Billy O’Dea

Friday 5: Tensions between Cup teams test manufacturers

Leave a comment

Less than a month into the Cup season, there have been signs that the tenuous alliances among teams have not held up well on or off the track.

It’s led to an unease not often visible at this point in the season.

As the sport enters a time of transition — new rules, new car in 2021, new engine as early as 2022— can a manufacturer keep its teams together for these major projects? Or will there be fissures, much like what happened between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2016 and Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing last season?

At the same time, NASCAR seeks new manufacturers and any company that comes into the sport likely will take teams from current manufacturers. Are the seeds of discontent being sown now?

Already manufacturers have had to react to issues between their teams.

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, conceded this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that at Ford, “we’re a family and every family has issues.”

Just look at the issues Ford has had this season:

Joey Logano confronted fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell on pit road after the Daytona 500 for pushing a Toyota and not Logano’s Ford on the final lap. McDowell told the media he was not happy with how fellow Ford drivers treated him in that race.

Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was not happy with Logano, who chastised Stenhouse on the radio for a move during the Daytona 500 that cost Logano several spots and, according to Logano, could have caused an accident.

“For sure we had our issues at Daytona, can’t deny that,” Rushbook said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “But as a family, we talked through those issues, tried to understand what led to those issues and then how can we fix that and make it even better going forward.”

Ford isn’t the only manufacturer that has had issues between some of its teams. Chevrolet understands the delicate balance between competition and cooperation.

Hendrick Motorsports partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing, a Toyota team, and not fellow Chevrolet teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing in the Daytona 500. The move was made to counter the strength of the Fords, which dominated both qualifying races and entered as the favorite to win the 500.

Kyle Larson’s comments this week on NASCAR America’s Splash & Go about Hendrick Motorsports “cheating” ruffled feelings in the Chevy camp. That led to a late-night Twitter apology from Larson and subsequent comments about how he had poorly chosen his words. Ganassi gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Larson said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he had apologized to team owner Rick Hendrick. Said Larson: “We’re both moving on.”

There always will be conflict among competitors in the same camp. It’s natural with what is at stake each race weekend. But the manufacturers have stressed working together more. It was evident in how Toyota teams teamed together to win the 2016 Daytona 500 — a model adopted by others. At Ford, that banding of brothers is referred to as One Ford.

But this season, the slogan might be anything but togetherness.

2. New challenge for spotters

The new rules that are intended to tighten the competition at tracks — and should be the case this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway based on the January test — will change what spotters will do.

Many expect to be calling the race much like they do at Daytona and Talladega where they’re on radio almost constantly.

“I did a lot of talking in 25 laps,” Billy O’Dea, spotter for Ty Dillon, said, referring to the 25-lap races NASCAR held at the January test at Las Vegas.

One thing that spotters who were at the test noticed is that runs by cars behind their car were different from what they see in pack racing at Daytona or Talladega.

“In Daytona or Talladega, you don’t necessarily watch the car behind you,” said Tyler Green, spotter for Kurt Busch. “You watch  two or three behind because that’s where the runs come from.

“At Vegas, it seemed like you didn’t really watch the car two behind you. You watched the car right behind you. It just happens quick. There’s no really understanding of where the runs really come from unlike Daytona or Talladega.”

Other spotters at the test noticed that as well. That creates other challenges for them.

“Are they going to take (the run and try to pass) or are they just going to get close?” O’Dea said of what to tell a driver when a car behind has a run.

“When you see them moving, do you block it? It’s a lot of unknowns. Early in the race, do you really want to be blocking a guy going into (Turn) 1? If it’s continually a lot of passing, which I hope it is, it’s going to be a lot of give and take. It’s going to be interesting to see.”

Rocky Ryan, spotter for David Ragan, also was at the test. Ragan did not participate in the 25-lap races because he was driving the Ford wheel-force car, which has extra equipment on it and is too valuable to be risked in a race (the wheel-force cars for Chevrolet and Toyota also did not participate in those races).

During those races at the test, Ryan said he stood atop the spotters stand and acted as if he was spotting for a car to grasp how quickly things can happen in those drafts.

“The 15 of us that were there (for the test) will have a leg up on everybody,” Ryan said.

3. Drafting in qualifying

The expectation is that teams will draft in qualifying today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, saw what the draft could do when the No. 2 team took part in the January test there.

“It seemed like at the Vegas test, the (aero) ducts made a difference,” Wolfe told NBC Sports. “Basing off of Vegas, it seems like there were two- or three-tenths of a second to be gained in the draft.

“I still don’t think it’s going to be a draft like you see at Daytona, but it’s more about timing it right to get a good suck up (on the car ahead). I don’t see us going out there running nose to tail. I still don’t see that. I could be wrong.”

Wolfe said they saw the draft make a difference when a car was a quarter of a straightaway behind another car.

“The more cars you have (in a draft), you get a faster suck up, for sure,” Wolfe said.

The key is to figure out who is going to be the trailing car to get that advantage, or if teams will run extra laps in qualifying and trade positions so each car will have that chance to take advantage of the draft.

4. On the way to Miami

If a trend holds true, one of the Championship Four contenders may be known after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

Since 2014, one of the drivers racing for the title at Miami has won within the first three races of the season.

Throw out the Daytona 500. No winner of that race since 2014 has made it to the championship race. So that means that either Brad Keselowski, who won last weekend at Atlanta, or Sunday’s winner could be headed for a chance at the championship — provided the trend continues.

Three times since 2014, the driver who went on to win the championship won within the first three races of the season: Harvick won the second race in 2014 (Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson won the second race in 2016 (Atlanta), and Martin Truex Jr. won the third race in 2017 (Las Vegas).

Last year, all four title contenders won for the first time that season within the first 10 races. Kevin Harvick won in the season’s second race (Atlanta). Truex won in the fifth race (Auto Club Speedway). Kyle Busch won in the seventh race (Texas). Joey Logano won in the 10th race (Talladega). Harvick and Busch had other wins within those first 10 races.

5. Familiar faces

Brad Keselowski’s victory last weekend at Atlanta kept a streak going.

Six drivers have combined to win the last 18 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks. Martin Truex Jr. has six wins in that time, followed by Kevin Harvick (five wins), Kyle Busch (three), Keselowski (two), Joey Logano (one) and Chase Elliott (one).

The last time one of those drivers did not win a race at a 1.5-mile track was the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Austin Dillon won that race.

 and on Facebook

High above crowd, spotters play key role in who wins and who doesn’t at restrictor-plate tracks

Leave a comment

STATESVILLE, N.C. – How the word popped up, spotter Joey Meier isn’t sure. Somewhere within his brain, as Meier described the madness around Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford at Talladega Superspeedway in an auctioneer’s call, the word emerged.

Energy.

Meier used the word midway through the May Sprint Cup race to alert Keselowski to a surging line of cars behind him. Keselowski moved to block the lane. Meier kept using the word. Team members began counting. The total reached triple digits.

Meier said energy 11 times in the race’s final two minutes. In sync, Keselowski’s car drifted to block whatever line charged. During the final lap, a 14-second snippet featured this Meier soundtrack:

Energy behind you. Up top. 

Energy up top. Energy up top.

Behind the 18. 24 bottom lane one back. 18 is clear. Two-wide behind him. 18 is clear. One back behind him, two-wide. No energy up top. 

Meier’s fast-paced traffic report helped Keselowski win the most recent restrictor-plate race.

As the series heads to Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night’s race on NBC, the role of spotters again is magnified. Originally employed as a safety feature, spotters have become a strategic element, studying race tape, analyzing pit road and surveying the competition, to give their driver and crew chief insights from above the stands.

It’s little coincidence that eight of the last 10 restrictor-plate races have been won by four drivers. All four — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Keselowski — have been with their current spotter since at least 2013.

“My spotter is definitely an all-star,’’ Keselowski said. “He’s been part of three of the four Talladega wins (Keselowski has had), and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.’’

BUILDING TRUST

Meier first started spotting for Keselowski in 2006, and T.J. Majors has been Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s spotter since 2007. That familiarity is important to a driver.

“You get to working with the same guy for a long time and you sort of get to where you speak the same language and he knows what you want and don’t want,’’ said Earnhardt, who won last July’s Daytona race, leading 96 of 161 laps. “As a driver, it just gives you confidence having somebody that you trust and believe in and you know is going to give you good information. You can drive the car with more confidence.’’

It often takes time to get to that point. Eddie D’Hondt was Jeff Gordon’s spotter from 2012-15. He guided Gordon to a record fifth Brickyard 400 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Gordon’s 93rd and final triumph last fall at Martinsville Speedway during that time. This season, D’Hondt is rookie Chase Elliott’s spotter, a role D’Hondt also performed when Elliott was in the Xfinity Series.

Still, there have been challenges meshing, especially in restrictor-plate races where so much happens at once.

D’Hondt admits it took about 10 restrictor-plate races to “click” with Gordon and that didn’t come until they watched tape together. D’Hondt said that he and Elliott “really didn’t click at all” during the qualifying race in February at Daytona. They discussed what could be better afterward.

Two days later, Elliott won the Xfinity race after he jumped to the top lane to block a line of cars off Turn 2 and held off Joey Logano at the finish line. Elliott called that experience a big “trust-building day” with D’Hondt.

It’s not easy for a driver to hear a different voice in his ear. Regan Smith joined Tommy Baldwin Racing a month before the Daytona 500. He had never worked with spotter Doug Campbell until Daytona. They watched tape ahead of time so Smith could hear Campbell call certain situations.

“You know pretty fast how aggressive you can be with a spotter and how aggressive they’re going to be with you, so by the time we got done with the (qualifying race), I knew kind of where his aggressive points were and where they weren’t,’’ Smith said. “We sat down after the (qualifying race) and said, ‘Hey … this could be a little different, this was really good. You almost know as a driver if it is going to work with a spotter pretty quick.’’

PAINT A PICTURE

There are numerous challenges and many things drivers want from their eye in the sky. It’s not so easy.

“He’s got to paint a picture in my mind what is going on back there,’’ said 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano of spotter Tab Boyd. “You got to collect all the data before you make a decision. If you’re not getting all the data, you’re going to make poor decisions.

“I think about that when I’m up there (on the spotters’ stand) watching races. I act like I’m spotting a car sometimes. Most of the times … it’s ‘Oh my God, look out!’ That’s what it would it be if I spotted. That’s why I don’t spot. They’re good at it.’’

Billy O’Dea, now Paul Menard‘s spotter, was Kevin Harvick’s spotter for years before Harvick left Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. One of O’Dea’s proudest moments came when Harvick nipped Jamie McMurray to win at Talladega in April 2010.

During practice that weekend, O’Dea watched Gordon make a late move along the frontstretch to beat Jeff Burton to the finish line. It showed O’Dea where the winning move needed to be made and he told Harvick that.

On the final lap of that race, Harvick was second, pushing McMurray. In turn 4, O’Dea radioed Harvick:

“You know what you’ve got to do.’’

With the start/finish line beyond the tri-oval at Talladega, there was still a long way to go. Harvick started to make his move off Turn 4. O’Dea stopped him.

“Not yet. Just keep coming. You’ll get him.’’

As Harvick went through the tri-oval, O’Dea was like a jockey telling his horse what was needed.

Stay on him … Go!

Harvick cut to the left, got inside McMurray and won by 11-thousandths of a second.

After screaming on the radio, Harvick said: “That played out to the T.’’

TROPHIES AND TROUBLE

Trophies adorn Meier’s office at the hanger for Brad Keselowski’s plane. Meier, a pilot, can look around and see all the success he’s had with Keselowski.

Still, Meier’s mind flashes back to a time he made a mistake and the consequences.

“I can instantly remember wrecking Robert Richardson at Talladega,’’ Meier said of an Xfinity incident years ago. “It’s one of those things that we carry with us. (Spotters) are important and our mistakes are magnified at these restrictor-plate races.’’

As he thinks about the incident, he sees Richardson on the inside of another car in Turn 4.

“I was being real aggressive,’’ Meier said. “We were coming around the corner and we were on the bottom and we had momentum. I figured the momentum was going to clear us and we didn’t and we stalled out. By the time I said ‘clear high’ we had stalled and he came up to get in that lane and we just wiped out five or six cars.’’

Afterward, Meier went to the garage and apologized to Richardson and the crew chief.

“You know for that split-second, even though the driver trusted you, that you broke his trust,’’ Meier said. “What it taught me, after that incident … I’ll tell Brad this all the time, I won’t tell you where you can go more than I will tell you can’t go. If I’m saying outside and you think it’s clear, go out there, but I won’t tell you clear unless I know it’s clear. That’s what I learned.’’

Sometimes, the difference between winning or a good day and failing to finish can be one call from a spotter, especially when cars run inches apart at Daytona and Talladega.

For such lessons, though, there can be rewards. D’Hondt thinks back to when Keselowski had to win at Talladega during the 2014 Chase to advance and did so.

“I went to Joey (Meier) after the race and you would have thought someone had handed him a million dollars because he made the difference,’’ D’Hondt said. “I understand that. It’s very rewarding.’’

It can be if one can handle all the stress.