Commentary

Loose doesn't mean fast to 24

Updated: February 21, 2009, 7:26 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Jeff Gordon wants to shatter a long-running myth about race driving in general.

When he does that, he'll clear up speculation about his driving style as a factor in his winless streak that dates back to October 2007.

It has to do with the highly romanticized "loose" race car. In that condition, the car supposedly goes faster through the corners -- if it's driven by someone who's willing and able to hang onto it as the rear end kicks out wildly so that the car is almost sideways.

Carl Edwards is the supposed maestro of loose nowadays. And his proud team owner, Jack Roush, has theorized that Gordon "doesn't like a loose race car" and that the new car "has to be pretty darn loose" to be fast.

Voilà! Gordon is slumping because he doesn't like the looseness in the new car. Right?

Wait a minute.

"If your car is loose, you're not going forward," Gordon says.

That is, you're scrubbing speed by going partly sideways.

"So a guy who drives a loose race car -- that's a bunch of baloney. That stuff that got created a long time ago is silly."

Even Edwards sides with Gordon.

"Too loose might look kind of great, but it isn't fast," Edwards says.

Gordon in his youth helped propagate the myth. Rick Hendrick spotted him in the first place, in 1991, because he was driving a car so loose that Hendrick thought he'd wreck any second.

"Back then, I didn't know any better," Gordon says. "As you get older, you do things different, based on experience."

Gordon's winless streak dates back 42 points races. His win in a 150-mile qualifier at Daytona last Thursday doesn't count, not only because it's not a points race, but also because Daytona is such an aberration from the rest of the season.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
AP Photo/David GrahamJeff Gordon finally got back into Victory Lane after winning one of the Gatorade Duels -- which was a non-points event -- at Daytona.

Where Gordon's issues must be resolved will be at places like 2-mile Fontana, Calif., this weekend -- intermediate and short tracks make up the brunt of the schedule. At all of those, corner entry is crucial.

From Roush to Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, theory has been running strong that much of Gordon's problem was that the new car has to be set up in a frustrating way: It has to be very loose entering the corner, so that it will turn properly through the middle of the corner.

"So if the first thing you do is tighten the car up and say, 'Now we'll go try to make it fast,'" Roush says, "you've probably created a scenario for yourself where the car won't have the speed. I'm not being critical of Jeff, but I think that's what's going on."

Roush says his own drivers "who have the preference for the looser cars have been the ones that have stood supreme."

Clearly he means Edwards. But Edwards indicates he isn't as loose on entry as people might perceive.

When you're loose, "you're slow," Edwards says. "The car will go its fastest at a certain slip angle. If you've got it set up to where that's where it's running and you can drive it like that, you'll be fast."

Because of its high center of gravity and little front-end downforce, the new car "is always, always tight," Johnson said last month. "Once you finally get it loose enough to turn, the thing is definitely sideways and you can't control it.

"So there's been a balance of getting the car where it will turn for [Gordon], but not where it's so loose. That's the thing we fight through [at Hendrick]."

Johnson added that "with his background all those years in sprint cars and midgets, and throwing it sideways, he really yanks on the steering wheel early. That's kind of been the underlying problem to get sorted out for him. It has been frustrating for everybody here."

Johnson said he doesn't have the same difficulty as Gordon with the new car because "I'll tolerate it" loose on entry.

So add Johnson's analysis to Roush's, and here's the hypothesis: Gordon is uncomfortable in a car that's loose on entry, and he's exacerbating the problem by making the car even looser by "yanking" the wheel early.

Once I played back the recording of what Johnson had said in detail, and figured he might be on to something, I tried to get in touch with Gordon for a reply. But Gordon sent word he didn't want to try to answer until we could sit down face to face, with some time, so he could explain in detail.

We did that at Daytona during Speedweeks.

His issues driving the new car are a lot more complex than just that it's loose.

As for Johnson's thought that Gordon yanks the steering wheel early, perhaps causing the car to be even looser, "I don't necessarily agree with him on that," Gordon says. "All he's basing it off of is data. He sees data. He's great at studying that stuff.

"What I have had to work on with this car -- and to me, it's half something I've got to work on, and half what the team has got to help me with, because you can only change so much of your style -- is that I drive in really deep [into the corner], and get out of the gas a little bit too hard.

"That loads the nose hard. With these bump stops now, you've got to set down on them a lot easier. The car has got to transition less abruptly.

"For me, being able to drive in deep and have a bunch of right-front spring in the old days, and have your car feel comfortable on entry, is something you get habits from -- no doubt about it."

So it's more that Gordon is used to driving hard into the corner, and used to the car setting firmly when he turns the wheel.

"So he's right and he's wrong," Gordon continues on Johnson's analysis. "I wouldn't call it [habits from] sprint cars; I would call it [habits from] the types of stock cars and setups that I've been driving since I came in, versus what this car is.

I don't like a loose race car. I don't like a tight race car. I like a perfect race car.

--Jeff Gordon

"And the longer you're in the series, the harder it is for you to change your habits. But it's definitely something, I agree, that I've got to work more on, and as a team we've got to work more on.

"And that's a perfect example of why one driver's setup doesn't always necessarily work for another. Let's say I can fix some of it, but I can't fix all of it. Then if there's something they can do in the setup, in the compliance of that bump stop or the shock or the spring, that will help with the transition, then that might be something that works really good for me, but not so good for Jimmie or somebody else.

"I think with this car, generally, you've got to get the car to rotate in the middle. And you might have to accept it being a little looser in, or looser off, there's no doubt about that. But if you just have a loose race car, you're not going to go fast."

As far as being able to manage it, "I don't mind the looseness. That doesn't bother me. What bothers me is how you transfer onto these bump stops and how it might upset the car, or not let the car set in the corner."

Even Edwards, the unwitting poster boy for loose, agrees with Gordon that setting the car onto the bump stops in the corners is critical.

"With the way the suspension works and the splitter is, everything's pretty harsh on the front ends," Edwards says.

"And there's definitely some magic," Edwards says, "to figuring out how to get the thing to get the right attitude, and at the same time not shock those front tires, or shock them hard enough. …

"You can definitely change the way the car goes through the corner by how hard or easy you get off the gas, onto the brakes," Edwards says.

"One of the things I dealt with last year," Gordon says, "was that one time I'd get in there and use a little too much brake and the front end would shove. Next time, I'd go in there and not use so much brake, and the car would turn.

"To me, consistency [is the objective]. It's a combination of out of the throttle, on the brakes and turn in. With this car, you've got to be a lot more precise, and do all those things a lot less abruptly."

Purely because of lap times, "I don't like a loose race car," he admits, and adds, "I don't like a tight race car. I like a perfect race car."

With the new car, "I've seen guys out there get their cars where they can turn, but the car still has grip. That's not loose. If your car's loose, it's not going forward. …

"It's about getting the car to rotate, yet still have the drive-off, off the corner, and still be able to put the power down.

"To me it's a combination of driver and setup, and that's the way it's always been.

"It's just that things are different now with this car, because it doesn't turn in the middle of the corner. It just doesn't have the front downforce, and just the way the car is designed, it doesn't want to rotate in the corner. You've got a higher center of gravity, you've got a lot of things that are playing a role.

"And yeah, some guys have done a better job of getting their cars to rotate than others."

Crew chief Steve Letarte continues to search for suspension combinations to meet Gordon's adjustment of his style halfway. But with the limited options on the new car, and NASCAR's ban on testing, "we just haven't been able to key in on what he needs yet," Letarte says. "He's going to have to help us get there, and I'm going to have to do a better job of getting there."

In their quest to make cornering consistent, "it's not lack of effort," Letarte says. "We just need to make sure we're turning over the right stones."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.