It all comes down to the next two weeks for crew chief Matt Puccia, his No. 16 team and driver Greg Biffle. Their Roush Fenway Racing car is teetering on the “bubble” of making the Chase, winless but holding the last spot on points. A victory by another driver, or two bad finishes the next two weeks and they’ll spend this postseason on the outside looking in. It’s a precarious position, turning strategy into a delicate balance come Atlanta and Richmond. Taking wild risks to go for the win versus playing it safe and running for points is a pendulum swing that could shift every few minutes.
As he prepares for Labor Day Weekend down in Georgia, Puccia shares with Frontstretch the challenges ahead in going to Atlanta’s well-aged, speedy quad-oval. Goodyear is bringing back its multi-zone tire, giving crew chiefs multiple options as they hope to maximize their time in the ATL.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch: You had a decent night at Bristol. You finished in the Top 10 (tenth) but caught a lucky break to do it, catching a caution after the TV panel got knocked off the back of your car – avoiding a costly black flag penalty under green. Does not having that panel on the back of the trunk really make a difference?
Matt Puccia: You wouldn’t think so but with the speeds we’re going right now, aerodynamics are so big that even at a track like Bristol, you are on such a fine like with the aero balance. Changing it just a little bit, by knocking in a fender or knocking the tail off changes the balance.
We missed the adjustment there at the end by a little bit. We for sure had a fifth-place car. I don’t know if we had anything for the top 2 but I think we were top 5, for sure. Unfortunately, we didn’t capitalize on it. All-in-all, it was a decent day coming out of there with a top 10.
Neff: At the end of the race, Matt Kenseth and a couple of other drivers stayed out. A couple drivers took two tires while Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski took four. Were tires that important at Bristol? Are they starting to come into play up there?
Puccia: This [compound] is the tire we ran last year. We had a small notebook on it and it responded quite similarly to how it did last year, I would say. The tires were pretty decent for 10 to 15 laps. They were an advantage for those laps and then, once you got past there they leveled off a little bit and everyone ran similar lap times. It was more follow the leader at that point and you had to have quite a bit better car to be able to run the middle or the bottom of the track. The tires were good. I think Goodyear did a great job with the tire they brought back after some of the issues we had in the Spring. It was good that it offered up a lot of different strategies for putting on two, lefts or rights.
Neff: Now, we head to Atlanta and the well-aged racing surface with plenty of character. How much of an advantage is it to run at night with the increased grip versus running in the daytime?
Puccia: It is definitely one of those challenging racetracks. Atlanta is challenging by itself, but pile on practice during the day and race at night and you bring on even one more challenge. This weekend is going to be an even bigger challenge if the weather happens they are expecting on Saturday. So, you have to optimize your practice to get the most out of your tires, that will be big. Just like anywhere else, you’re going to have to use your notebook and what you’ve done in the past to adjust your balance during the day. You expect the balance is going to go away when night comes.
Neff: Atlanta’s configuration makes it one of the highest speed intermediate tracks. In talking with other drivers and riding around the track, it appears that the corners are longer than most of the other mile-and-a-halfs. Do you have to adjust your setup to account for the fact that you are turning longer than the other intermediates?
Puccia: I wouldn’t think for that, no. The biggest thing you have to adjust for at Atlanta, that is different from the other intermediate tracks, is that the surface is just so worn out. You have to focus a little more on the mechanical grip side of it. Normally, we focus just on aero and having that splitter nice and sealed off, having that nice aero platform. But this place is so bumpy, rough and worn out that you have to give up a little bit of that splitter sealing off in order to get the thing through the bumps and to ride properly. There is a fine balance there that is a little bit more unique with Atlanta. It is a bit similar to a Kentucky or Chicago type of setup. We just tested at Chicago this week, so hopefully some of that will translate.
Neff: Aerodynamics factor into the equation less at Atlanta, it seems. Is that why we see driver skill emerge a little bit more and better drivers rising to the top there more than at some other tracks?
Puccia: Yes and no. You can definitely screw up, if you don’t find that fine line with the setup, you can take a decent car and make it really bad really fast. If you do that, it is something a driver can’t overcome. The thing about Atlanta is knowing how to manage your tires and what you have early in the run so you have something late. It is easy for a driver to go out early in the run and get after it when the tires are fresh, but you pay for it at the end of the run.
Neff: We’re going back to Atlanta with the multi-zone tire that we ran last year. We have had a few races with that kind of tire since it was introduced at Atlanta last season. Does the multi-zone tire have any impact on setup or does it only affect your tire strategy?
Puccia: No, it is something you look at. This was the first race that they rolled out the multi-zone tire last year. They had a lot of success with it. I actually went and talked to Goodyear after the race to let them know what a good job they did with the tire, especially for bringing it to a track as abrasive as Atlanta has always been. Just from what I saw last year and what we’ve dealt with in years past, they did a great job. So it is something you have to look at. You compensate a little with the setup but it isn’t a big deal. It is a little bit tougher tire and a little more durable. You can actually run it a little harder early in the run and it doesn’t abuse the tire quite as much.
Neff: With the splitter not being sealed off as much and thus the downforce coming off the car, does that cause tires to wear more in general or will they wear more if you have more downforce and therefore run faster?
Puccia: What I’ve seen so far this year that has contributed a lot, especially at tracks like California where the tires go really fast early in the run, it is the downforce that is contributing. However, the falloff is greater and the racing becomes more side-by-side because the tires are being abused more early in the run thanks to the speed. These tracks that we’re going to, and running the same tires that we ran last year, with running a second faster per lap you are abusing the tires more thanks to the downforce providing more speed. That is the biggest thing, harnessing that speed you potentially have so that you don’t abuse the tires early in the run. If you don’t, you’ll make your tires worse at the end.
Neff: Is the air that is used for the driver air conditioning system, or air blowing system as it were, pulled from inside the greenhouse/cockpit or is it funneled from outside of the car?
Puccia: What we do, and what most teams do, is draw air through a duct from outside of the car into a carbon monoxide filter. It then passes into the cool box before passing into a driver’s helmet.
Neff: You ran a different paint scheme than your normal scheme at Bristol. When you run special schemes, is it harder for you to pick your driver up on the track or do you prepare for it enough in practice that it isn’t a problem?
Puccia: For me, it is easy. By the time we get to the track, I’ve seen the paint scheme 20 times. The biggest challenge, and I bring it up every week in the team meeting before the race… the guys going over the wall need to make sure they know it. I tell them to take a look at the hood and the car, notice if we have 3M or Filtrete or whatever. That way, when he’s coming down pit road, they know which car to jump in front of. It is harder for those guys because they don’t see the car every day for three days before the race. They fly in race morning and many times, that is the first time they see the car.
Neff: With two races left to the Chase, you obviously are trying to win every week. However, if you are near the front with the laps winding down, how much of a swing for the fence can you make or do you have to have points in the back of your mind?
Puccia: You have to have points in the back of your mind a little bit. We’ve had them in the back of our mind for every race this year. I’ve said it from the beginning that I don’t think it is going to come down to 16 different winners getting in this thing. There are going to be a couple guys getting in on points and you still had to point race. That has been the mentality every week. Are we going to take some chances? Sure, we are. I think we’re going to take some chances just like we do every week. You look at the last two weeks, there have been times where we’ve taken two or three risks, there are times that it has worked out and there have been times that it hasn’t. I can name every time that it has and every time it hasn’t. (laughs) If I had to do it all over again, looking back, I’d probably do the same thing for every single one of those times. We just need to race how we would normally race and keep doing our deal. At the end of the day, if the cards fall our way and it works out for us then we’ve done our job. We’ve done the best we can and if it doesn’t work out, then we don’t deserve to be there.
Neff: Over the next two weeks, as the races are unfolding, will you have someone keeping an eye on Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer or are you just going to try and get max points if you can’t get a win and let the chips fall where they may?
Puccia: I’m just going to let the chips fall where they may. I’ll know where everyone is running in the back of my mind. I’m just going to race the way I race and we’re going to try not to do anything to put us in jeopardy… but you can’t race scared. You go out and try and get the best finish you can like we do every single week. That is what we’re going to do.