Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Thoughts on why Dale Earnhardt isn't winning races...

That he won once upon a time doesn't mean squat, it simply may have been that he had a car that was better than anyone else's... and so much so that he was able to overcome a relative lack of driving ability. Give me thirty more horsepower or a car that can hold a corner 10 miles an hour faster than my rivals and even I could win a couple of races.

Second, the car he drove back then isn't the car that he is driving today, there are significant differences in the way the car drives and he may just not have the ability to get as much of this car as do the other guys driving today.

A key, at least to me, is that he usually is not among the fastest drivers at any point in a race. If he were, one could conclude he had the car and the ability but just wasn't able to maintain that edge throughout the race.

So, as he isn't the among the fastest drivers, the question is 'why not?'

Fast lap times come from a combination of the following:

How much does the driver have to slow down the car before entering a turn?

How much speed can the driver maintain throughout the turn?

How soon and how much can the driver get back on the throttle?

How much power does the engine provide once the driver gets back on the throttle?

The last deals with torque and horsepower; all things being equal, the driver with the stronger engine will run faster lap times.

Presumably, Earnhardt uses the same engines that his teammates use, and as both Gordon and Johnson have led lots of laps, I'll venture a guess that Earnhardt's problems aren't due to the engine.

The first three deal with a combination of the car itself... and the driver's ability to sense just where the edge of the envelope is. The driver who thinks his car can handle more than it can usually ends up crashing; nothing good comes from going into a corner at 190 miles an hour if the car can only handle an entry speed of 188.

And, again all other things being equal, the driver who thinks his car can handle less than it really can will go into and out of a corner slower than his competitors. A driver is killing his lap times if he goes into a corner at 180 MPH with a car that can handle 182 or if he waits to get back on the throttle even fifty feet past the point at which the car can handle his doing so.

Since, as with the engines, Earnhardt has access to the same suspension equipment and setup information as do Johnson and Gordon, my guess is that Earnhardt turning slower times is due to his thinking he's pushing the limit of the car's handling when in fact he is far from the maximum. In other words, the car can give him more than he thinks it can. And in racing, if you don't ask the car to deliver, it won't.

This thus brings up the question of 'why?' Well, as I alluded to at the beginning, the car used today is different than the cars used when Earnhardt was winning races. It may be as simple as his still basing his driving on the feel he developed years ago, while the drivers who are winning today are either newer drivers like Kyle Busch, who don't have the old history to forget or older drivers like Kevin Harvick who appear to have figured out just how the new car differs from the old.

As to what to do? He needs to figure out just how much more the car can give him. And the way to do that is by spending as much time testing as possible. Lots of time on simulators. Lots of time driving the car in test sessions (NASCAR doesn't allow testing at tracks where they race, so he'd have to go elsewhere but even that would be helpful for helping him develop a better feel for the car). Earnhardt needs to figure out where the new line is and, in order to do that, he needs to spend hundreds of hours gradually pushing beyond where he thinks the envelope is. He needs to work on entering a turn with a bit more speed (RPMs, since NASCAR cars don't have speedometers) than he is comfortable, he needs to work on getting back to the throttle coming out of a turn a few feet faster. Since he's likely to be hesitant to do so, his crew needs to show him the data that shows how his competitors are going in and out of corners faster than he is). He needs to take baby steps to changing how he drives the car.