When the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season opens Feb. 20, it could be that the new racing surface at Daytona International Speedway has less to do with deciding who wins the Daytona 500 than the new fueling systems that will be used in competition by teams for the first time.
So say many of those who will be involved in trying to make certain the cars get enough fuel in them during the race.
"Just wait until somebody loses a race because of that [new system]. It has 30 moving parts," said one team owner who asked not to be named.
Tony Gibson, crew chief for the No. 39 Chevrolet driven by Ryan Newman for Stewart-Haas Racing, spoke freely on the record about the problems currently being encountered by teams as they attempt to become more familiar with the new fueling system. Talking at length about it during a stop on NASCAR Sprint Media Tour, Gibson said it has been exasperating and no doubt will lead to slower pit stops across the board at least at first this season. But he added that he is confident teams eventually will come to grips with the challenges they face.
"It's crazy, man," Gibson said. "We blow it all up now because it's new and it's scary. But it's like anything else: the gas guys will get used to it and we'll figure out a way to make it work, and probably we'll get [the pit-stop times] back to where they were. We'll figure out a way to get it done faster. But right now, you want to be that guy who can figure out this scenario best -- so you can take advantage of it."
The difficulty lies in the new, bulkier configuration of the new gas cans and their longer necks -- plus the fact that NASCAR has eliminated the catch-can man, reducing the number of team members who can go over the wall during a pit stop from seven to six.
"It doesn't just change getting to the wall and getting to the car and back," Gibson said. "Actually getting connected is such a different connecting deal, if you're off just a little bit it slows down the flow of the fuel tremendously."
The connectivity challenge was obvious during recent testing sessions at Daytona, where puddles of spilled fuel dotted garage stalls and pit stalls. Gibson and others admitted they were concerned some fires might erupt as a result.
When they announced the decision to go to the new system, NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton explained the decision by saying, "We'll run a fueling system that will eliminate the catch-can guy [because] it fuels and vents all in one process. It's what the Truck Series teams have used successfully."
Yet Gibson said the Cup cars are so much different than the Truck Series machines that they've been able to learn next to nothing from observing.
"Their fueling systems are different. Their cans are different, they're nozzles are different," Gibson said. "All that stuff is slower. All that mating stuff is different -- because that's what we were going to do. We were going to go back and look at the Truck Series and look at how they did their pit stops and all that. Well, they're not even the same deal."
Pemberton also admitted that the new fueling system was a byproduct of NASCAR's decision to "go green" and opt to use E-15 ethanol fuel beginning this season.
"It better enables us to keep a control on the open container of fuel -- because with the E-15 you want to make sure you never get any moisture whatsoever into that. And this better helps with that," Pemberton said.
One team executive said during testing that he understands the thought process behind NASCAR green initiative. Then he added, "Going green is fine, but first we have to figure out how to put gas in the cars without spilling it. Look outside every [garage] stall. You'll see a puddle."
And if NASCAR thought eliminating one over-the-wall crewman was going to save teams any money -- that simply has not been the case, according to Gibson and Darian Grubb, who serves as crew chief for Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevy. Grubb said Stewart-Haas Racing had to fork out $45,000 to purchase all the new equipment related to the new system for its two cars. And Gibson pointed out that while the catch-can man has been eliminated, now there is a need to have a second team member to help with gas cans that will be handed over the wall to the lone fuel man -- leaving the amount of team members employed and traveling each weekend to the track the same.
Not only that, Gibson said, but the second man behind the wall can't be just anyone.
"Now the guy that's your fuel man and the guy who is handing him the can have both got to be tall," Gibson said. "Here is another thing: if he can pivot and save a step going to the car, you can save yourself nearly a second, right? That's why the guy handing in the second can has got to be a pretty big guy, too.
"Our backup truck driver used to be our second-can guy, handing it over the wall, and he's too short now. Shoot, you need to be anywhere from 6-1 to 6-2 to 6-3 -- both if you're the guy handing in the second can and the guy putting the fuel in the car.
Gibson said the Stewart-Haas teams are spending "probably twice as much time on this" as they normally would leading up to Daytona. He added that additional expenses have resulted from engineers trying to figure out the best way to get fuel to flow freely from the can to the car's fuel cell.
"We've had engineers working on it since we first got one of those [new systems]," he said. "The engineers have been back there working for months to see how we can get the fuel to flow faster. ... The systems are all the same, but where you hold it and at which angles can make a big difference in how fast the fuel flows."
Meanwhile, the danger of the fuel man still being connected to the car when the jack goes down and the driver takes off is real -- and Gibson believes that until everyone gets their timing down better, it's going to lead to more of the troublesome fuel spillage. That's going to leave some crew chiefs wondering if they got a full load of fuel in, which could affect whatever in-race strategy they choose to pursue.
"What we've been working on, too, is having the gas man watch the tire changer," Gibson said. "He's watching him the whole time. As he hits his last nut, he's got to be pulling off. If not and that jack drops with that thing connected, you're in trouble. You can't get it off. If the car gets moving and it gets caught, you're screwed. You ain't getting it off there. It's just not going to happen.
"It's new for everybody. All these scenarios, you're going to have to go through experiencing them before you're able to fix them."
A former gas man who played a key role in helping Alan Kulwicki win the 1992 Cup title, Gibson said he even tried his hand at his old job recently. The results were not encouraging.
"And I gassed for 12 years. Hell, I went back there and was doing it just to see how hard it was, to see if maybe I could come up with a scenario [to improve the process]," Gibson said. "Shoot, I got hung up twice the first four times I tried to do it. I was like, 'Gawdang!' The necks and everything are so much longer, and the whole can is so much bigger."
Brian France, chairman and CEO of NASCAR, said he has no doubts that crews will quickly adjust to the new systems.
"It puts us further down the right path to be responsible with the environment," France said of the decision to switch to the new fuel and new fueling system. "Choosing a fuel like ethanol, it's home grown, American-made. That one is just a perfect fit for us. ... We did a lot of testing and we feel like the performance is going to be really good. So we're confident about that."
The question is how long it takes crews to adjust. Asked if making a mistake with the new fueling system during a race could cost someone a championship this season, Gibson did not hesitate with his answer.
"Absolutely," he said.