TONY RAINES The End of an Era -- Sort Of CORNELIUS, N.C., (July 3, 2007) -- The Pepsi 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race July 7 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway will mark Tony Raines' 100th career start in NASCAR's premier series. It...
The End of an Era -- Sort Of
CORNELIUS, N.C., (July 3, 2007) -- The Pepsi 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race July 7 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway will mark Tony Raines' 100th career start in NASCAR's premier series.
It will also mark the end of the road for the current superspeedway cars that NASCAR teams have been using in recent years. In the final restrictor-plate race of the season at Talladega, teams will use the Car of Tomorrow (COT), meaning that this weekend marks the final time that all of the research and data on the old cars will be useful to drivers and crew chiefs.
Brandon Thomas, who serves as crew chief for Raines and the No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet, knows superspeedway cars inside and out, having served as Joe Gibbs Racing's (JGR) head of superspeedway research and development from 2004 until last October. Along the way, he helped JGR score three superspeedway wins in an 18-month span. All three victories came at Daytona -- two at the hands of Tony Stewart (July 2005 and July 2006) and one by Denny Hamlin, who won the non-points Budweiser Shootout in February 2006.
While there probably won't be a giant farewell party as the old superspeedway cars become obsolete, Thomas and Raines wouldn't mind ushering out the old car by putting theirs, the No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet, into victory lane.
TONY RAINES (Driver, No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet):
Overall thoughts going into the Pepsi 400? You've always said that the summer night race is completely different from the Daytona 500.
"It's a night-and-day difference, track-wise, although the 500 this year was a little bit slicker than the two Daytona races that I've driven in before (2003 Daytona 500, 2006 Pepsi 400). The night race is just a different race than the February race. It's a lot slicker. The handling is way more important."
Why is it slicker?
"I don't know. It's just the temperature of the track and the tires. It's just slicker and it seems to wear the tires more. I know it doesn't seem like it should be any different, but I think every driver will tell you the same thing."
This is the last restrictor-plate race with the old style of car. What are your thoughts on that?
"I wish it was the last restrictor-plate race, period. But, unfortunately, that's not an option. It's not really that big of a deal for me. When it's done, it's done. When we go to Talladega in the fall with the COT, I imagine that will be an eye-opener."
What is the strategy going into the Pepsi 400?
"Normally our strategy is to run mid-pack or in the back to be safe. As it gets toward the end, you get up there and race. But it didn't seem like that worked really well at Daytona. At Talladega, it was sort of OK, but I think we need try to get up front. We couldn't really get up front at Daytona, and then we got caught up in a wreck. In the July race, it seems like the field strings out a lot more than it does in the 500, so that may be a plus. We may not want to ride around too much in the back. We may want to get to the front a little bit earlier."
BRANDON THOMAS (Crew Chief, No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet):
Given all the time you have spent working on this type of superspeedway car, what are your thoughts on this being the last superspeedway race with this car?
"If you look at it going forward, looking at the Car of Tomorrow, it presents a new challenge. Where you are at with the current car, body-wise, power-wise, things like that, the formula is pretty well developed. There aren't a whole lot of things you can work on that won't get you sent home. Not that the COT is going to be any different than that, given that the penalties are getting pretty severe. I think going forward, the neat thing is going to be the engine, because you're basically undoing the restrictor-plate motor. That obviously was a lot of what we worked on at Gibbs. We really worked hard on optimizing the engine in all sorts of drafting conditions. So without being too technical, the intake manifold that myself and Mark Cronquist (JGR engine builder) and all of his guys -- and then the guys in the manifold business -- we worked really, really hard on that thing and that's just flushed down the toilet after Saturday night because they're changing all the rules on it. But it kind of opens it back up again."
Given how much time you spent on these cars, do you have a favorite memory of working on these cars?
"I guess what we were all really pleased with -- we stepped outside of the typical 'just go to Daytona or Talladega and look at the car over the speed of two laps.' We did a lot of different things from what other people imagined as a test and I think that helped us a lot. That caused us to be probably more thorough in our research. It never showed up as a qualifying car. The impounded races showed the true speed of the car. Those cars always showed up as good race cars."
What is the strategy for this weekend, charge to the front or hang in the back?
"It's probably a combination. The July race at Daytona is actually a much more difficult race than the February race, but that also makes it a more entertaining race from our side of the fence. Strategy is always key, but what also happens is the car on the track seems to lose a lot of grip. Because it's so hot and the pavement is so bad, you slide around a lot more. The car is lot more in control of the driver's hands in Feburary than in July. So you're really working hard on the set-up. And if you get it right, you tend to destroy the other people. The set-up of the car kind of dictates how you're going to run. If your set-up is very agreeable with the driver and the track conditions, then you don't lay in the back because the pack strings out and you actually work your way up pretty quickly. A group of cars that are all good tend to break away from everyone else. You see a lot more single-file racing in July than you do in February.