and then they fell off. I felt that being faster for 23 laps with only 45 to go was going to be enough, so we chose to pit and take right-side tires only. The call wasn't a bad one – the second-placed car of Harvick finished with only fresh right-side tires, the fourth-placed car did the same. So the only car with four new tires around us was Jimmie Johnson. The mistake I made was that there were so many lapped cars between Jimmie and the third-placed car entering pit road that we had a little bit of a head start. If I'd realized that, it would probably have swayed my decision toward changing all four tires.
But as far as lap times, time left in the race, tire fall-off and pace in clean air, I felt that we'd made the right decision. I'll take clean air, and I'll take it again and it might not work out again, but that's my game plan for the season. At tracks where you sometimes change just right-side tires, like Michigan, Charlotte, Fontana and Indy, we'll do whatever we can to put the 24 in the front two rows and if it doesn't work out, I'll take it on the chin and we'll go and do it again the next race.
But, I appreciate the question: people have a right to be upset – I'm upset with the result of that race. But I stand behind the methodology of my call, because it was based on the facts I had.
Jeff was so dominant in Vegas but I was wondering. How would the car have worked in traffic? Is it an all-or-nothing situation where you send a car out with a setup that's awesome for running alone and you just cross your fingers that he doesn't have a bad stop that leaves him 10th? Or was the 24 so strong he could have worked through the pack whatever?
Well that's the million-dollar question, isn't it Marti? That is the reason that the 24 took on right-side tires only. We didn't have to pass many cars that day and you don't want to find out with 20 to go that you can't! No one had passed us for the lead all day long, we thought it was necessary to be the first car on pit road. The answer is, I don't have an answer. OK, I feel that we would have been good in traffic but I truly believe that if you come out of the pits seventh or eighth, I don't know if we'd have been strong enough to pass six or seven cars. We led all day long, but there were moments in the race when we didn't have the fastest car, so…who knows?
All this talk about the spoilers replacing the rear wings and that's going to make racing better. Hope so. But how much of a difference does it make to you as crew chief? Does it mean a ton of other adjustments? Would cars burn through tires quicker (like they don't enough already;-)) if adjustments weren't made in other areas? What are the big areas affected? Good luck.
Man, we had some real good questions this month! I like answering ones that help fans understand the details better, so thanks, Les. I think the spoiler's going to change the downforce, not only balance-wise but also total, and the effect will alter both in and out of traffic. I know what it does in the wind tunnel, and I can have an educated guess as to what it's going to do on the racetrack, and I'm excited to get to the Charlotte track and prove – or disprove! – our theory. I think Goodyear is going to have to go back to work a little bit, I think our corner speeds are definitely going to be up so it's definitely going to be different. But they're doing it for the right reasons, I welcome change and I have a lot of faith because Hendrick Motorsports has a lot of very, very smart engineers and they already have a very good plan regarding what we're going to have underneath our racecars to make them balanced.
I know I'm biased, but my reasoning is this: if NASCAR didn't change the rules, Hendrick has the smartest people and some of the best drivers and the best owner to give his support to work to the limits of what we have. And, if they do change the rules, as in this case, we have that same group of people and they can adapt quicker. If people – and this doesn't include the NASCAR rule makers – think that new regs will level the playing field, or help one team catch another, they're mistaken. It won't alter the usual cycle of one team being stronger than another at certain parts of a season, certain tracks, and so on. Hendrick has crew chiefs who work great together, drivers who work great together, and an owner who stands shoulder to shoulder with us and telling us that we can have whatever we can to make us better and we have a little bit of momentum which will show through, whatever the rules are.
I wanted to start off by saying “Way to Go, Steve!” You and your team made such an awesome racecar for Jeff at LVMS. I haven't seen the 24 be that dominant in a long time. I have been a fan of Jeff's since 1994 and it was so great to see him back up front where he belongs.
I just wanted to let you know that I am a Jeff Gordon fan but I'm also a Steve Letarte fan. I believe in you Steve and pray God gives you wisdom and reassurance. I know you are under a lot of pressure and you see the way people crucify you sometimes in the media but please remember you are an awesome crew chief and someone out here is lifting you up in prayer every week.
I appreciate your kind words and sentiments, Ronnie, and as you've seen from my previous answers, we'll be trying 101 percent to keep that 24 where you want it!
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