SONOMA, Calif. (June 19, 2002) -- Rick Hendrick's Hendrick Motorsports leads the Chevrolet teams with wins on Sears Point Raceway's road course. Jeff Gordon won three straight here on this scenic Northern California circuit, in 1998-2000, giving...
SONOMA, Calif. (June 19, 2002) -- Rick Hendrick's Hendrick Motorsports leads the Chevrolet teams with wins on Sears Point Raceway's road course. Jeff Gordon won three straight here on this scenic Northern California circuit, in 1998-2000, giving Chevrolet Monte Carlo a total of five victories here since 1989. Dale Earnhardt (1995) and Ernie Irvan (1992) won the other two. Only Ford has been able to match Chevy's success here, with five wins as well.
Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Monte Carlo for Hendrick Motorsports, holds the race record on the 1.949-mile course of 78.789 mph; 2 hours, 26 minutes, 46 seconds, set June 25, 2000. The race record on the 2.52-mile circuit is held by Ernie Irvan in a Chevrolet, established June 7, 1992, of 81.413 mph; 2 hours, 17 minutes, 26 seconds. In 2001 the track was reconfigured from 1.949 miles to 2 miles.
Nearly midway through the 2002 season, the successful Hendrick Motorsports operation is going through unplanned changes, with the replacement of Jerry Nadeau with Joe Nemechek in the No. 25 UAW-Delphi Monte Carlo, and, most recently, with the addition to that team of new crew chief Brian Pattie, formerly Nemechek's car chief at NEMCO Motorsports, owned by Nemechek. Ken Howes, who took over crew chief duties when Tony Furr stepped down in April, returns to his position as director of competition at HMS after seven races.
Following are conversations with Joe Nemecheck, Brian Pattie, Ken Howes and Rick Hendrick:
ON BEING WITH HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS AND HAVING BRIAN PATTIE AS CREW CHIEF: "Being with Hendrick Motorsports is a very unique opportunity. It's kind of strange how all the things happen when they happen. In the past I've run well at the road courses. Brian has been with me with my Busch team for some time. We have a few poles at Watkins Glen with the Busch Series car, when I was driving and also when Ron Fellows was driving. Just getting Brian on board with myself and Hendrick means a lot to me because it's someone I'm used to dealing with, who knows what I need in a race car and he can see what the cars have and kind of what's going on and what we need to do to get them to where I can be competitive. And I think that's one of the keys."
ON COMMUNICATION BETWEEN DRIVER AND CREW CHIEF: "Communication is the key in any business. This one's no different. Brian and I have a good relationship and I think we're best friends and that's a big part of how these teams run. You look at the teams that are successful right now and they're established; they've been there. All of a sudden I got an opportunity with a great team and we don't have the pleasure of building relationships. We need performance now. This is the quickest way that I feel we can get that."
ON DRIVING SEARS POINT (Nemechek did not race at Sears Point in 2001. In 2000 he started 19th, finished 11th his best finish at this track. In 1999 he qualified his best, sixth, and finished 19th): "Sears Point has been a pretty good race track for me over the past few years. It seems like we qualify decent there and we race really well, and somehow some way, toward the end of the races I've managed to be in the top 10. A lot of the times we have been in the top five. Pit strategy kind of plays a part in it. I've had decent finishes the last two times I was there. And, actually we had been in the top five in both those races and then at some point in time you get a late caution, guys will stop and put tires on, you elect to stay out, and some of them will get by you. There's a lot of pit strategy involved in it. I'm looking forward to going back out there. I missed the race last year. I've got some learning to do, just because I missed the race there last year. They changed the track, but then they changed it again. I didn't have the luxury of testing out there because I didn't know I was going to be racing it. We tested with Ron Fellows out there in our 87 car and he ran extremely well, so I'm looking for good things this weekend."
ON RACING AGAINST FELLOWS: "I've done it before. Ron is one of the best road racers I've ever met. I think he's the master of Watkins Glen. He can drive anywhere he needs to go. Sears Point is a little tougher race track just because it's kind of a slower track. The difference, just like Le Mans, is you've got a lot of really fast corners (at Watkins Glen). Ron knows how to use his momentum to his advantage. That's one of the keys for him at Watkins Glen."
ON THE REST OF THE SEASON: "Our short-term goals are to start running top 15s. We just need to show that the team can be competitive. The last few weeks have been pretty stressful. I've wrecked some race cars. We didn't run as well as I thought at Michigan. We just kind of struggled the whole time there. This week we cut some bodies off and moved some stuff around just trying to improve and get some of the aero balance that I've been used to. We're going to go from there. Right now, short-term goal is top 15s, that's all we want. I think there are some tracks that are coming up that we're going to have an opportunity to win that. When you have two teammates running good, there's no reason you shouldn't either."
WHAT WILL YOU HAVE TO DO TO PREPARE THE CAR FOR SEARS POINT? "The road course cars here (at Hendrick Motorsports) are well established. (Jerry) Nadeau is a good road racer. Actually, I think the car we're taking to Sears is the one that he qualified so well and ran well at Watkins Glen. The cars are professionally maintained and built here. I haven't road-raced with Joe since 1997. And we sat on the pole and finished third in the Busch race there and that's the last time I road-raced with him. Ever since (then) I've been with Ron (Fellows). Hopefully he can adapt to some of the setups that Ron runs because Ron runs exceptionally well. We've actually tested some of the road races with Ron and then had Joe jump in. He's done quite well. He wasn't at the pace that Ron is, but I don't expect him to be. But hopefully we can get the setup closer. It's a pretty big difference between the normal NASCAR deal and Ron's setup."
ON RON FELLOWS DRIVING A NEMCO CAR AT SEARS POINT: "He's driving No. 87. We tested there at the end of April on a two-day test and ran really well. We just concentrated on race stuff a day and a half, so that car's pretty well set up and they've got their qualifying setup and race setup established. They'll run pretty well. Joe was out there but didn't make any laps. At that time he didn't have a full time deal."
WILL YOU BENEFIT FROM WHAT YOU LEARNED THERE TO PUT ON THE 25 CAR? "Of course. It's so hard to be competitive anymore. (We shared) the information between the 24 and 87 (and in) our first race in '99 we finished second behind Jeff (Gordon). It's kind of nice to have both setups to learn from. I look for Joe to run in the top 10; that's our goal this weekend."
ARE YOU INVOLVED IN RON'S CAR AS WELL? "Of course. I don't think he would let me just walk away that easily. He and I have become pretty good friends here the last three or four years. He's kind of bummed that I left. I told him that I didn't leave full time, I'm still overseeing this 87 Busch program. I really won't make all the changes. I can't do so and give the 25 team my full effort. I'm sure at nighttime I'll be debriefing with the now crew chief there and helping him out. I don't know if you really need a lot of help with Ron driving the race car."
WHO IS CREW CHIEF? "Eric Phillips. He's been a car chief on that team with me since '97. We've been trying to groom him as a crew chief so that in the future years when we start owning more teams I could be more of a manager type. He's assumed the role, whether he likes it or not."
KEN HOWES WAS STILL CREW CHIEF AT THE RECENT V.I.R. ROAD COURSE TEST. DOES IT HURT THE EFFORT WITH YOUR NOT BEING AT V.I.R.? "Not really. The information is all written down. Just trying to get the feel of what the driver wants would have helped, but we'll just do the best we can with what we've got. They've got a good brake package and they've got good setups and good cars. We'll just all have to learn pretty fast at Sears with the two-hour practice we have and qualifying. I think Joe will do just fine."
DOES AERODYNAMICS PLAY ANY PART AT SEARS? "At Sears it probably doesn't as much, because the average speed is down; mostly the corners are slower. I'm sure at Watkins Glen reaching speeds upwards of 200 down the backstretch they definitely come into effect. They've got pretty long straights between 5 and 10 there and down the frontstretch. In Sears you really don't have any straightaways -- between 3 and 4, I guess, and between 4 and 8, (but) they're minute. Handling and patience and forward traction are the keys to winning Sears Point."
WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS? "Right now top 15s would do this team really well. Joe's run in the top 10 in the past there and just never finished. He's run in the top 10s at Watkins Glen and just hasn't finished. Hopefully we'll just keep his head on straight, come up with a strategy and pit before the caution that last time. Usually, who runs up front is who catches a caution (to his advantage) there at Sears. A top 15 would be good; but a top 10 would make me happy."
ON COMING INTO A TEAM THAT'S BEEN STRUGGLING: "It's a challenge. It's probably going to be more gratifying if I can get it turned around and get everybody where we're running well and the morale back up and stuff like it. It will probably be more gratifying than stepping into a team that's won 10 or 12 races and then win another a race. It's really not the same. We've got a lot of work, but I feel confident that we can get it done."
YOU HAVE HISTORY WITH JOE. DOES THAT HELP? "I think that's the only reason why the whole deal came about with myself coming down here. He needs help; he was getting down on himself and obviously Hendrick's stuff is top notch. We're just trying to find the glue between the driver and the car and we didn't find it this weekend in Michigan. We learned a lot. There's just bits and pieces that are different here and there. Once we figure them out I think we'll be just fine."
COMMUNICATION IS SO IMPORTANT: "It's definitely going to help. (They) just needed somebody in here day to day. Ken Howes is a super talented guy, very professional, but I don't know how he stayed sane with so many people pulling him in different directions and then still trying to take on the 25 team. I don't know how he even attempted it, let alone did it for four weeks. We're just looking over notes we're looking at tunnel data now, trying to get better on our intermediate stuff, get Sears Point stuff loaded. We're just in here day to day trying to get information right, get our cars turned around and, at the track, it's between Joe and I. We made good changes this weekend; we just got to continue this. We've got to do some more tests and get the cars to where he likes them, and then we'll be fine. The communication level between Joe and I has been high for years and it hasn't been any better in the last two or three years than it is right now."
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE RON FELLOWS FULL TIME IN CUP? "I don't think he would give up his road-racing career to do so. He's got as much raw talent as anyone out there. Anyone that can do that much for the race car (is talented) and especially driving so many different types. Camaro. I know he drove the Camaros in Trans-Am, then he would drive the Ferrari WSC car back and forth. He drove the Cadillac when they were prototyping it. (Then) going back and forth to the Corvette, driving Super Trucks. I'm like saying, man, I don't know how this guy does it. Obviously the talent level is very high in that guy."
ON THE REST OF THE SEASON: "The plan is to try to get top 20 in points (with Nemecheck and the 25 car). And run top 15s the rest of the year. Those are the only two goals that we have. We're trying to finish out the year on a good note and try to get a long-term relationship set up."
IS CHEVROLET AT A DISADVANTAGE ON OVALS BECAUSE OF THE AERODYNAMICS ISSUE? "I haven't been here long enough to know the balance issues. I know in the Busch Series Chevrolet has been struggling for a balance issue and NASCAR seemed to take a real (long) while to take them to the wind tunnel. It seems like Chevrolet has got the short end of the stick this year in the Busch series. For Winston Cup they haven't won the races that they normally have, but I don't know how level the playing field is.
YOU'VE WORKED WITH HENDRICK BEFORE, NOW YOU'RE A CREW CHIEF FOR THE FIRST TIME: "It's pretty incredible. This is the same team that I worked for back in 1996. To come back and actually run the program is I guess a tribute to the success we had or I've had, I guess, since leaving the team in '96. We've won quite a few Busch races and (we) just try to be professional and build really nice race cars, efficient race cars. And we try to build an efficient race team up at NEMCO Motorsports. Just got a very talented group of guys there. It's just amazing that your first Cup crew chief position would start at one of the big corporations in Winston Cup. I'm really excited. It's a heck of an opportunity, but it's a lot of work, too -- especially when you're struggling like the 25 has in the past 6, 8 or 10 weeks. It's a lot of work. It will be that much more gratifying to get it turned around when it does happen."
ON NEMCO MOTORSPORTS: "Last year we took on Evans Motorsports, which is Randy LaJoie. Both 7 and 87 cars are out of that shop. What I did was manage both and I was in charge, making sure all the cars were all the same, basically team manager for both, but crew chief on the 87 when we left for the races. This year is the same; that's what I was doing until last Wednesday when I got the phone call from Ken Howes to come down and meet with John Hendrick and Randy Dorton and the big guy here at Hendrick Motorsports, to start the crew chief job here on the 25 car."
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO WIN ON A ROAD COURSE? "Moderate downforce, exceptional power band, a lot of forward traction, good brake package. If you take the driver out of the equation that's what the keys that you're looking for in a race car. But you've got to get the setup right for the driver. All drivers want different things and you gotta have luck on your side and you play cautions a little bit differently in road races than you do on ovals. If you can get it all in line it's usually the key to running well. Hopefully we'll do that this weekend."
ON THE CAR: "This is the Monte Carlo that ran at Watkins Glen with Nadeau last year. It qualified and ran in the top 10. It's a good car. I don't think they have any bad cars here at Hendrick Motorsports."