March 15th, 2016 by Matt Holden
“Momentum is huge.” You hear it constantly on television, whether it relates to on-track battles or simply the good feeling teams have after performing well for a few races. Top tens become top fives, top fives become wins, wins become a championship. Not to put the cart before the horse, but for the first time ever, Nick Ottinger and I are finally starting a season on the right foot. It took five attempts, but we finally found a way to get the #05 car to the end of the season-opener at Daytona.
Then came Atlanta. Our Achilles’ Heel of the season, and it was missing from the 2015 schedule. We weren’t so lucky this year, but it was placed on the schedule before this new build so we (and everyone else in the series) dodged a massive bullet. Even though we were on a familiar package it did not take long to realize that Nick was lacking in both speed and longevity, and the only way we’d get a good finish would be to start throwing every kitchen sink we could find at it.
Pressure adjustments to simulate a stagger adjustment freed the car up a lot, but for some reason all of the wedge adjustments had no effect on the car at all. I kept taking big chunks of crossweight at it with each stop, and the car either got worse or didn’t change at all. Not until Nick said the rear of the car was hitting the track on a restart did I realize that I had switched the wedge bolts and was actually tightening-up a car that was already set up perfectly for an NHRA event! I didn’t really want to announce that I’d made such a stupid mistake publicly over our teamspeak channel, especially since Nick was saying, “Holy cow this is sooooo much better than it was! I think I can pass people now.” I eventually got the chance to break the news a little bit later during the run, when Nick’s voice broke up on teamspeak, he went completely silent, and then vanished from the track.
He left the world around the top-10 and magically reappeared in 30th place. Instead of being upset that a run into the top-10 was over, we were overjoyed that he never totally lost connection. On top of that, he was still on the lead lap! It was a few laps before anyone said anything, but Peter spoke up and said, “Hello? Anyone home?” At one point, his ping was 2125ms, an astronomical number by today’s standards. How he didn’t completely lose connection from the race server is beyond me, and why teamspeak never dropped him is a bigger mystery. The last time I remember seeing his ping that high was in the Las Vegas race two years ago, when he went bowling through cars that he couldn’t see, triggering the biggest crash I’ve ever seen. So, when he said, “Stupid connection again…”, I chimed in with, “It’s okay, we’re all having issues tonight. I switched the wedge bolts in the first two stops, that’s why your car is suddenly really good.” I jokingly sent out a tweet that someone in his house started streaming a movie on the television, but it turned out not to be as much of a joke as I intended. That’s actually what happened!
So despite a car that refused to turn at all, we got it back to 17th place with only minor scratches. The final pit stop played out in our favor to get a little bit of extra ground, but since my job was done at that point, I didn’t watch Nick’s car for the last 15 or so laps. I was too entertained watching Jake Stergios run down Ray Alfalla, curious if he was going to be able to take the lead away. He eventually got the lead, and the rest of us were left wondering how Jake manages to go so much farther than the rest of us in a strategy race. He’s got a bit of a knack for doing that kind of stuff.
After Daytona had arguably the worst tire/aero combination we’ve ever seen, since cars were falling off about 3 seconds in a run, our little Camry got to the finish line relatively intact. Then one week later, after both of us made great attempts to completely ruin the race, the race played out to somewhat cancel all of that out. Looking back on all the things that could have gone wrong (and have gone wrong in the past), but turned out to be alright, we’re pretty happy about a 10th place standing in the points.
All that’s the past now though. Just like in 2014 and 2015, we’ve had the aerodynamic package updated. The tires have changed as well, and even how the chassis itself behaves has changed. I’m writing this on Friday evening, so in just four days we have to have the car ready to go for Phoenix. The bad part? We don’t really have a definite for what direction to go in right now! I said last year that the rule update build in 2015 was a “reset” to the field, and I was somewhat right. Before the 2015 rules took effect in the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series, Kenny Humpe had won only three races: Daytona and Homestead in 2014, and Las Vegas before the build. Afterwards, he only lost three of the next seven races. We didn’t catch up until late in the season, when the championship was too far gone to matter anymore.
Personally, I’ve put in about 300 miles of testing at Charlotte, and a little under 200 at California in the Cup car. I don’t want to be all dramatic and say, “Oh man, this changes everything!”, because it could be exactly the same. However, I do think we’ll see something new in the NASCAR iRacing Series and the PEAK Antifreeze Series. The cars drive differently, they need different setup parameters, they need the driver to double-think rushing the throttle in the corners. For the next few races at least, we could see the aggressive hotlappers take a back seat to the more calculated and conservative drivers. On more than one occasion during our speedway tests, Nick would pull away from me for 5 to 7 laps, then I began reeling him back in. Me, the virtual equivalent of James May!
The major unknown is whether or not we’ll see changes across all the series immediately, or if it will take a while. The cars, or at least the Class A “Cup” cars, are much more difficult to drive than they were in the past. Since the Gen 6 cars were released back in 2013, a full fuel run was more tedious and time-consuming than anything else. With the lower downforce and softer tires, a 20-lap run can be an exciting adventure depending on the track. If a team manages to claw back some of this lost downforce, they could be unstoppable.
The Cup cars are great and all, but the Xfinity cars have had an overhaul, too. Most of my focus for the year has been in these cars because Class B is the only oval level I’ve never won a race in, plus they’re a bunch of fun to drive. In the past (and the first four races of the year), setups were pretty simple: Very stiff right-rear spring, bind the right-front, work the left-front, and the left-rear spring was track dependent. Because of that, almost nothing from these cars would transfer into the Cup car. There were a few occasions when an Xfinity setup wandered into the #05 car for an NPAS race, but it was always a “we have nothing else” situation, and it was usually pretty terrible. Now, those cars have bump springs, and that relationship between the cars has been turned completely on its head.
You would think we can now freely transfer setups between the two cars, just changing the weight distribution to match the different downforce levels across the two cars, but that’s not exactly correct. With the ride height rules still in effect for the Xfinity car, setups are more along the lines of what was run at the end of the Gen 5 COT’s life. The springs have to be set to pass tech, but you want the car to be down on the track at speed. On the other hand, the Gen 6 car has no ride height rule so starting heights are lower, and springs are much stiffer. In both cases, the end result is the same, but the way to get there is different.
That’s not to say that the two cars are completely unrelated, far from it. In fact, the principles between the two cars are much closer than they were in the past, and the spring package I will run in Monday night’s Class B race at Auto Club has laid the foundation for a new style of setup that could be run as soon as NPAS arrives in California in two weeks. This could be a boon for both the Class A and Class B NiS series, since it’s a much smaller jump from one car to the other. It’s even gotten some of our own Class B drivers interested in running the Cup cars, and vice versa.
By the time this article goes live on Tuesday, the first batch of races should have already been run, and we should have a good idea where this new build is taking us. The next month will be packed with stuff, from the races in the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series, the Road Racing World Championship, the new Mercedes and Audi GT3 cars, the Renault 2.0 series, and also that little Mazda that got a bit of an update. I’m excited for the coming weeks, it should be a blast!