Just a Bit Outside the Top-20 -- How About That! CORNELIUS, N.C., (April 24, 2007) -- In the 1989 movie Major League, there is a scene in which Cleveland Indians announcer Harry Doyle, played by the legendary broadcaster Bob Uecker, hosts a ...
Just a Bit Outside the Top-20 -- How About That!
CORNELIUS, N.C., (April 24, 2007) -- In the 1989 movie Major League, there is a scene in which Cleveland Indians announcer Harry Doyle, played by the legendary broadcaster Bob Uecker, hosts a sport-talk radio show called "Teepee Talk."
He opens the show by saying, "In case you haven't noticed, and judging by the attendance you haven't, the Indians have managed to win a few ball games and are threatening to climb out of the cellar."
Well, in case you haven't noticed, Tony Raines and the No. 96 DLP HDTV team have managed to post consecutive top-15 finishes and are threatening to climb into the top-20 in points.
However, unlike the Indians -- who at the time of the movie's release hadn't won a pennant in more than 40 years and were perennial losers -- Raines and the DLP HDTV team have been in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series less than two years and have raised a few eyebrows with their quiet success as a single-car team.
They are the highest single-car team in the 2007 Nextel Cup point standings and have finished outside the top-25 only twice in the young, eight-race season.
Raines and crew chief Brandon Thomas work well as a driver/crew chief combination, despite having worked only 14 races together since their pairing late last year. Two weeks ago at the team's "home" track at Texas, it finished a season-best 13th and followed that run with a 14th-place effort at Phoenix last weekend.
The DLP team now heads to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for Sunday's Aaron's 499 -- the second of four restrictor-plate races in the 2007 season. The Raines/Thomas combination looks to be successful again this weekend as Raines finished in the top-20 in both Talladega events in 2006, and Thomas is as knowledgeable as anyone when it comes to restrictor-plate racing.
Thomas, who served as Joe Gibbs Racing's (JGR) head of superspeedway research and development from 2004 until last October, helped JGR score three superspeedway wins in an 18-month span. All three victories came at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway -- 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.
With a little momentum on their side -- and a driver/crew chief pairing that's clicking -- Raines, Thomas and the No. 96 DLP HDTV team are looking to continue their quiet climb up NASCAR's point ladder. It's time to take notice.
TONY RAINES (Driver, No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet):
The DLP HDTV team has finished in the top-15 for two consecutive weeks. What are your thoughts on this recent string of success?
"We said at the beginning of the year we wanted to run top-20 with a stretch goal of top-15. So, it's good for the whole DLP team that we've been able to put together a few good finishes recently. The guys have been working hard and we've stayed out of trouble. We just need to keep plugging along and continue to get better. We've had good finishes, but we still need to get better and everyone knows that. But, that said, we are happy with what we've accomplished. We just don't want to dwell on it."
What are your overall thoughts heading into Talladega?
"I thought we had a good race car there last spring. Our strategy in that race was to sort of hang out in the back and avoid trouble and then, with 10 or 15 laps to go, kind of get up there and mix it up. That seemed to pay off because I think I was fifth, going for third, and I got blocked heavily on the backstretch, lost my momentum, got shuffled back and finished 17th. Jeff Gordon was leading on the white-flag lap and he ended up finishing right in front of me. So, it's a lot of strategy. It's making the right move at the right time, and obviously that's a lot easier said than done."
Can you describe the draft and how to work it to your advantage?
"I honestly think that there are two theories there. You want to just get behind somebody and ride. You hate to use that term because everyone is so competitive and they want to pass everybody they can. But in speedway racing, it really doesn't benefit you to pass anybody because you can't do it on your own. So you need a dance partner, and you need to log some miles before you start getting after it. But if you find yourself near the front due to the revolving door, it's nice to lead a lap because you get five points out of it. But if you're going to lead, you need to be at the very front to lead all the laps, or at the very back watching out for the big wreck.
"The big wreck is the one wild card. You can get caught up in a wreck you had no part of. It's just a crapshoot. The last few speedway races I've run, I've been back there with Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte and we just kind of run in our own little pack until it's time to play. And we've avoided some of the wrecks. That's no guarantee, of course, but I kind of like that strategy. Five points is nice, but to lead that lap, you can put yourself at risk of getting up there and then falling to the back. We don't need to be in the pack fighting for 18th or 20th when it's not even halfway yet."
You talked about hanging back with Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett. Do the three of you discuss strategy before each race?
"Yeah, we have talked about it, but sometimes you just end up back there. It doesn't mean you're looking for each other. It just means that this particular driver is laying back a little bit so there is some room between them and the big pack. There might be one big group or two smaller groups. It just depends on how it works out. It's just constant game of musical chairs. It's a funny race. Patience is key. You get angry because you want to pass people, but you can't do it without any help."
You've always said that Daytona and Talladega are different, despite both being restrictor-plate race tracks. How?
"At Daytona, the track is so coarse that the tires wear down and the handling, especially in the summer, becomes super critical. You can't run wide open in a pack. At Talladega, there is new asphalt and even in the past, when the pavement was old, your handling wasn't an issue. It's just the way the corners are set up."
BRANDON THOMAS (Crew Chief, No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet):
What are your overall thoughts heading into Talladega?
"Obviously, it's back to the speedway cars, which may have a soft spot in my heart as much as I hate them. I worked on them a lot. I spent a lot of time on that stuff at Gibbs and we spend a fair amount of time on them here, too. I actually enjoy the speedway impound races because you don't have to do nearly the work you have to do at the Daytona 500. Qualifying the car in race trim and then impounding the car simplifies a lot of our procedure. The qualifying results at those races reflects a lot more of the true speed of the car as opposed to what your moral fabric would allow you to get away with or attempt to get away with in the tech inspection process. Talladega is not a track I've ever done well at, which is kind of disappointing. Daytona is a lot more about handling and the driver. Talladega is typically a little more straight-line speed-related. At Gibbs, a lot of our work centered on making a car that was more in the hands of a driver and more of a benefit for a good restrictor-plate driver -- a guy like Tony Stewart. That let him take his chances and see what he could do with it. Talladega is a little bit tougher of a cookie."
Can you talk about the last couple of weeks and the DLP HDTV team's consecutive top-15 finishes?
"Up until the day you win a race, you'll always want to finish higher. You can't leave Texas and say, 'We finished 13th. We're awesome.' Well, 12 cars beat you, so you're still working your angle to find 12 ways to beat those guys. That said, it's obviously a lot more rewarding from a performance standpoint to come back and say, 'We finished on the lead lap the last couple of weeks. We've had good mentions on TV for DLP.' The morale in the shop is definitely up. People are starting to stand up and say, 'Hey, we're not too bad.' We're starting to hit a lot of the goals we set out for ourselves. The key is to keep that mentality and that momentum rolling as much as we can and to improve on it as we go."
Has the Car of Tomorrow (COT) leveled the playing field for smaller teams in the Nextel Cup Series?
"I don't think so. The same teams are still dominating and winning the races. The COT didn't level the playing field for Hall of Fame Racing. The fact that I spent the last year with Joe Gibbs Racing testing and doing several thousand miles of work on the COT -- doing all the research and development -- my experience in that stuff has helped us shortcut a lot of the typical and common mistakes some of the other teams might be making right now. So that helps fast-forward and jump-start our program a little bit. The Gibbs cars are good cars. You look at Tony Stewart. He's had a chance to win a couple of COT races. Denny Hamlin's had a chance to win all three COT races. J.J. Yeley has run well. He's just had some bad luck. So all four drivers -- including Raines -- have run well in the COT races. That's a testament to the entire package, but I think my experience in testing has helped us shortcut a lot of problems."
As a crew chief, what is the one thing you want at Talladega?
"You really want your car to be noticed by other cars. In practice you want guys to say, 'I got behind the 96 or I got around the 96 and my car was good. That's a car I could work with.' You're not going to win that race alone. Even if it turned into an all-green-flag, fuel-mileage run, you're never going to have separation. At Daytona, you could actually run 100 laps of green and get some separation from some guys on some bad pit stops. At Talladega, you're just not going to be able to do it because you're not going to be faster than anyone else. You really want your car to be noticed by other drivers as a car they can work with so that when race day comes, people will come up to your back bumper and hit it and move you forward."