Since we only go there once a year and have limited testing anywhere, you go there with your notebook in place from last year, even though you know it’s going to be a different racetrack. That surface sits there in incredible heat for a good part of the year, so it will behave differently from year to year. Because of that heat, the track continues to lose grip, so you’ll hear a lot of drivers complain about that.
Moreso than contenders like Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, the track will be the biggest obstacle when NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup moves to Talladega on Sunday.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Richmond is a good measuring stick as to who will run well at Loudon — they are both fairly flat tracks. Loudon, even though it is not a short track at 1.058 miles in length, is treated as one. There are a lot of things that teams learned at Richmond they will use in the first race of the Chase. The biggest challenge at Loudon, with those corners being pretty darn flat (they are actually flatter than the corners at Richmond), is getting that car to turn in the middle of the corner. You need to get that corner turned and get the car to hook up off the exit and not have the rear wheels bust loose from being loose under acceleration. You need to not slide the front tires as you pick up the throttle. If you can pull that off at both ends of the racetrack, you will wear your rivals out. We don’t get many cautions at NHMS, so teams won’t get many opportunities to fix their cars over the course of the race.
Dover International Speedway
We almost defeat the laws of physics at Dover. It’s a 1-mile racetrack with a lot of banking (it has more banking on the straightaways than Loudon does in the corners), and the speeds you carry around that racetrack are unbelievable. It is really easy to get caught up in somebody else’s mess. The corners are wide enough to run two or three wide easily. But, especially on the exit of the corners, it is treacherous running side by side. It is like running into a funnel. Oh yeah, you are also driving down a hill going into the corners and then up out of the corners. As you drive out of the corner, the car wants to lunge up against the wall. It never fails, we see a car get in trouble in the exit of the corner. Pit road is one of those places where we always see issues. It’s a fairly narrow pit road, and we will see guys get into each other — especially under caution when it gets really busy down there.
There’s really nothing that jumps out as more difficult than anything else at Kansas — it’s your typical 1.5-mile racetrack. If you look back in July, the drivers that ran well at Chicagoland will be the ones you watch out for at Kansas. You carry a lot of speed down into the corners at Kansas, and the biggest thing that challenges the crew chiefs and the engineers there is that even though that track is only 10 years old, it has become very bumpy. You really have to work hard to get your cars through the bumps. For a 1.5-mile racetrack that doesn’t have a tremendous amount of banking, you carry a tremendous amount of speed going into the corners, especially down into Turn 1.
Auto Club Speedway
They’ve shortened it to 400 miles, and I truly believe that will make this a better event. You think about fuel mileage at every racetrack, but this is a place where you have to start working with it from the start. There’s not a lot of banking, and you carry a ton of speed going into the corner. The exit of the corners tends to be the most challenging, treacherous part of the track. You are on the throttle so far back in the corner that by the time you get to exit, you are carrying so much speed that as you pick the throttle up, you almost are carrying too much speed coming out the corner. The great thing is the surface has aged, so you’ve got grip all over the track — drivers can run at the bottom, middle or top. Racing is much better than in the past. Just look at the spring race; it was one of the best we’ve had at the 2-mile track.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Charlotte is the only true night race of the Chase -- and unlike the other races -- the conditions for practices and qualifying will be different than those of the race. That’s big as it is one of the most temperature-sensitive tracks we go to — it gains a lot of grip at night when it cools down. Drivers will have to rely on their experience while crew chiefs and engineers will have to study their notebooks to come up with a game plan. Then they have to remain calm as they all fight the track together in search of the right setup. Unlike the majority of the Chase races, this is a 500-mile event. So the engine guys will be biting their fingernails more than in most weeks.
It is realistically the only short track in the Chase. Even though teams approach Loudon and Phoenix with a short-track mentality, Martinsville is the only “true” short track in NASCAR’s playoff. You want to qualify well there because, even though it is a 500-lap race, track position and pit selection are so important from the drop of the green flag. It is also a place where it is easy to get caught up in somebody else’s problem. It is very easy to cut a tire down there because it is close-quarter, side-by-side racing. It’s a little bit about survival, but the racing actually begins when you roll in there on Friday and work on having a good qualifying run.
It’s the big wild card in the Chase. Everybody’s car is going to drive well there, and nobody is going to complain about how his car is driving. Honestly, even though it is a 188-lap, 500-mile race, it comes down to two things for me: staying out of trouble (i.e., avoiding the inevitable “big one”) and making the right choice and being in the right place when we come down to the last half of a lap. As a crew chief, yeah, you have to make the right calls on the box -- there could be some strategy involved -- but you feel like you control the least amount of your destiny compared with other races in the Chase. It’s about how fast your car is, and as we always say when teams unload on Friday, you got what you got. Probably the two most important people on the team that weekend are the driver and the spotter.
Texas Motor Speedway
Texas is definitely the fastest racetrack in the Chase. It’s not the biggest, but because of the restrictor plates at Talladega, Texas is the fastest. Of all of the races in the Chase, this is the one that makes the engine guys the most nervous — that 500-mile race is hard on engines. There’s a lot of hanging and sustained RPM’s. It could also come down to fuel mileage there.
Phoenix International Raceway
Other than Loudon and Dover, this is the shortest race of the Chase. Once the race starts, you better have your car pretty darn close to perfect, because you are going to get long, green-flag runs and you may not make that many pit stops and you won’t get many chances to make your car better. Because it is a short race and it is a short track, you want to qualify well, because track position is optimal and pit selection is key on what can be a pretty narrow and very treacherous (particularly near turns 1 and 2) pit road. Inevitably, a lot like Dover and Martinsville, we always see a mishap on pit road.