Hendrick Motorsports races to the front by working outside the box
It’s impossible to ignore the resurgence of Hendrick Motorsports in the past month, especially since the team has three wins in the past five races and Jimmie Johnson has led the most laps in two of them.
At the same time, many have also noticed something strange with the rear axles in their cars.
“There are parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that make the car more competitive,” Brad Keselowski said. “Some guys have it; some guys don’t. There’s a question to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don’t want to be the guys that get the big penalty.”
NASCAR mandated new rules for the rear axle housing in June that limits how much the rear tires can be tilted to create more traction. The sanctioning body also put restrictions on how the rear axle is installed.
Some believe the Hendrick teams have figured a way to get around the new rules.
“All the Hendrick cars have more yaw than the whole field,” Kevin Harvick said. “They have got the garage scrambling a little bit right now to try and figure out how to achieve exactly what they are doing.”
Teams never stop looking for an advantage. And once they find one, it doesn’t take long for everyone else to figure it out, too.
In 1991 Harry Gant’s team figured out a way to lean the right-rear tire out so it would have better grip in the corners, and that helped Gant win four consecutive races. Other teams quickly tried the same thing, which led to a rash of rear axle failures and fires. NASCAR eventually limited how far a tire can be toed in or out.
The moving rear ends at Hendrick apparently have accomplished the same thing as Gant’s old setup. Some wonder if it’s legal.
“It’s living in the gray area,” Keselowski said. “That’s something that we have to continue to evaluate every week that goes by, that those components are permitted to run. We have to make a re-evaluation of that internally to decide if that’s the right way to go.”
Other teams already are working hard to catch up.
Roush Fenway Racing has developed its own rear end. While it still isn’t as fast as Hendrick’s – Johnson easily pulled away from Greg Biffle at the end of last Sunday’s race at the Michigan International Raceway – it has helped close the gap.
Biffle wound up winning at Michigan after Johnson’s engine blew up with six laps to go. Keselowski finished second.
“It took us awhile to figure out what they were doing but we’ve been working at it and have assurance from NASCAR that it is OK and within the rules and not the reason that we were able to win today,” car owner Jack Roush said. “It certainly is hard to win if you don’t have a competitive aero package and chassis mechanical grip package.”
If it wasn’t for engine trouble, Biffle and Keselowski admitted they couldn’t keep up with Johnson.
“He was the class of the field,” Keselowski said. “It was quite a sight to see.”
Keselowski is concerned that while NASCAR works hard to build parity, Hendrick Motorsports is allowed to gain a decided advantage.
“I just think there’s big discrepancies in the cars now,” he said. “There’s certain parts and pieces on the cars that are making them quite a bit different to where we seeing difference paces throughout the field. But I think right now in the sport, the cars are probably the most separated we’ve ever seen.”
Jeff Gordon, who is one of Hendrick’s four drivers, said his group never stops looking for ways to stay ahead of the competition. The effort continues all year at Hendrick Motorsports, and some of that work hasn’t always been within the rules.
Johnson’s car was found to have an expandable rear window in 2006 at the Daytona International Speedway. When the window was pushed out, it deflected air off the rear spoiler and reduced drag. That trick wound up costing crew chief Chad Knaus a suspension.
Knaus was suspended again in 2007 for pushing portions of the front fender out on Johnson’s car to help with traction on the road course at Sonoma, Calif.
And a year ago Knaus was sanctioned for making illegal changes to the C-post – the piece that attaches the roof between the rear window and back door window.
“Creatively, the guys are really smart and they are coming up with some things that are making our cars stand out and do the things balance-wise that we are looking for,” Gordon said. “I don’t think we’re head and shoulders above anybody. I just think that we’ve got things that are working well for us.”
For that reason, Gordon said everybody at Hendrick Motorsports remains committed to thinking outside the box.
Which forces everyone else to play catch up or complain.