Matt Puccia is on the pit box for his fourth year in the Cup Series with Greg Biffle. They have been in the mix all season for a Chase spot, and while they haven’t scored a win to “lock” themselves in, the team is keeping close to the “points bubble” in order to make the postseason either way.
After some rough times this season, a down year for Roush Fenway Racing the duo appears to be making progress. After a pit call at Indianapolis put the No. 16 in 13th place when the checkered flag flew, the team finds themselves just nine markers out of the final Chase berth on points. Can they keep momentum up, heading to a racetrack where Biffle has won in the recent past? (2012)
Heading into Pocono this weekend, Puccia gives us some insight on preparing for a second trip to the three-cornered track in the Pocono Mountains. He touches on “Road Course” pit strategy, trash on the grille and driver comfort.
Mike Neff: You started 19th at Indianapolis and came home 13th. Did your race unfold based on the strategy that you thought would unfold or were you forced to adjust during the day?
Matt Puccia: We had adjusted during the day. I was really surprised a lot of these guys played it like a road course and started pitting once they got inside their windows. Not so much the guys up front, the top 5, but the guys deeper in the field. The way Indy is, if you aren’t within five to seven seconds of the leader it puts you in a box where you’ll go a lap down if you pit under green. We were outside of that window, so we had to stick to our plan and our race. We pitted when we could and had to stretch our windows a little bit longer. At the end of the day, it worked out a little bit better for us.
The guys in the front? It worked for them. The guys in the middle, I didn’t see the road course strategy work for them. When the caution came out, it put a few of them a lap down.
Neff: Did you know that any guys were planning on implementing that “road course” strategy? I asked Tony Gibson about it last week but he didn’t think it was going to be practical.
Puccia: Yeah, I heard a lot of scuttlebutt about it around the garage, who was going to use it and who wasn’t. Some people, it worked out really well for. The guys up front were in a position where it worked out well for them. If we’d been up there, I probably would have played the same game. Unfortunately, when you are back where we were running, in 15th to 20th, you have to run a different race. It is just part of the box you are in and you have to call your race the way you are running.
Neff: After the tire test at Indy, Goodyear chose to make a switch and go with a different left side tire than what was tested. Going into the race, there was some concern about the left side tires. Once you had the competition caution were your fears allayed?
Puccia: We were fortunate enough to go up and do the tire test with Goodyear. We ran for two days without any issues, then late on the second day we had that small issue. Goodyear decided to come back with a little bit tougher left side compound that would stand up a little. With that, you get less grip and we fought that a lot when we got up there. It was a tire we were not on during the test. We really didn’t know what we were getting into and when we unloaded on Friday, we were a little bit off. We misjudged what the balance of the tires would be when we got there. We fought that for most of the day on Friday and went into Saturday with a pretty good plan of what we had to change.
We fired off on Saturday and we were pretty happy with the car, but we were only able to get one race run in when the rains came. That put us a little bit behind. I really wish we could have unloaded the way we started practice on Saturday. We were a whole lot closer to where we needed to be but unfortunately, we didn’t so we had to work on it from there. We ended up tuning on it from there on Sunday for the first majority of the race. By the end of the race, we were pretty good and happy with the car, but had to struggle with track position. At the end, we did a little bit of a pit call to stay out and get some track position. It worked out well for us, just wish we could have started up front with the car we had at the end of the race. We might have been able to get up there and do our business a little better.
Neff: The ruling came down for Denny Hamlin’s rear firewall blocking plates on Tuesday. We heard all sorts of numbers flying around yesterday about 15-25 points of downforce with those holes not properly closed off. Does just having those holes not properly sealed off really give you that kind of downforce on the car?
Puccia: I don’t know. I really don’t want to speculate on what they had going on because I really don’t know. It is really simple to sit here and say they had hundreds and hundreds of points of downforce. I can’t say that. I really don’t know what it was.
Obviously, it was enough that NASCAR had to react to it and do something about it. I’m sure, it is kind of laid out in the rules this year as to what some of these violations are. NASCAR deemed it was enough that they needed to do something about it and they did. To speculate on what it was, I can’t do that. I haven’t seen what it was.
Neff: We’re headed off to Pocono although it seems like we just left. You started 13th and finished 16th the last time we were there. The race recap looks like you were in that area for most of the race with a couple of bumps up a little higher in the running. Did you learn anything that you’re going back with this time that makes you think you’ll have a better race?
Puccia: Yeah, for sure, we’ve made a lot of changes aero-wise with our program. From Pocono and Indy we have made some adjustments and changed the approach on the way we’re doing things. Pocono is another place where you play that track position game. It is so big, so difficult to pass, and really easy to get single file there. I feel really good about going back there with what we have, I feel like we’ve made the right adjustments.
This next little stretch of races makes me feel really good. We’re going to Watkins Glen, which is right up there by my hometown area. It is a track that we’ve run very well at in the past. Then we go to Michigan, and we were fortunate enough to test there last week. We learned a bunch of stuff there for Michigan that is going to help us when we go back. We’re encouraged about this next little stretch; we’ve got Bristol and we’ve obviously got a good notebook for that track, since our teammate won there in the Spring. Richmond, which is the last race before the Chase, we did the tire test there too. I feel decent about this next little stretch — I’m just ready to go racing.
Neff: We talked about the road course mentality of pitting once you got into the fuel window at Indy, do you think we’ll see the same thing at Pocono?
Puccia: Definitely, especially at Pocono because the tires don’t give up like they did at Indy, but you are in your same situation that you were in Indy to make sure you are within the window where you can pit without going a lap down. You have to be conscious of that and be careful because you can get caught a lap down if the caution flies.
Neff: The pit lane at Pocono seems longer than the pit lane at Indy. Does that mean the window to avoid going a lap down is smaller or bigger at Pocono?
Puccia: It is 14 seconds; that is the difference between first and tenth where Indy was five seconds, the difference between first and third or fourth.
Neff: The last race was the first time we went to Pocono with the new ride height rule that let you have the car down on the ground all of the way around the track. Did that have a significant impact on how your race unfolded?
Puccia: Not really, I don’t think that played a big part. It makes a bit of a difference for drivability in traffic. That is where we have struggled in the past and it seemed to make that better. The cars stay down a little bit better when you get up behind somebody and you are able to do your business and maneuver around. It isn’t a big change.
Neff: Having the cars down on the ground for most all of the lap at Pocono, that eliminates quite a bit of air from getting under the car. Does that have an impact on engine cooling there since you don’t have as much air moving around it?
Puccia: Not a whole lot, maybe a little bit. You have a little bit higher under the hood temps. We’ve had to run a little bit more cooling inlets. Where it’s really had an effect is the drivers. Across the board, the drivers have been a little more vocal about the cockpit temperatures being up. A lot of that is attributable to the fact that there isn’t a lot of air under the car anymore; they are bringing the cars down, sealing the side skirts off and sealing the splitter off, and that is resulting in higher temps in the car. The engine temps might be up a little bit but not a whole lot.
Neff: At the end of the first Pocono race, Brad Keselowski had an issue with trash getting on the grille and cost him the win. Have you ever looked into rigging up a fan that would blow out instead of in to blow it off from the inside if trash gets on the grille?
Puccia: It is really hard, because there is just so much air being forced through the radiator that there is just not much you can do. You’re running 200 mph and the last time I saw a 200 mph fan was at the wind tunnel (laughs)! There isn’t anything you can do, it just is what it is. The best opportunity you have to help that is get up behind a lapped car or the guy running in front of you. Or, and they all hate to do it, slow down to the guy running behind you and hopefully he can help you out. It is part of what we do and we have to deal with it when it happens.
Neff: We’re getting down to the end of the regular season. We have six races to go and it really looks like we won’t have 16 winners. We didn’t think we’d have that and we are about to the point where that is mathematically impossible. You are 16th in points, four spots out of the Chase but only nine points out of being in. Winning would obviously be the ultimate elixir, but do you have to really start focusing on points at this juncture when you are that close with so few races to go?
Puccia: We have been thinking about points since we started racing at Daytona. Looking at the history, it is highly unlikely to get 16 winners in the first 26 races — it is rare to have it happen during a whole season. That is what we’re getting down to and I think, at the end of the day, it is going to be a point race for a couple of positions. You might have one or two more different winners, but that is going to leave three spots open, so we’ll be point racing every week. That’s what we are doing. We’re trying to not only win and get in the Chase, but once we get in, we want to have our program running the way it should, so we can contend for the title, and not just be occupying a spot.