NASCAR

Michigan hard on teams, engines

Not so easy
Michigan International Speedway might be easy to drive, but strategy is crucial.
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Jeff Hammond

Jeff Hammond is a former NASCAR crew chief who led Darrell Waltrip to two of his three Sprint Cup championships. The duo also teamed up to win the 1989 Daytona 500. Prior to that, Hammond was the jackman for Cale Yarborough for all three of his Cup championships. He has 43 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief. Follow him on Twitter.

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To an outsider, Michigan International Speedway might look like an easy place to race. It’s big and wide with those sweeping turns and multiple grooves. Now from the driver’s perspective, Michigan can be a fun place to race.

For the crew chief, it is a challenge to set up a race car that can be versatile, so the driver can run the high, middle or low grooves if they want. They need to keep those RPMs up because when I say that, Michigan is a momentum race track. This thing is nothing more than a mini-Daytona or mini-Talladega without restrictor plates.

So you try and stay in the throttle as much as you can to carry that momentum all the way around the track. Therein lies some of the concerns for the crew chiefs, but more importantly the engine builder. When you hear us talking about “hanging RPMs” we mean you don’t have a very wide swing in RPMs.

We also know as crew chiefs that if we give a driver a car that handles well there, then he’s going to run it harder, which means it’ll be going faster. That puts the fear factor into the minds of the crew chiefs and the engine folks about whether their engine can stand it. A driver wants all the horsepower you will give him, but if you do that, you then are rolling the dice of whether your engine will last the entire race.

This new Generation-6 car is so stable that the drivers are able to hustle it through the corners better so we’ve seen more speed out of this car. The track surface is only a year older with a new car that gives greater downforce. Those are the things you worry about Tuesday or Wednesday night with your engine. When it comes to Michigan, you always put the consideration of an engine problem at the top of your list.

A year ago, on the brand new surface, Marcos Ambrose set a new track record at over 203 miles per hour. Race fans have been asking me this week if that record will also fall because of the new Gen-6 car and how many records it’s broken so far this season.

I think the only reason we might not see it broken first is due to the winter that Michigan had this year versus last year. Also when the record was set, it was a different tire combination than what they even brought back to the race track for the second race there in 2012. The speeds then had dropped off pretty well.

I also think this weekend’s weather will play a big factor in the equation as well as how much of the grip from last year actually has stayed in this track. The Gen-6 car has definitely overcome a lot of race track and tire combinations to shatter records this year. I just think for Michigan, however, it’s going to be a “wait and see.”

A couple things I am going to be watching for Sunday are the long green-flag runs. These create green flag pit stops. If we see those happening, watch to see if there are pit road speeding penalties as the drivers carrying all this momentum come off the track and tried to get slowed down to pit road speed.

Once they get on pit road, I think we are going to see, as we have the last few weeks, how a great pit crew plays so much into your advantage. At Michigan, you are covering so much space in such a quick amount of time that if you lose one second in the pits, I believe it equates to two or three seconds lost on the race track.

Lastly keep an eye on strategy Sunday. When are two tires versus four tires going to come into play? Additionally, Michigan has a history of being a fuel-mileage race, so we might see some folks desperate enough to get a win Sunday to roll the dice and see if they can make it.
 

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