NASCAR has ruled that a smaller fuel cell will be used for this weekend's EA Sports 500 at Talladega Motor Speedway. The fuel cell capacity is reduced to 12.5 gallons from 22 gallons. We talked to Steve Hmiel, Director of Motorsports and ...
NASCAR has ruled that a smaller fuel cell will be used for this weekend's EA Sports 500 at Talladega Motor Speedway. The fuel cell capacity is reduced to 12.5 gallons from 22 gallons.
We talked to Steve Hmiel, Director of Motorsports and Technical Operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc., which campaigns Chevrolet Monte Carlos for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevy), Michael Waltrip (No. 15 NAPA Parts Chevy) and Steve Park (No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy). This weekend, Kerry Earnhardt joins the group in a fourth DEI car (No. 83 Racing USA Chevy).
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted two victories and an eighth-place finish in the last three races at Talladega.
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has assumed the restrictor-plate crown from his dad Dale Earnhardt, winning three of the six restrictor-plate races since his father's death.
-- Earnhardt Jr. led 229 of the 736 restrictor-plate laps raced in 2001 and was the only driver to score four restrictor-plate top-10s in 2001.
-- Five of the last seven races at Talladega and Daytona have been won by Chevy Monte Carlo drivers employed by Dale Earnhardt Inc. Michael Waltrip won the 2001 Daytona 500 and the 2002 Pepsi 400 while Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the 2001 Pepsi 400, the 2001 EA Sports 500 and the 2002 Aaron's 499. They finished 1-2 in three of the last seven restrictor-plate races.
HOW DOES THE DEI TEAM FEEL ABOUT THE SMALLER FUEL CELL RULE?
"It's one more opportunity to either gain or lose. And depending on how you handle the situation you'll either end up being glad they went to smaller fuel cells or you'll be mad that they went to smaller fuel cells. What it does is force you to have more pit stops. Obviously you don't carry as much fuel on board as you used to. You have to make a decision whether you're going to get four tires or two, whether you're going to get just gasoline, no tires at all. The driver has an opportunity to make up time getting into the pits without getting a penalty. The driver has an opportunity to make up time leaving the pits versus the other teams without getting a penalty. On the other hand, it's an opportunity for them to get two more penalties, or three more penalties in the race based on the number of additional pit stops you have to make because of the small amount of fuel on board. So, properly done, you would look at any rule change and say that we want rule changes because we think we can react to the change quicker than most other teams. Improperly done you'd say, ^ÌMan, I wish they'd have left it like it was because we came on pit road and we're speeding and we have three more opportunities to get better and we made them into three opportunities to do a worse job.' It puts the onus on the driver for getting the car to pit road as quick as possible. In terms (of being fast) on the race track before they start the mile-an-hour speed limit. And then we have to do a good job in the pits; we have to use good strategy; two tires, four tires, no tires. And then the driver has to get the car off pit road and back up to speed as quickly as possible. The way it used to be, three times the driver was really involved in the pit stop, now it's going to be more like five or six. Again, it's just a matter of how you handle the situation. If you look at it optimistically, it's a chance to do better two or three more times. If you look at it pessimistically, it's a chance to mess up two or three times."
HAVE YOU PRACTICED ANY PIT STOPS LATELY TO HANDLE THIS SITUATION?
"You can't really do that. You'd need a two-and-a-half-mile oval and you've got to run real fast. We have practiced a bunch to try to understand how long it takes to put 13 gallons of fuel in the car and that looks like it's the same amount of time it takes to put two tires on the car. I would imagine that most people's strategy would be come in when they needed fuel, put two tires on, come in the next time they needed fuel and put the other two tires on, what have you. I don't think right now, especially at Talladega, because handling isn't that big a premium here, that many teams will get four tires. And that's sitting here talking on Friday, and maybe Sunday will be completely different. Our plan right now would be every time we run out of fuel get one side of tires, do the best you can getting in, do the best you can accelerating back up to speed, work with your buddies as best as possible so that you stay in a draft. This is one more opportunity to lose the draft, and that's why I think NASCAR has got the smaller fuel cells, to try to break the field up. And that's certainly reasonable. You can make that call. You could say this is going to break the fields up because we're very worried about coming off pit road wrong, breaking a transmission, not having the right first gear, the driver not getting all he can get as he accelerates back up to speed or as he decelerates to come on pit road. You're going to have to have pals; you're going to have to work with people like the old days to make sure you're all pitting together. Like I said, three more chances to do good or three more chances to do bad."
DID YOU HAVE TO MAKE ANY MAJOR MODIFICATION TO THE CARS TO ACCOMMODATE THE SMALLER FUEL CELL?
"No. Actually, NASCAR gave us the filler pieces that they wanted us to use. The 13-gallon cell goes into the same can in the car that held the 22-gallon cell. You end up with about an eight-inch void on either side of your can in the middle of the car. And NASCAR gave us those pieces, showed us what they wanted the rack to look like for the past two or three weeks and we just went home and built that to NASCAR's specs. That wasn't a big change."
ANY CHANGE IN BALANCE AND WEIGHT?
"There'll be less fuel in the back; that will definitely make a difference. What you do is take your ballast and slide it back and then you end up with the same weight percentage as you always had; you just don't have as much lead or constant in the front of the car. You have it more in the rear so that the car still feels it's got the same amount of fuel in the back."
IF THE RACE RUNS UNDER GREEN THE WHOLE TIME, THE PIT STOP STRATEGY AND SPEED IS GOING TO BE EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.
"How you get to pit road, the decisions you make while you're on pit road and how you get off pit road and back into the pack is just huge. It's always been huge here, but we only made two or three pit stops. Now we're going to make five or six and it's as much a part of the race now as ever. It's probably as much as it was four or five years ago, or 10 years ago, when there wasn't any pit road speed. You had to get together with your buddies, pit at the right time, come off the pit road at the right time, keep that line of cars going. Basically, what we racers have to do is defeat what NASCAR is trying to do. What NASCAR is trying to do is break up the packs. And we have to work like mad to stay in the packs so that we can maintain the speeds because of the draft. If we get out there by ourselves, we're stuck. What NASCAR is trying to do we applaud, because it will break the packs up. But we have to do the best we can to stay in the pack and go as fast as we can with the help of our friends."
WHO ARE YOUR FRIENDS?
"Right now our friends are only our teammates. And on the last lap I'm not even sure they're our friends. I^Ìm sure there will be a lot of working together among the Chevrolet teams, among the Pontiac teams. It's got more to do with what driver is comfortable going with what guy. It kind of shakes out as the race goes on. If you're not in the lead pack, you're going to pit with the guys you're around, because obviously you can't run with the lead pack. If you are in the lead pack, you want to make sure you pit when the lead pack does, so you stay in the lead pack. People talk a lot on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning about making plans and who's going with who, and that always kind of goes out the window based on the performance of your car. You want to be with who you run the best with. And those guys want to be with you if they run the best with you. It's kind of a moot point to even discuss strategy until the race starts and see how everybody is running."
IF SOME PIT STOPS ARE NOT AS GOOD AS OTHERS UNDER GREEN AND CARS GO DOWN A LAP, WILL THE FANS STILL GET A GOOD RACE?
"I don't know. It's very possible that people will go down a lap. It's very possible that the cars will be more spread out. Week in and week out people go down a lap and it's not really a big deal. The past five or six years at restrictor plate races there's no way to make it back up. You look at that and say, ^ÌAh, if we ever go down a lap our race is essentially over.' Now you have two or three more pit stops where someone could do a poor job and you could do a great job and you may even make it up if you caught the caution right, or what have you. I think it's going to put more excitement into the race, personally. There's more opportunity for somebody to do well or do poorly and that always changes the outcome of the race."
BEING THE DOMINATING TEAMS IN RESTRICTOR PLATES, DO YOU HAVE ANY CONCERNS WITH THE POSSIBILITIES HERE BECAUSE OF THE SMALLER FUEL CELLS?
"Naturally, it's more opportunities to mess up on pit road, but it's also an opportunity to take the three DEI cars and pit them together, get the same number of tires, get the same amount of fuel together, pit them at the same time, get on the pit road the same time, come off pit road the same time and keep a fast pack of at least three cars going. You could look at that as an advantage. I think, based on the way the DEI cars have run at restrictor-plate races in the past, other people are going to want to come with us. In other words, if they see the three DEI cars coming on pit road I think they're going to come with us. Rather than us being out there by ourselves struggling along, I think we can almost encourage the pack to pit with us, because they want to pit with the fastest cars and we've been fortunate to be among the fastest cars. We can kind of control the tempo of the race a little bit, not a whole lot. I think people will go where we go, and that kind of plays into our hands."
HOW ABOUT KERRY EARNHARDT?
"Kerry Earnhardt is going to do a real nice job. This is the car that Kenny Wallace used to run fifth with in the spring when he was driving for Michael Waltrip. Kerry had a great run last weekend at Kansas City, finished second (in the Busch race). We're real happy about that. He's going to run a Winston Cup car here and maybe some more next year; maybe even some more this year. We built Kerry a nice race car, it's got one of our engines in it; it's one of our cars; it's well prepared. He's like everybody else. People will have to decide if they're going to draft with him or not. But Kerry is a good race car driver and we feel sure he'll do a real nice job on Sunday."