With ride height gone, options open up
July 18, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers have been fast together from the start, including a test at Charlotte last December which foreshadowed the speed the No. 4 car would display in nearly every race weekend to come. After a first half to this season that included two victories, nearly 900 laps led and close to a secure berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the crew chief of Stewart-Haas Racing's best team knows it's easy to draw an oversimplified conclusion.
"Everybody thinks that we went to Charlotte in December and hit on this magic setup," Childers said. "What we ran in Charlotte in December, we haven't even raced this year. It has nothing to do with anything that we've done. I think it's just focusing on each race track specifically, and what's best at this place, and not, 'Oh, what we had at Texas will work at Charlotte.' Because it doesn't really matter anymore."
Why not? Because of perhaps the biggest rule change for the 2014 season -- the elimination of the minimum ride height for Sprint Cup cars. Teams have always worked to get their vehicles as close to the ground as possible, a tactic that improves aerodynamic performance. But prior to this year, there was a rule mandating a specific amount of front-end ground clearance in post-race inspection. Crew chiefs would use springs that would force down a car's front end down in the turns, and hopefully rebound after a race to allow enough clearance to pass inspection. Penalties for vehicles being too low were common as crew chiefs worked to get their vehicles right on that allowable limit.
For 2014, that post-competition ground clearance standard no longer exists, allowing teams the freedom to get their cars as low as bumps in a race track's asphalt will permit. While the goal remains the same -- get the vehicle as low to the ground as possible -- there are suddenly many more routes to get there, as crew chiefs can now experiment with a variety of height, shock and spring combinations that had been off limits to them as recently as last year. At the same time, the standard setup packages that many teams relied on at similar types of tracks have become somewhat outdated in the process.
"Everybody's still trying to seal their splitter off in the corner, and skirts off in the corner, and all that kind of stuff. You're just starting at a different spot," Childers said. "I guess before, there weren't very many options. Your car started at one spot, you had to do certain things with springs to end up at another spot. Now, you can start wherever you want. You can start at a thousand different ride heights and have a thousand different springs, and end up in the same spot."
Getting there, though, has become the challenge, and the elimination of a rigid ride height standard has taken place in a season where a number of traditional powers -- like Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing, Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing, and even Harvick's teammate Tony Stewart at SHR -- have struggled relative to their past performance. In media centers and in the grandstands, it's often easy to point to ride height as being the difference, just as everyone assumes the No. 4 car hit on a magic setup at the Charlotte test. The reality of it all is a tad more blurred, like the colors on a Sprint Cup car zooming by at full speed.
Is adapting to the lack of a ride height standard the reason some teams are struggling, and others are ahead of the pack? Count Hendrick Motorsports mainstay Jeff Gordon, a winner earlier this season at Kansas and the current Sprint Cup points leader, among those who certainly thinks so.
"Oh, I definitely think it is," the four-time champion said. "If you look at teams that were strong last year that maybe are struggling a little bit this year, that ride height change has definitely made some significance, because it's changed the aerodynamics a lot. It's changed what kind of springs we run in the car, and I think that the teams that have really understood that well and got on top of it early on have been very successful. I contribute a lot of it, of what our team has done and that ride height rule, to the success that we're having."
From the driver's seat, Gordon can feel the difference -- he likes to drive deep in the corner, so he wants that feeling of security as he enters the turn, and the rule change combined with a tweak to the spoiler "has definitely made me a little more comfortable getting into the car, (and) it's given me more confidence," he said. That shows throughout the Hendrick camp, where Gordon and teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have six victories combined.
Up on the pit box, crew chiefs see things a bit differently. No question the elimination of the ride height rule is having an impact, but its true game-changing nature seems to lie in the options wrench-turners now have available to them. For more enterprising crew chiefs, there are immediate advantages to be had. "Guys have been working with the same bump stops and things for the past five, six, seven years. So you kind of get to the point where you try all these new things, and there are opportunities to make big gains right out of the gate," said Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski.
For some teams -- like Keselowski's, which won for the third time this season Sunday at New Hampshire -- those gains have been showing up on the race track, particularly when contrasted with others who may be still relying on base packages for similar types of tracks. Now, every venue demands "different ride heights, different springs, different everything," Childers said, and figuring that out is one reason the No. 4 car has been fast almost everywhere. "It's not about a trick of the week anymore," he added.
But how much longer can those out-of-the-gate advantages last? It's only a matter of time, Wolfe believes, before everyone else catches up.
"It's always all about getting the splitter down, sealed up, and controlling that. With no ride height rule, and letting us use the different springs we can use now, you can pretty much get the car there easier," Wolfe said. "It was just a lot of changes to start the year. Some guys hit on it right out of the gate, and showed they have an advantage. But I think with the open garage policy like we have, guys talk throughout teams, and over time everyone figures out to a certain extent what other guys are doing if they do have an advantage, and that kind of closes up."
Indeed, we've seen that before -- although it didn't stem from a rule change, just two years ago Johnson appeared to have separated himself at midseason thanks in part to a yawed rear-end setup which every other contending team was soon emulating, and that 2012 campaign ended with Keselowski as champion. But then as now, it was the Hendrick teams -- or Hendrick-affiliated teams, like SHR -- which were ahead of the curve, and Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers thinks that's no coincidence.
"Hendrick is essentially an eight-car team. I know there’s a rule that says they’re only supposed to have four, but clearly that’s not the case," said Vickers, whose MWR team is winless this season. "I mean, they share chassis, they share engineering, they share setups, they share engines, they share pretty much anything with Stewart-Haas, so it makes them an eight-car team. For that reason, they adapt to changes the fastest. They have more tests, they have more time, they have more people working on one problem. And if one person figures it out, they can share that information among all of them. And for that reason, they tend to adapt the fastest and are able to push things the furthest."
On the other end of the spectrum? Kenseth, who won a career-best seven times last season, remains the highest-ranked driver yet to visit Victory Lane, and JGR in total has just two wins among its three programs at the halfway point. But as evidenced by this past Sunday at New Hampshire -- where Gibbs entries finished second, fourth and eighth -- the organization continues to field contending cars. There are also no cut-and-dry answers at Roush, where Carl Edwards has won twice and stands high in the points while his two teammates are searching.
But as even six-time champ Johnson showed earlier this season, the setups required under this rules package can take some getting used to, and some teams and programs adjust more easily than others. It seems fairly clear that the emphasis on creativity created by the change has opened areas in which deeper or more enterprising teams can benefit. But the elimination of the ride-height rule has also had a domino effect on other areas like suspension, aerodynamics and simulation, and for teams playing catch-up, the deficiencies could very well be hiding anywhere.
"When people start talking about it, and they're like, 'Oh, the 20 car (of Kenseth) hasn't won a race this year, they’ve gotten behind on this new deal' -- is it that they're really behind on this, or are they behind on aero or motor or chassis?" Childers asked. "There are so many things you can be behind on. … There are a lot of smart people. Everybody on say the 20 car, for instance, is plenty smart to figure out where they want to be on ride height and how they want to get there. I think there's a lot more to it than just the ride height thing."