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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier discuss their early NASCAR lessons

by Gordon Kirby
Most everyone thought that Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart's pair of Joe Gibbs' Toyotas would power through to win the 50th Daytona, but Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch's Penske Dodges surprised everyone by teaming up to beat the Toyotas. Almost out of the blue, Penske Racing scored its first Daytona 500 victory made even sweeter with a one-two sweep. Add another fine feather to Roger Penske racing teams' tremendous list of accomplishments.

"We've been here almost thirty years trying to get into victory circle and to achieve this against this level of competition is just unbelievable," Penske said. "We've worked hard and come close, but I think it was a pure team effort. You saw it at the end there. You saw the #18 lined up with the #20 and the #2 lined up with the #12, and I think that's what it took. To me, Ryan drove a masterful race. He did a hell of a job for us today."

This was the first Daytona 500 with NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow, which makes barely half the downforce of the old Cup car, and it was interesting to watch the teams come to grips with the new car at Daytona. "These cars were designed and built to not drive as good as the cars that we used to run," Tony Stewart commented after Thursday's qualifying races. "So I can't say it's a surprise that they don't handle as good because that's what they were built for."

After coming through the field from the back to win his qualifying race, Dale Earnhardt Jr talked about the difficulties of driving the downforce-reduced CoT at Daytona. "This car makes it a little more challenging," Earnhardt said. "After twenty laps, it was definitely more challenging to drive the car, even running out front and up high. You're correcting the car, sliding the rear end into the corner, backing into the fence into the entrance of every corner. It gets a little loose off, too.

"It's way easier to do that when you're leading than when you're running second or third. I was behind (Ryan) Newman as our tires started to fade and good Lord, it's tough! I know what those guys are going through when they're behind me now. It makes me feel better about being able to hold my position as I'm leading the race, knowing how difficult it is running second or third. I can't imagine running twentieth with twenty more cars behind you, pushing you down in the corner when you've got no air on the car because of the field in front of you. (The 500) is going to be a challenge."

It certainly proved to be a steep learning curve for the open-wheel drivers in the field. Sam Hornish produced the best result for the former open-wheelers, running his best NASCAR race by far to date and ultimately finishing fifteenth in Penske's third Dodge. Juan Pablo Montoya also had his moments near the front but got shuffled back to finish thirty-second, last man to run 200 laps, while teammate Dario Franchitti made it home one lap down in thirty-third. Patrick Carpentier ran competitively in practice and qualifying and looked like he might make the 500 field but Carpentier suffered a tire failure near the end of his qualifying race and was among those who didn't start the 500.

Also failing to qualify was Jacques Villeneuve who has had a rough transition to stock car racing. Jacques crashed in almost every NASCAR race he ran at the end of last year and repeated this sad act at Daytona before losing his seat to Mike Skinner. Following Craig Pollock's departure from the NASCAR scene, Barry Green was at Daytona to attempt to find sponsorship to keep Villeneuve in NASCAR. Jacques' poorly managed, shabby start to his stock car career has been a sharp contrast to the way in which he entered CART and then F1, and it's sad to see Villeneuve's career gone astray.

Meanwhile, Franchitti has discovered there's plenty to learn about driving a NASCAR stock car, particularly the new CoT in restrictor plate form. "There are so many lessons to learn," Franchitti said. "If you look at Daytona, there are lessons in themselves because with restrictor-plate racing you might have a little bit more than half the horsepower we're going to have next week in California. I think in years past you were going almost wide-open around the track but now, if you're in the middle to the back of the pack, you are lifting a lot and really driving the car."

Unlike any purpose-designed racing car, a heavy NASCAR stock car with comparatively narrow tires and very little downforce--further exacerbated by the CoT--is always squirming around. "What I'm getting used to as much as anything is this feeling of the car sliding around," Dario remarked. "With the Indy car I'm used to quite quick movements--short and smaller movements. If you get sideways with these cars, you're in the fence. So I'm still getting used to that feeling of driving the car with the rear moving and sliding around. You've got to get used to that and it seems from talking to the team and talking to Juan, and to other drivers like Tony Stewart, that everybody goes through it when they first come here."

Another aspect to stock car racing is that the car's handling is always compromised and the driver has to learn to live with it. "I think a lot of my success in the Indy car," Franchitti observed, "was being able to get the setup exactly the way I wanted it--to work with my engineer to tweak it to really get it to where I needed it to be, and you could adjust that throughout the run with the tools you had inside the car.

"Here, you're never going to have a perfect car so you're going to have to get used to driving it with a degree of looseness, or it's a bit tight. That's one of the lessons, too, and then we go next weekend to a different track and it's a whole different bunch of lessons. It's interesting. When you get sideways there's another thing they talk about and that's sideforce. So that's another thing I'm getting used to is keeping it on that edge."

Stock cars also go through much more suspension movement than any single-seater or sports car. The CoT is a little closer to a purpose-designed racing car in this regard which means Franchitti has to adapt to a very different feeling car whenever he jumps from his Sprint Cup to a Nationwide car.

"With the CoT, it holds sort of a flatter attitude," Dario said. "It's a different beast because it doesn't move that much. It's got such a high roll center and center of gravity that there are a lot of things they do to stop it from rolling. It has that splitter and the position of the splitter relative to the ground and how you keep it there is very important. If you run too low it just bottoms out and you lose all your steering.

"There's very little suspension movement in comparison with the old-style car which had about six inches of suspension travel! So when I jump from the Nationwide to the Sprint Cup car I have to get used to that as well."

Before Thursday's qualifying races Elliott Sadler gave his rookie teammate Patrick Carpentier some vaulable advice about restrictor-plate racing. Carpentier was having trouble staying flat on the throttle through the corners so that he couldn't stay in the draft. The French-Canadian former open-wheel ace was also having trouble burning-off his right front tire. Sadler was completely open with Carpentier in educating him to the specific demands of Daytona aboard a power-choked, restrictor plate car.

"When you first go out you need to run around the top of the track," Sadler told Carpentier. "You've got to take care of that right front tire. You can't be runnin' 'round the bottom. When you do that, you're overloadin' the right front. That's what you're doin'. You're tearin' up the right front in the first laps of the run so you're no good at the end. You've gotta bring the tires in carefully. Then you can go to the bottom."

This is one of the biggest things for an open-wheel driver to adapt to because Goodyear's tires are nothing like as effective or consistent in performance over the course of a run compared to Bridgestone/Firestone's superb tires which all Formula 1, Indy and Champ car drivers are used to. Incredibly, tire failures are common in NASCAR in the 21st century, and Goodyear's rubber may be the only racing tires extant in today's world where physical failures are accepted as normal. Coping with tires that can fail and regularly lose their performance edge dramatically is something new for Franchitti and his open-wheel colleagues.

"There are several things happening," Dario observed. "There's the weight of these cars and the tire is so bloody small that it's under a hell of a lot of stress. But it's a long time since I've driven a tire that fades. I was a Bridgestone/Firestone guy for twelve or thirteen years and I worked pretty hard developing the tires with those guys and they didn't really degrade. It was very unusual if you went to a track and the tires did degrade.

"But you're stressing the tires so much more here with the Goodyears. I'm getting used to how you have to set the car up to be loose at the start of a run and drive through that looseness so it doesn't push like a pig at the end."

Carpentier was racing for the final qualifying slot when his right rear tire blew in his qualifying race so that he didn't make the field for the 500. Carpentier said his biggest problem was having to lift off the throttle at the end of the corners because he was running out of racetrack and heading toward the wall.

"What you've got to do is lift early in the corners, not at the end," Sadler advised. "If you lift at the end of the corner everyone's just going to run away from you and you'll lose the draft, like you're sayin'. So you've got to lift in the middle of the corner, get the car settled down and be flat coming off the corner. That way you'll stay in the draft and the car will be settled down so you can look in your mirror coming off the corner and be able to block. You've got to look high and look low and be ready to block."

Carpentier nodded in agreement as he took Sadler's advice on board. "You'll be spending about seventy percent of your time looking in the mirror and blocking coming off the corner," Sadler noted. "And about thirty percent looking ahead, checking where you are to the guy ahead."

Franchitti said Sadler's advice was spot-on. "That's Daytona and using the draft," Dario remarked. "You watch the guys who do it well and it's very impressive. They're not only driving these things which are sliding around underneath them but they're looking in the mirrors all the time and judging what to do in traffic. With an Indy car it's more about what's happening in front of you, but with these things it's more about what's happening behind you. You need some guys pushing you from behind to make any moves and you need to know exactly where everyone is around you at all times.

"It's a new discipline you've got to learn. You don't really have side mirrors like you would in an Indy car or even a touring car for that matter. So I'm getting used to that and working with my spotter as well. You're spotter is really important. He keeps you informed of where you are relative to everyone else and you have to have really good communication."

Despite not qualifying for the 500, Carpentier remains wildly enthusiastic about NASCAR. "I love driving these cars," Patrick grinned. "It's a lot of fun. I just hoped I had been able to do 500 more miles on Sunday. I love this. I always wanted to do ovals and this is the place for me to do that. We'll stick to it and keep working harder because this is what I want to do.

"The car was pretty fast and over the last five or six laps I just kept riding the top groove there and kept hitting the wall. One thing I learned is that there's a cushion up there. Once you get really high at the top of the banking there's a cushion of air that kinda stops the car from going into the wall.

"The last six laps the car was really, really pushing and I hit the wall about four times. I hit it fairly hard one time between three and four and just kept riding the wall. I could see pieces of rubber flying off and I knew my time was counting down. I knew something was going to happen but I was hoping we could make it to the end. Robby Gordon came behind me to help me at the end but it was too late.

"I love it," Carpentier added. "It's a lot of fun. The team put me in the car every week since the end of last season. I've been sitting in the car petty much every week testing and feeling a lot more comfortable than before. There's still a lot to learn. Every track you leave you say you think you've got it. Then you go to the next one and you know absolutely nothing. So it's going to be a fun, long year, but we'll learn."

Franchitti says the biggest physical problem in racing a stock car is the immense heat build-up inside the car's 'greenhouse'. "Physically, the cars are very hot," Dario commented. "With the Indy car you had to work-out four or five days a week, at least I did anyway. This car is a lot easier physically, but oh my God does the heat get to you! That's very difficult. It's just something you have to get used to.

"I'm certainly not training as much as I used to. I don't have anywhere near as much time to spend in the gym. I always thought it was part of my job to get in the gym and work out. I didn't really enjoy it, but I did it. Now I find I get out for a run a couple or three times a week and that's it."

Franchitti has discovered that the approach to getting the best out of a stock car is very different than what he's been used to through his entire career. "It is a huge learning curve," he said. "Testing at California, if you didn't go out in the morning straight away and lay down a lap you weren't anywhere on the time sheets because first thing in the morning the track's quickest and the tires are new. And of course, I'm out there learning.

"So the second day we got a lot closer and were a lot happier but things like that you don't think of. You don't look at the time sheets as far as one lap. You look at it as far as a ten-lap average or something like that. So you learn to read the time sheets a bit differently. You have to get used to just how much the track slows-down during the day as it gets hot."

Franchitti has also learned that a high-banked superspeedway without a restrictor plate feels like a flat track. "We've run around California at 240 mph in a Champ car, but the first time I went out in the new CoT Sprint Cup car I came on the radio and asked, 'What did they do with the banking? Where did it go?' It's like a flat track. You're going 210 mph into turn one, but by the middle of the corner you're down to less than 160 and you're driving the hell out of this thing!

"And then someone like Tony Stewart goes by you and you watch on the exit of the corner and you can read 'Home Depot' because he's so sideways. So you say, okay, I've got to build up to that."

And how does Dario expect to cope with a schedule of thirty-six races? "The first thing we've got to do is get through the first five races and stay in the top thirty-five in points and learn as much as we can. Then we can start making steps. But we've got to get through those first five races. So I'm taking it one race at a time right now, until I get more of a feel for it."

Will Franchitti, Carpentier, Hornish, et al, find success in NASCAR? A long road lays ahead.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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