Greg Biffle is oldest and wisest among the drivers who currently call Roush Fenway Racing home. He has been struggling mightily since last season and things haven’t looked much better in 2015. However, crew chief Matt Puccia is working hard to make his cars as good as they can be. Puccia sat down with Frontstretch this week to talk about the latest challenges the new rules package has thrown their way, along with the state of RFR during what’s been a challenging start.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch: Roush Fenway Racing continues to struggle to be competitive for wins. As you look at the first six races of the season, what do you feel like the biggest struggle is for you this season versus the problems you were encountering last year?
Matt Puccia: We’ve had some accomplishments and we learned some stuff over the offseason that has helped us in getting our cars where we need to be to get up there and compete for wins and run in the top five consistently. At the same time, there are still some things that we need to keep working on. We know what those are and what the issues are. We are working towards them. We have a new package, both aero and chassis wise that we are going to bring to Texas here in a couple of weeks. We look forward to getting that out and seeing where we are and taking another step toward advancing to getting where we need to be. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but I feel confident with the direction that we are heading in and what we have got going on. More importantly, I feel like our engineering department is heading in the right direction.
Neff: We’re six races into the new season. As we head into the first off week, what do you feel like the characteristics of the cars are now that you have the new rule package fully implemented and you’ve been running with it for a few weeks?
Puccia: I think it is a step in the right direction. I think it is offering a little bit better racing that is a little different. I feel pretty good about it. I think we’re closer to 2013 as far as the aero balance of the car. I think a lot of the teams are just now starting to get to the point where they are adjusting to it. I feel like our program is learning more and more about it every week and I feel like we’re taking steps in the right direction.
Neff: Does the car seem to be a looser car or a tighter car for your team?
Puccia: The balance has shifted to a freer car, at least the overall balance. They took some radiator pan away from us, which is going to reduce the front balance some. They also took some rear spoiler away that is going to take some rear balance away from us. Overall, I feel like the car is just freer. You know that going in and use the tools you have available to give you the best suggestion on what we should be running on a weekly basis. Since we don’t have testing this year you have to rely on those tools, like simulation and wind tunnels, to give us the best suggestion on what to show up at the track with so we have a car that is close.
Neff: They altered the schedule this year so that you had the three week West Coast swing. Did you like that better than the way it was where we used to run out there, come back for a week and then run back out west?
Puccia: I always say, if you can survive until Martinsville without the team combating each other until the end of March you are ahead of the game. It is definitely trying. You go down to Daytona for Speedweeks and you’re down there for a couple of weeks. Then, we head out there for the West Coast swing. By the time you get to April, you are ready to breathe. That West Coast swing will really beat you up, although I think, the way they did it this year made the logistics easier. We left the hauler on the West Coast and came back and forth without it. That made it easier for the logistics. I liked it so I hope they’ll take a note of it and it will work out next year the same way.
Neff: They put this new rule package in with the presumption that it would slow the cars down. It looks like the speeds are the same or even up. We’ve already set a track record or two. Why do you feel like we are seeing the cars that same speed or faster with less horsepower?
Puccia: They have decreased the weight a little bit. At Martinsville the speeds were up, probably because of the weight because it is always a big issue there. I think, for a lot of the tracks where we are going faster, thanks to less aero on the cars it’s opened up the window for Goodyear to tweak the tires a little bit more to give us a little more grip while not having to worry about failure. That will equate to better side-by-side racing and better racing in general at the end of the day. They’re going to keep it evolving. They are looking at packages for 2016 and beyond and I think they’ll take what we are learning this year and keep tweaking on it some more and make a few more adjustments going forward.
Neff: Qualifying has been a big buzzword on multiple fronts this season. From the technical inspection side of things, now that they have started throwing out some rules that will result in teams being penalized, do you feel like that has resulted in some of the teams pulling back from the edge of the tolerances so they are sure to get through tech?
Puccia: It really hasn’t changed much from last year. The tolerances are still the tolerances that the teams are having issues with. Some of the teams have just been pushing the limits too close and that has caused them some issues. NASCAR is constantly talking to the teams and learning what we can do differently and what they can do differently. It has been a great communication process between us and NASCAR. We learn a lot every week and they learn a lot every week. I think you’ve seen, over the last couple of weeks, it has gotten a lot better. There have been a lot less issues than what we had the first couple of races. I think you’ll see that moving forward now that everyone knows where everyone stands and we’ll adjust accordingly.
Neff: One more on the technical inspection front. Do you feel like it is necessary, from a competition perspective, to have to go through tech before practice, then qualifying, and then the race and have it be so thorough every time? Or do you feel like they could pull it back to the local short track level and just spot check a few things in each round and then thoroughly tech after the race?
Puccia: It is hard to say. Teams are so far advanced, farther than local short-track competitors. The competition is so critical and the littlest details can make the biggest differences. I think there are some areas they could cut out possibly, every single time but there are still those core things that they have to check every time because the littlest things make the biggest difference in these cars and the way they run. I think NASCAR is aware of that. They are always looking at ways to make things move more efficiently and make things flow better. You still want to make sure the competition is equal to everyone so that everyone has an equal opportunity.
Neff: NASCAR is cutting back on tire allocation for the Cup teams. Is that going to force you to reevaluate your strategy before you go into those races or is it a deal where the races generally flow in a way that you don’t run out of tires anyway?
Puccia: I think it is a way to look at cost, going into what all these teams are spending for tires. It does change the strategy. You definitely go into the race with a different mindset. That said, there are also a lot of tracks where they could cut back some tires because we don’t use our whole allotment. I think the teams and NASCAR are talking all of the time about ways to save money at all levels and that is why they’ve decided to reduce the number of tires for these races. You saw it at Martinsville, they cut us back one set, and they’re going to do it more going forward. You just have to play it accordingly. It is just like Xfinity racing and Truck racing: you know what you have going into the race and you better manage them the entire event.
Neff: They took some downforce away with the new package and we’ve gone to several tracks where they didn’t change the tire very much. Has the lack of downforce increased tire wear or has it been the same as it was in the past?
Puccia: I think it is about the same. I haven’t seen anything that has really changed up yet. Looking forward, with the decreased downforce, there is obviously less grip so there is an opportunity for Goodyear to go back and look at possibly putting a little more grip in the tires. With that, you get everything that comes with it, additional wear, heat and everything else. Now, with the slower speeds and the reduced downforce, they will be able to hopefully do that.
Neff: We’re through the first little stretch of the season and we are going into our first off weekend. Everyone goes into the season with a plan. Now that you’re at this first break, do you have your fleet of cars about where you wanted it to be as you get ready to head into this next long stretch?
Puccia: I wouldn’t say we’re behind but we are still building new cars. I had a whole fleet of cars built up to Martinsville with our first generation version of this car. Now, we are going into the second stretch of the season with our second generation car with all of the stuff we’ve been working on in engineering. It is going to be challenging at times. We are building new cars and we’re going to continue building new cars as this thing evolves. It is like every team does. If you sit stagnant and don’t develop stuff, then you are never going to get better. That is what every successful team out there is doing that we are racing against. What we are racing at Texas is not what we’re going to run in the middle of the summer. It is an ever moving target and every team is working hard, just like we are to bring the best product we can to the racetrack every week.
Neff: You mentioned earlier that the testing ban is holding your team down a little. You’ve only had a couple of Goodyear or NASCAR tests that have gone on so far. How much of a challenge is that for you considering we have the biggest change to the rulebook since the Car of Tomorrow came out several years ago?
Puccia: It is a challenge, especially when you want to be running better than you are. It definitely is a challenge all its own. That is when you go back and you rely on your tools that you have available to you that you are still allowed to use. You are allowed to use your simulation and your wind tunnels and stuff like that. You rely more on those things and the teams that are up to speed the most are the ones that are the most successful. We have a couple of tests coming up. We are going to a test at Kentucky in April and we’ll have an opportunity to work on it here a little bit. Then we’re going to go to Dover in May. So we still get to do a little bit of testing, but not nearly as much as we did in 2014 and before.