Shh! Test keys Danica's success
There is no way to tell if crew chief David Hyder yelled "Eureka!" or if a mechanic in grubby pants had a figurative light bulb appear above his head. Or if test driver Scott Riggs began speaking in tongues and leaving vapor trails around vacant Nashville Superspeedway.
Those would be enticing additions to the tale if they had happened, or if the veteran crew chief would allow any details to escape from the Stewart-Haas Racing test on May 8 that immediately and perhaps instrumentally changed the arc of Danica Patrick's NASCAR career. But Hyder, through a team spokesman, declined interview requests, for fear of revealing any advances his skunkworks operation made that pivotal day. And he subsequently phoned Riggs, a NASCAR journeyman racing part-time in the truck series and testing for the SHR research and development operation, and told him to do the same.
Must be good stuff. It's proven to be so in just one application, as Patrick took the setup and mechanical changes discovered by Hyder to craft the most complete weekend of her stock car career and her best finish in Sprint Cup, when she placed seventh at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago.
With 1.5-mile distance tracks comprising much of the Sprint Cup schedule, mastery of these intermediate venues is crucial, and a critical improvement area for Patrick in her second full season at NASCAR's highest level. Though these tracks are not necessarily homogenous, certain elements of the Kansas setup should apply to the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"Some of it was things we strictly do at Kansas-type racetracks, but I feel like these are things that will make an impact at these other mile-and-a-half tracks,'' Patrick crew chief, Tony Gibson, said. "It was definitely something different.
"Each track is a little bit different, has different little characteristics, which is a good thing. But our basic setup, I would say 90 percent of what we had at Kansas will run at Charlotte. At least we'll start with it and see how it goes. If things ain't working, we'll abort. But we're going to try and stick with it and make it work."
The constraints of Sprint Cup regulations designed to equalize competition leave engineers with scant innovation areas, they claim, and breakthroughs are precious and closely guarded as much as possible in an open garage setting.
Gibson said the changes to Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet were both aerodynamic and mechanical.
"There were some things on the body that were a little bit different, some things we've been working on, aero stuff, balances, balance shifts we could use," he said. "Some of it was springs and shocks stuff, mechanical stuff we bolt on and off the car that we continue with."
The application of the discoveries began with a call from Hyder to Gibson as the team was preparing to begin the race weekend at the 1.5-mile Kansas track. It made for a quick and fruitful exploitation of the budget.
"It's pretty cool when a plan comes together," Gibson said, chuckling.
It came together to enable what Gibson described as Patrick's best race in her stock car career, where she practiced well, qualified ninth and raced with and past Sprint Cup luminaries the entire race, at various points passing Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and teammate Tony Stewart.
"I'm really overall proud of the team for building cars like these," an ecstatic Patrick said after the race. "This was a new car. It was so good.""I'm really overall proud of the team for building cars like these. This was a new car. It was so good." -- Danica Patrick
Confidence in the machine engendered the confidence in the human, Gibson said, allowing her to attempt such moves in various lines. Crucial in the new setup was allowing Patrick to "feel the right rear tire gripping up," he said, and Patrick noted that she felt comfortable running any lane at Kansas.
"She had to know how to drive the car differently with what we had, and applying it," he said. "She had a huge part in that. She's the driver. Once we give her the car, she's the other 50 percent of making that deal 100.
"There's confidence in knowing you can send one 212 mph in the corner and it's going to stick."
Maybe the collected results of the Tennessee test has a clandestine name and an encrypted file somewhere in SHR's computer system. "The Nashville Protocol" would be exquisite, if Hyder would even let that detail out. For now, Gibson is eager to let the results play themselves out.
"You never know. You have hair-brained ideas and you hope things work," Gibson said, laughing, but with a tone of satisfaction. "We're always working trying to make things better and cars better and find something she likes and something that fits her driving style.
"So we tested and worked hard, and we're just proud it actually worked. We finally found something."