Mike Neff · Thursday July 4, 2013
Matt Puccia has been calling the shots in the national touring series of NASCAR since 2004. He was named the 2012 Sprint Cup Crew Chief of the Year. He’s been on the box for Greg Biffle in the Cup series since the 19th race of the season in 2011, which happened to be Loudon back then. Puccia has guided Erik Darnell, Paul Menard and Biffle to top-five point finishes in each of the top three touring series respectively.
Puccia took a break from preparing for the mid-season trip back to Daytona to speak with Mike Neff about the disappointment of Kentucky, trying to make a car handle at Daytona and looking ahead to the Chase.
Mike Neff: Looking back at Kentucky, the day ended a bit earlier than you’d have liked it to. Before you were taken out how did you feel your day was progressing?
Matt Puccia: Not too bad. We started off with a bad draw in qualifying and went out when the track temps were the hottest point in qualifying. We didn’t qualify as well as we’d have liked to, but when we started the race we thought the car was pretty decent. We started moving up, made a couple of small adjustments on the first stop, and then got caught up in someone else’s mess. It was unfortunate because I thought we were going to have a good day. Just ended too soon but the guys did a heck of a job getting the thing back on the race track. When I first saw the thing down there in (Turn) One, it looked pretty bad on fire and everything. We got it into the garage and got it fixed, got back out and gained a bunch of points.
Neff: That was impressive because the front of the car was pretty much missing.
Puccia: Yeah, it pretty much took the fuel injection and top of the engine off of it, most of the wiring harnesses, all of the oil lines, all of the suspension, rear suspension, tail and nose and radiator. It was a pretty big undertaking, but we were able to get it back out there and it paid off with gaining a bunch of positions and points.
Neff: You had obviously set up the car for a night race and then rain ruined that so the race was run in the daytime. Are there things in the setup of the car that are specific to a night run that can’t be altered for a day race?
Puccia: Yeah, that was the conversation we had with Greg before the start of the race. We explained to him the situation that I knew we were going to be quite a bit tighter than we’d anticipated being that we were racing in the middle of the day rather than at night. I told him to be patient with me until we got a couple of stops in. Fortunately we knew there was an outside possibility that was going to be the case so we accommodated for it in the setup with spring rubbers and stuff so that it was tunable and able to get there. We just needed a pit stop or two to get where we needed to be, and felt like we were headed in the right direction to be right where we needed to be but we never got to see the next pit stop.
Neff: One last question about Kentucky, on a rain out like that, when you get there on Sunday morning, are you allowed to do much changing on the car besides air pressure and wedge?
Puccia: No, that is really the only thing you’re allowed to do. They let you put your oil in, warm the engine up, adjust tape if you want to, but that is all you’re really allowed to do. You have to have your adjustments built into your air pressure, your springs, shims and everything else you can do during a pit stop, but you are very limited in what you can do on race morning.
Neff: Heading to Daytona to race at night in July rather than in the daytime in February. We know it is summer and the heat is up a little. Is the handling of the car drastically different or is it marginal?
Puccia: It is a little bit different. We saw handling characteristics come into play a little bit in February, but nowhere near where it was a few years ago with the old track surface. There is a little bit of handling that comes into it, especially since it is a little warmer. You have to account for that but overall, since the repave, it seems like the track has a lot of grip and there should be a good amount of grip when we race on Saturday night.
Neff: With the amount of character that is at least starting to show up at the track again, does it force you to make changes on the geometry on the front end since you’re pretty limited on the rear with them giving you the rear shocks for the car?
Puccia: Yeah, there is some stuff you can do. You need to see where you’re at when you get down there. If you have a handling situation there are some things you can do. We did that a little bit in February. We worked on it and tuned on it a bit. Sometimes you have to take a little bit of speed out of the car in order to get a little bit of grip in it for the race. Since it is an impound race, like Talladega was, you have to qualify with what you’re going to race so you may have to give up a little bit of speed in order to make sure you have a car that will drive well for the whole race.
Neff: With the packs of cars getting bigger again, the cars get buffeted around quite a bit when they’re back in the pack with the disturbed air. Is there anything you can do, from a setup point, to make them more stable when they’re back in that unsettled air?
Puccia: You’re really kind of limited with the way speedway racing is now with the spring and shock packages. There really isn’t a whole lot you can do, and once you get there, you’re kind of in a box and this is what you’ve got. There is a very limited amount of things you can do. Most of the homework is done at the shop and once you get to the track you’re pretty much locked in. I think we have a pretty good speedway program. I feel good about where we’re at and after racing there in February and then going to Talladega I really felt like we had a good thing going. We’ll see what we’ve got when we get down to the beach.
Neff: That was where the next question was coming from. You’ve run two races on plate tracks with this new car. Have you learned a decent amount in those two races to put into the car for this July race to make it fast?
Puccia: For sure. Handling is a bit of it. They’ve taken a lot of rear downforce off of the car from last year so you have to take that into consideration. NASCAR has also changed some of the rules with the rear-end housings and the cambers and stuff. That is all stuff you have to take into consideration when you go back down there. I still feel good about what we’ve got and I feel like we’ve made some pretty good gains since February. I think this is going to be a good final test before we head off to Talladega during the Chase.
Neff: Do we have the same tire as we did in February?
Puccia: Yes, same tire we raced in February.
Neff: Does it give you any added confidence when you’re heading to Daytona that your driver is a previous winner at the track?
Puccia: Yeah, it is always good to go to a track where you run good. I know we’re going to be in contention every week when we show up. That is a great feeling when you show up at the track and can win every week. When we go to Daytona we look forward to it because our program has been consistently strong. So we look forward to going to those tracks. However, this is also one of those tracks where we have to survive too. You look back at Talladega, we’d been pretty quick and were running up fourth or fifth and got wrecked. It isn’t over until the last lap. You look at Talladega last year in the fall. They took off a bunch of cars at the end. It is a game of survival and you just have to be focused to make that happen.
Matt Puccia has never won a race at Daytona as a Crew Chief, but his driver Greg Biffle has. The vagaries of plate racing can take a team from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a heartbeat, and no one will know who the winner is on Saturday night until they come across the start/finish line. With the preparation that Puccia has put into the No. 16 car, he might finally get to spend a little time in Daytona’s Victory Lane.
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