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Ingram: Some Pretty Damned Impressive Statistics

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 27 2010

Jimmie Johnson's pit crew goes to work on making the No. 48 Chevrolet go faster. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. With that understanding, it seems to me worthwhile to return to one of the more interesting statistics of the 2010 Sprint Cup season.

While it’s always advisable to cast a jaundiced eye on any numbers emerging from NASCAR’s stat bureau, sometimes they make sense. The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season established records for the most lead changes and different race leaders in the sanctioning body’s 62-year history.

Along with “Have at it boys,” another fundamental aspect of long days of racing on ovals made a comeback. Mid-race adjustments to the chassis to better adapt to the prevailing track conditions also made a big-time return. Over the course of the 2010 season, that made a crucial difference when it came to races that were compelling due to the ebb and flow among those who would drive into Victory Lane.

There were more wheelmen able to drive through the field – or just get from tenth place to first – in 2010 than ever before. It wasn’t quite like night and day compared to previous years, but the departure was almost that dramatic. For much of the new century, cars had been so aerodynamically twitchy, chassis changes either resulted in no discernable improvement or turned cars into (expletive deleted) boxes. The latter situation resulted in an inclination to take fewer big swings and to confine chassis changes to minor adjustments.

Over the course of 2010, it gradually became clear that teams and drivers had once again become far more confident about fine-tuning their cars during races. Initially, when the

Darian Grubb, crew chief for Tony Stewart, says NASCAR has given him some room to work. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

question about the role of mid-race chassis adjustments came up in the garage, the answers were usually a sort of brush back pitch. The teams, invariably came the responses laced with pride, have always known how to make mid-race adjustments. It was a matter of getting more familiar with the COT chassis.

This was by way of the usual politics in the garage of not giving credit where credit was due. In 2009, NASCAR began changing some rules in the suspension of the COT and that has changed the racing for the better. While the switch from the rear wing back to the spoiler garnered a lot of attention in 2010, the most significant change took place the previous year.

It wasn’t until I asked Darian Grubb after the Stewart-Haas Racing team’s victory in Atlanta on Labor Day weekend in the post-race media conference that I finally got a straight answer on the question of the mid-race adjustments, which had begun to have an impact on the quality of racing early in 2010. “NASCAR,” he said, “has given us more tools to work with.”

The key tool was the re-introduction of another age-old device: the rear anti-roll bar. When the COT first came on line, the rear bar was only allowed on short tracks. In 2009, NASCAR officials began allowing it on all tracks except Daytona and Talladega. Teams subsequently were able to use the rear bar to better tune chassis prior to races (increasing the over-all competitiveness of the entire field) and to better adjust chassis during the course of races (increasing the ebb and flow among leaders).

Initially, NASCAR allowed teams to “have at it” with the rear anti-roll bars. “Teams were using different sizes, different locations, different mounting points. It got pretty expansive pretty fast,” said Grubb when I followed up on the brief statement he had made in Atlanta. “It got to a point where we were spending a lot of time and money developing. Anything that they open up we spend a lot of time and money on. The seven-post rig is one of our biggest resources that we use.”

NASCAR gradually closed the window, specifying the location for the attachment of the bars and the configuration of the links. That was done to keep the playing field level among

Shane Wilson, right, and Clint Bowyer thought they had the victory at New Hampshire in September. The only kind of won. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

the “have nots” versus Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing or Joe Gibbs Racing, where budgets for research and development remain out-sized and are supplemented by alignments to other teams and/or generous cash contributions from a manufacturer.

Part of the purpose of the COT was to remove the dependence on aerodynamics in the corners. The dependency on aerodynamics has been a problem for all major series worldwide, the result being a lack of overtaking no matter what type of car was involved. In addition to standardized bodywork with less potential for downforce, NASCAR chose to curb the trend by installing the front splitter on the COT and mandatory bump stops, which keep the ride height at a minimum. The emphasis by teams switched to the pitch — or angle of attack in the corners, primarily focused on keeping the nose down and the rear of the car up.

Once the rear anti-roll bar returned, teams began experimenting with it as a third spring in the back – or as a mechanism to more closely control the attitude of the car on corner entry while letting the rear springs play the more traditional role.

Along these lines, a conversation with John Probst, the technical director of Red Bull Racing, was interesting. “In the old days,” he said, “you used to be able to ask your neighbor, ‘What rear spring are your running?’ He’d tell you 1,200 pounds or whatever. Nowadays, you have no idea what bar they’re running, a small bar or a big bar in the rear. It’s absolutely pointless to look at what the guy next to you (in the garage) is doing. Unless you can see the entire package.”

To make a long story shorter, the rear anti-roll bar gave teams and drivers a wider variety of options for how to get the cars to settle into the corners in a way that was compatible with the

Rear spoilers returned to Sprint Cup this year. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

feel the drivers wanted, which also didn’t bog down the COT in the middle of the corners. Teams could then make fine-tuned adjustments in both practice and the races.

“We didn’t necessarily say (to NASCAR) we needed a rear bar, we just said we needed something to help the cars turn,” said Pat Tryson, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing. “The rear bar gives you more room to try to find something for your driver,” he continued. “It’s another area to play with to see if you can find something better. There’s three or four different ways you can do it and run pretty similar lap times.”

Even though the same driver won the championship as in the previous four seasons, the racing was better and closer in 2010, as evidenced by the closeness of the Chase – which might have been even closer absent a poor strategy choice by Stewart-Haas Racing in the first round in New Hampshire or a penalty to one of the Richard Childress Racing entries after New Hampshire.

NASCAR’s statistics bureau, often guilty of pumping up the numbers with the often loopy loop data, tends to back up what even a blind pig might have sniffed out. The 25.4 lead changes – at the start/finish line – per Sprint Cup event in 2010 was the highest average since records first were kept in 1949. There was an average of 11.4 leaders per event, also the highest average since the series’ inaugural year. The previous highs in both statistics were 24.9 lead changes in 1981 and 11.0 leaders in 2006. In all, 55 different drivers led at least one lap this season, another record. The previous high mark was 51, in both 2005 and 2007.

Readers alert to lies and statistics may want to point out that the green-white-checkered flag does increase the chances for lead changes compared to seasons prior to this rule. Others may suggest the single-file re-start as a source of more lead changes under caution due to an emphasis on track position versus fresh rubber. But track position has always been a key strategy choice late in races, especially with single file restarts. Also, during the middle of races, teams have stayed out of the pits to lead a lap and pick up five bonus points since time immemorial. Interestingly, another key stat was fewer cautions thrown in 2010 compared to the previous two seasons.

The real keys to competitiveness lie elsewhere. There are more competitive teams these days – especially after the mergers that created Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas and two different versions of Richard Petty Motorsports. Michael Waltrip Racing, meanwhile, has emerged as a regular contender. The return of the rear spoiler created a comfort zone for more crew chiefs and drivers. Goodyear has greatly improved the tires for the COT since the debacle at Indy in 2008. Most teams have effectively refined their computer simulation programs for the COT. And, all the teams were in their third full season of running the entire schedule with the COT.

Each of these factors contributed to more ebb and flow on the race track in 2010. But the most decisive change concerned NASCAR officials’ response to the complaints about the difficulty of getting the COT to turn in mid-corner. The response turned out to be a wise one — just like the decision to build a safer car that prevented teams from relying totally on aerodynamics in the corners.

Quote of the Week: “I think the contributions NASCAR has made and the contributions the teams have made have jelled to give a much better race car. Any time you introduce a new package like we did back in 2007 everybody is going to struggle a little bit. I think we’re seeing the maturity of development start to emerge with this current package just like we did with the wing.” – Mark McCardle, director of competition at Furniture Row Racing.

See ya! …At the races.

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

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 27 2010
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Terry says:

    I understand the attempted cost restraints and the PERCEPTION of making it fair for smaller teams. Sooooo….
    If NASCAR is going to keep the 1965 USSR-KGB strangle hold on INNOVATION….then at least play up the differences in these IROC clone techno gocarts call COT. We all know they are not …
    laugh giggle smirk…stock…..but NASCAR has to keep the ILLUSION alive that there is SOME difference and thinking involved. Paint by the numbers pictures will not provide a lasting pleasurable memory…..