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Will Blades Cut It? Rain Gets In Way Of Note Taking

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 17 2010

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle will indulge in speedway spoiler research on Sunday. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Fort Worth, Texas – A steady rain washed-out two scheduled NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practices at Texas Motor Speedway Saturday, leaving the majority of the soggy garage area occupants with incomplete notebooks for the Samsung Mobile 500.

Not so for Juan Pablo Montoya and crew chief Brian Pattie.

“I was well-prepared,” said Montoya, uncharacteristically calm for a driver working on a 99-race Cup winless streak. “I told my bus driver to go out and buy some movies. So, I’ve got a ton of movies to watch. I have “Criminal Minds”, the TV and I picked like three or four different movies. So I’ll be entertained, believe me.

“And I’m kind of happy that it rained today. We did a lot of work (Friday) on the race car, and hopefully it pays off.”

Sunday’s scheduled 334-lapper on the high-banked, 1.5-mile TMS quadoval largely is being viewed as the first true test of NASCAR’s rear spoiler package. The “blade” made its debut in place of the raised rear wing on the Car of Tomorrow at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway on March 28 and also was run on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval last Saturday. While Cup teams tested the spoiler last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway – a sister 1.5-mile facility to TMS – this will be its first extended run on a superspeedway.

Additionally, beginning at TMS all Cup cars are sporting a rear deck fin measuring 3.5 inches tall that can run the full length of the deck lid (25 inches). The fin must be a minimum of 17 inches starting at the front of the deck lid. This component is designed to regain rear sideforce, giving teams a tuning tool to adjust for it.

Rain cost Cup teams 1 hour, 45 minutes of valuable practice time Saturday, adding to the angst for those still searching to crack the code for the proper combination of speed and downforce.

Not so for JPM, a former Formula One rainmeister.

“I was hoping for rain,” said Montoya, driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet Impala fielded by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. “To be 100 percent honest with you, 80 percent of practice (Friday) was race. All we did was race. We moved the car to qualifying trim. We did one run and didn’t feel that comfortable in the car. Did a small change and went out again. And that was better. Quick, another change. You normally put the car in the (setup) plate and make sure every adjustment is exactly where you want it to be. The way we did it was rushing. And we were OK.”

Montoya qualified 21st after a lap at 188.811 mph, well off Tony Stewart’s pole-winning speed of 191.327 mph in the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet. Sam Hornish Jr. will share the two-car front row after lapping at 191.232 mph in the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge Charger.

“We think we got a decent race car,” said Montoya, 21st in Cup points after seven events and winless since scoring his lone series victory on June 24, 2007 on the Infineon Raceway road-course. “We’re behind on points from where we need to be, but we’ve got a car capable of the win. We still need to finish the races. And we need to score big.”

Still, the majority of Cup drivers and crew chiefs will be forced to take the green flag with plenty of unanswered questions.

“You’re always wanting speed and you’re always wanting balance that helps with the speed,” said Jeff Gordon, who snapped a 47-race winless streak at TMS last April. “Those are the things that we’re playing around with, which we haven’t really seen any big difference with that.”

Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, will start 12th after a lap at 189.833 mph in the No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Special Forces Chevy.

“When I talk about Sunday, when we’re in traffic, behind a car, is it taking off the front of the car or is it taking off the whole car?” said Gordon, posing questions for crew chief Steve Letarte. “Is the whole car losing grip or are we just going to lose the front of the car? Are we going to lose the back of the car? As far as the aero, downforce and the grip – how much are you going to have to search around? Is it at 20 car-lengths away, 10 car-lengths away, five car-lengths away that it’s affected the most? If I move a little to the right, to the left, how is it affecting it?

“With the wing, the wing is more efficient, it doesn’t throw off its wake like a spoiler does. We’re going to have to play around a little more with that. Sideforce – when a car gets to the outside of you – is it going to suck the car around more? It’s been a while since we’ve done some of that stuff. There didn’t seem to be an issue at Phoenix, so we get here, we’ll go faster and we’ll see if it’s an issue here. Then also with a car behind you, if a car gets right up behind you, is it going to affect your car more than the wing?”

Matt Kenseth, winner of the spring race here in 2002 and Cup champion in 2003, admitted he was hard-pressed to tell the difference between the wing and the blade following the two-day test at CMS.

“For me, we didn’t have a very good Charlotte test at all, to say the least,” said Kenseth, who will start 28th after a lap at 188.633 mph in the No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford Fusion fielded by Roush Fenway Racing. “We just didn’t test good there, I don’t know why. It’s been a struggle for us (here). We just  don’t have any speed. We made a couple of stabs at it for qualifying. Our balance was pretty good and that lap felt pretty good, but it’s just slow. I really don’t know why, and I’m kind of befuddled by it actually.”

Kenseth, working with crew chief Todd Parrott, trails championship-leader Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports by 36 points. Johnson, the four-time and reigning champion, qualified fourth at 190.880 mph in the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy, to the outside of third-place Greg Biffle (190.900 mph) in the No. 16 3M Post-it Ford.

“I think a better time to probably look at it (the blade) and comment more about what it does or didn’t do,” Kenseth said, “is probably after the race on Sunday when you get out there in big groups of cars.”

Kyle Busch – driver of the highest-qualifying Toyota – admitted his Joe Gibbs Racing team also exited CMS with a bunch of questions.

“I think our test at Charlotte proved that there’s really not a whole lot of difference,” said Busch, who will start seventh after lapping at 190.248 mph in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Camry. “To me it seems like the cars are a little more comfortable to drive. They say that the downforce level of the cars didn’t change a whole lot from the wing to the spoiler, but it feels different. Hopefully, that will benefit us in just the feeling part – the driver, the butts in the seats.

“As far as what kind of race we’re going to expect Sunday – I don’t know. Can it deter what’s going to happen the rest of the season? Not at all. The tire that Goodyear brought is so vastly different than what we’ve run here in the past that so far it’s throwing a lot of people a curveball on the Nationwide side, so we’ll see what it does on the Cup side. But, I expect the same. I think the spoiler is going to be a big change this weekend. I think also the tire is going to be a big change.”

Busch joked that since the spoiler has been introduced at Martinsville and PIR, he has spun out during both events. “At Martinsville I got wrecked, but at Phoenix I spun out in practice –but we were just so loose,” Busch said.

Meanwhile, Jeff Burton agreed this event will largely be about fact-finding.

“I think that no matter what happens here, there’s going to be a verdict on the spoiler,” said Burton, driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy fielded by Richard Childress Racing. “Again, we don’t know what’s going to happen but we almost just have to take all the facts, really listen to what the drivers say, listen to what the drivers are dealing with and make a determination from there.”

Burton, winner of the inaugural Cup race at TMS in 1997 and again in 2007, will start sixth after hot-lapping at 190.255 mph.

“I think that no matter what happens from here – if we have a great race, if we have a poor race _ there’s going to be a determination that the spoiler was really good or the spoiler was really bad,” said Burton, who is paired with crew chief Todd Berrier. “If we have a good race here, I think it’s a good sign, honestly. If we have a bad race here, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad because any race that we go to, people can just get hooked-up and beat your brains out.

“You almost have to look past the results and look at the facts, if that makes sense.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 17 2010
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