KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Feb. 9, 2016) – Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has long been a game of inches. Close finishes have been a part of the sport since the very beginning, including in the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. Initially, NASCAR declared Johnny Beauchamp the winner in what was a photo finish. But some three days later, with the help of photographs and newsreel footage, Lee Petty was deemed to have won the first race held at the 2.5-mile Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
The NASCAR rulebook has goals of enriched competition, improved safety, reduced cost, enhanced product relevance, environmental improvements and more. More importantly, the book contains the tolerances to which each part and piece on a racecar must conform, which come into play throughout the build, assembly and race processes. After 500 miles of racing the winning car and driver can be determined by a fraction of a second. Thus, attention to detail within the guidelines set in the rulebook can provide the slightest advantage that can be the deciding factor between who crosses the finish line first or second.
Teams of engineers are constantly redesigning parts and pieces on their racecars in an effort to gain a competitive advantage. With a goal of making parts stronger and more reliable, they also look to keep their tolerances as close to the limits set forth in the rulebook. As such, machinists working in the computer numerically controlled (CNC) room work seemingly around the clock, interrupting their normal production schedule for last-minute modification jobs that are given to them in a “needed-it-yesterday” timeframe.
It was that kind of attention to detail that drew Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) co-owner Gene Haas, founder of Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the Western World, into the NASCAR arena. His machines play an integral role in the successes of the title-winning Sprint Cup team. In the SHR shop alone, there are 15 Haas CNC machines making parts and pieces for the four-car team’s fleet of Chevrolets.
Haas CNC machines not only produce constantly evolving team-specked pieces, they also modify parts that the team receives via OEM manufacturers. Advantages can be gained in the process of milling parts and pieces to NASCAR’s strict tolerances thanks to the overall combined weight saved throughout the racecar assembly process. And it’s those kinds of advantages that Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet SS for SHR, will hope to take advantage of during Daytona Speedweeks.
As the season kicks off at Daytona, Busch hopes his collaborative effort with crew chief Tony Gibson can continue to improve upon their successes from last year. Coming off an eighth-place finish in the Sprint Cup championship standings, the duo has its sights set even higher – competing for the 2016 Sprint Cup championship.
With the 16-driver Sprint Cup championship format, all it takes is just one win to lock a driver and team into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Busch would like nothing more than to score that win in the 58th Daytona 500, marking his first victory in the prestigious event and placing him well on his way to reaching his season-long goal.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Do you feel better prepared now to run for the championship than you did when you won your first one?
“Well, when you win at a young age, you’re somewhat naïve to the full operations of everything, and that’s where I was blessed to have Jimmy Fennig, a veteran crew chief, who knew all the angles on how to handle the crew members, how to handle the workload, what to do to a car on a hot sunny day versus a cold cloudy day. Now I see all that in myself, and so I have some young guys who are underneath me who I’m trying to teach those things to, but I also have to learn how to learn and listen from them. So I feel better prepared in many, many different categories, other than the young naïve one where I just went hammer down. But that’s still what I love to do and that’s what I get paid to do, and that’s one of the largest enjoyments about being a professional racecar driver – going out there and putting the hammer down.”
Does this championship format make it easier for the drivers because you know what gives you a chance, or does it make it tougher because there’s so much pressure?
“The rounds are so tight now with only three races at a time. There’s triple the pressure, it seems like. The emotions and the finger-pointing and the aggressive nature on the track has come up the last couple years. It’s because you can have a very successful year, and winning four races during the regular season and having a solid first two rounds in the Chase, and then you have one moment from a guy who takes you out, and then you’re on the outside looking in from a championship run. That’s what makes this format so difficult. It’s as if we’re all pitted against each other, racing each other for the format.”
Do you look forward to the low-downforce package? A lot of people say it allows you to showcase what you have.
“Oh, absolutely, hands down. Last year, when we tried it at Kentucky, it was thumbs up. Darlington was even better with a softer tire. If I had to walk into NASCAR’s office and give them one recommendation off of what we’re seeing thus far, come July, chop more downforce off it because we’re going to get softer tires, we’re going to end up in warmer months, we’ve got to take care of these tires. We need less downforce or less weight in the cars.”
Do you think the new rules for 2016 will improve the on-track product?
“I’m hoping that the low downforce brings it back more into the drivers’ hands and makes you think about how fast you want to go at the beginning of a tire run because you’ll pay a penalty at the latter part. I don’t know if it’ll go that far, if we’ll get to that level of detail, but it’s always great when you have tire management, and that’s something we haven’t had in our sport in a while.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine