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Ingram: Johnson To Continue Playing Spoiler?

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 29 2010

Will the placing of spoilers on Cup cars slow down or speed up Jimmie Johnson and his team? (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

The speculation runs in both directions: The new rear spoiler may help Jimmie Johnson or it may hurt the dominance of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy. I doubt it will make much difference one way or the other.

Back in the old days – when the rear wing was still on the back of the COT  – a walk down any of the pit roads on race morning pretty much told the story. All the teams had cranked the wings to the maximum downforce setting, because there was relatively little drag penalty and they needed as much downforce for the aerodynamically-challenged COT.

It’s likely the spoiler settings for most teams will be about the same and the battle for balance will continue at the front end of the cars.

Jeff Gordon, one of Johnson’s teammates at Hendrick, summed things up during the test in Charlotte last week for the new rear spoilers. “Other than being around other cars, I really didn’t feel a big change (with the spoiler),” said Gordon. “Most of what we’ve been learning with this car is in the front end with the splitter and the bump stops and shocks.”

If that’s the case, is the front end where the Hendrick team has learned more than others with the COT? It’s certainly an area of great interest for teams. But the technical personnel on the teams are not interested in talking about what they’re doing. While I was working on a story for RaceCar Engieneering magazine, one team member suggested to me, “Whatever you do, don’t ask about bump stops and shocks.”

When people try to re-direct the conversation, or when all the answers in the garage seem to run in circles, that’s usually a sign something significant is going on.

John Darby, the technical chief for NASCAR, said there’s been a groundswell of interest in front suspensions ever since the COT first arrived.

“For ten years everybody based their program on aerodynamics and mechanical grip was ignored,” he said. “There was more value in the aero platform and that’s where all the focus was. The window of moving the body around and changing the aero has been closed. It put teams into some really old notebooks.

“We’re seeing a lot of different front end geometries, spring combinations, shock combinations, sway bars,” continued Darby. “When we started with bump stops, they were not the most elaborate things in the world. Now we’re finding all kinds of material being used for the bump stops, everything from hard machineable plastic to a super ball cut in half.”

At the beginning of this year, team owner Jack Roush shed more light on this subject when he offered an apology of sorts for the performance of his team in 2009. “We spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to find the thing that NASCAR had missed, the thing that other teams were overlooking, for that next breakthrough and, guess what? It didn’t come,” said Roush. His conclusion: “We got best-balled on the tweaks and the sanding.”

In addition to getting the weight lower in the COT and experimenting with rear anti-roll bars, a lot of the tweaking and sanding has been done on the front ends of the COT’s. Apparently Hendrick Motorsports has done a better job than most of its rivals.

It’s not a simple equation of throwing in more mechanical grip. The problem is getting the front wheels to respond to downforce and sideforce through the turns without introducing the excessive drag that comes with more mechanical grip. The real key still concerns aerodynamics: getting the front splitter as close to the track as possible without damaging it.

But what does that have to do with Jimmie Johnson?

As the front suspension on the COT has become relatively more compliant in the three years since they were introduced, the cars have become a little better when it comes to adjustments compared to the old aero-dependent chassis that virtually rode on coil-bound springs. There’s a bit more room to fiddle. One reason why Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus are so successful is because they play the track position game and the mid-race adjustments better than any combination on the pit road — including their teammates at Hendrick Motorsports.

Knaus and Johnson do not always come up with the magic mid-race adjustments. But their cars usually get better as the race goes along. The driver, crew chief and pit crew all have a strong sense of confidence as a result. If they can stay close until the end of races, they feel they’ll find a way to win it.

It’s one thing to put on four tires when several other front runners put on two as happened at Bristol, where Johnson won for the first time in his career at the Tennessee track. It’s another thing to put on four tires that enable your driver to chase down all the guys who took on two in the closing laps — and beat the other drivers who also took on four tires such as Kurt Busch, whether they’re held up on a re-start or not.

If there was a magic bullet, confidence would be it. (Demoralization of the competition is the flip side of this potent weapon. Rivals now expect Johnson to fly down from the rafters to win races.)

As for the outcome at Martinsville, where Johnson has won five of the last seven races, the short tracks are more about mechanical grip than aerodynamics. Maybe that’s one reason why Hendrick Motorsports had won eight of 11 races at the little bullring in Virginia, including three by Gordon, before Monday’s postponed race.

Quote of the week: Jimmie Johnson. When asked during testing in Charlotte about the switch to a spoiler and its effect on his current dominance in the Sprint Cup, Johnson saw an upside:

“I think we’re viewing it as an opportunity. We might not be the first team to find the magic the spoiler wants, but we’re usually pretty good at finding stuff in a hurry. And then the fact that it’s a new element to the car brings a few months’ worth of opportunity, I think. We saw that with the wing coming along, and truthfully the competition that was really, really equal before the wing has now gone away.

“I mean, the start of any rule change you have your largest separation, and then as time goes on, the teams that are behind catch up. It’s just part of the NASCAR garage, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that our cars are so well-regulated through NASCAR, and then too, we’re all parked next to one another. So your engineer just has to look next door at your neighbor’s race car and say, ‘Okay, I see what we’re missing.’

“In the short term, I think there will be some opportunities, and I think our team should be able to find some things to take advantage of.”

Passing Fest: One of the main reasons NASCAR decided to change to a spoiler was the negative fan response to the now departed rear wing, which never really seemed to belong on a stock car. An effort to create more passing is another reason to switch to the blade in the back; it may change overtaking dynamics for drivers. Or, it may not.

There was some reason for hope on Sunday that sanctioning bodies can indeed change the equation when it comes to aerodynamics and passing.

While it seemed to have been raining at every race track in the world on Sunday, including Melbourne, Australia, that didn’t slow down round two of the Formula One season. Weather conditions were a contributing factor to the tire strategies that developed in Melbourne, but after the opening round in bone dry “Bore-rhain” the particular origins of spiced up action didn’t seem to matter. For the first time under F1’s new ban on re-fueling, which puts the emphasis on tire strategies, drivers passed and re-passed one another on the Albert Park course.

Ultimately, McLaren’s smooth driving Jenson Button won the race after Sebastien Vettel’s Red Bull entry crashed due to a slight problem that occurred on his pit stop, which eventually damaged his left front wheel.

The jury is still out whether the FIA and its F1 teams have figured out a way to re-introduce more passing in something other than wet and cool weather. Next weekend’s round in Malaysia may also prove to be a wet one.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 29 2010
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