Matt Puccia has been working hard to get Greg Biffle back up to the front of the pack. The Roush Fenway Racing No. 16 camp has been struggling to race for wins, but last weekend it was right in the mix and came home in second place. The strides the team has made over the last few weeks might have it set up for success as the series heads to the Dover to tackle the high-banked concrete mile.
Puccia spoke with Frontstretch this week for Tech Talk and touched base on several topics. He looked back at Charlotte and noted that the No. 16 was a top-10 team all day and the fuel strategy simply happened because it was in its window and the caution flags fell just right. He then looks ahead to Dover and talks about tires, rubber in the groove and track position. He also discusses testing, ride heights and rough rides.
Mike Neff – You are coming off of a pretty good stretch at Charlotte. You won a segment in the Sprint Showdown and then came home in second in the Coca-Cola 600. How do you feel about your run at the home track?
Matt Puccia – I feel pretty good about Charlotte for sure; I think we’ve learned a few things over the last month which have helped our mile-and-a-half program, which has been our focus. We’re trying to get that back up to speed, where it has been in years past. I believe the Dover test and the Kentucky Goodyear test have both been a big benefit for us. We went to Kansas and learned some stuff there that we applied to Charlotte. We learned some stuff in the All-Star practice, which let us advance to the All-Star Race from the Showdown. And then we took what we learned there and took it to the 600 and all in all we’re happy with what we’ve done and the progress we’ve made. We’ll work on it some more again as we head to Dover, Pocono and Michigan over the next couple of weeks.
Neff – You were definitely fast on the short runs but might have struggled a little on the long runs. Is that what your challenges were at Charlotte?
Puccia – If you look at the All-Star Race we were set up as a short-run race car. 25-lap segments meant that was the longest we were going to have to go. We were a little aggressive on some things that we knew were going to give up at the end of the run. We adjusted for that the next week and actually our strong suit last week was the long runs. We’ve struggled in the past with the car giving up after five or 10 laps with the car not going for the long run. We definitely made some improvements to help the car go deeper into a run. We were actually pretty decent there at the end, running Carl [Edwards] down. I thought that, if we were a little bit closer, we could have given him a run for his money.
Really proud of the effort that we’ve put in over the last few weeks at Charlotte and Kansas and all of the testing we’ve done. We’re definitely looking forward to this next stretch.
Neff – Did the fuel strategy at Charlotte just kind of fall into your lap or was that something that you looked at and once you hit the window you were going to take the opportunity to go for it as the opportunity presented itself?
Puccia – You always look at your windows and you are always keeping track of where you are on fuel. What it is going to take to get to your two-stop window and your one-stop window and to make it to the end. It just worked out. We were a little on the short side but the caution laps leading up to that last run helped us out a little bit. We were able to save a little bit of gas there. It fell into our laps a little bit, the way we needed it to, but we were a top-10 car; we ran top 10 all day long and we got a decent finish out of it. We started the race out and we weren’t as good as we needed to be but we anticipated that.
During the day was one thing but when the sun went down we were a lot better. We had it set up planning for the sun to go down. You see it so many times in the 600 where guys are good at the start of the race but they aren’t as good at the end of the race. It fell into our hands this time. We were better when the sun went down. Happy with how Charlotte turned out and ready to get on to Dover.
Neff – We ran at Bristol a couple of months ago. It is another concrete high-banked race track; Dover is often called Bristol on steroids. Do things that you learn at Bristol carry over to Dover?
Puccia – I think the things you learn at Charlotte and Kansas apply a little bit closer to Dover than Bristol does. They are both high-banked and they are both concrete. You can take some things out of Bristol, but they are totally different animals, the way you approach them. We were fortunate to go up there a couple of weeks ago and do the test. That gave us a bit of a baseline to go back with.
We always love going to Dover. It is one of the tracks that I have had a lot of success at, Greg has had a lot of success at and this team has had a lot of success at. Always look forward to going to Dover. A lot of different strategies can go on during the race. It is a fast track and track position is really big. We look forward to getting up there and racing.
Neff – Goodyear is bringing a new left-side tire that is supposed to be grippier than what they’ve run in the past. Is that something you got to play with while you were up there for your test?
Puccia – It is a good tire. It is definitely a step in the right direction. It is not night-and-day different than what we’ve had there in the past; you still fight the same things that you always fight at Dover. Some of the challenges when you go up there, it is such a big transition from the straight down into the corner and then from the corner back up onto the straightaway. You almost fall into a hole and then you jump up out of the hole as you exit the corner. It still has a lot of those same characteristics that you’ve always had at Dover and you still fight the same things. We are just bringing back a tire with a little bit more grip that will make the car just a little bit more consistent for us to work on.
Neff – The weather for Sunday looks like it is going to be a high of about 87, hotter than it has been all year. Do you think that is going to encourage rubber to stick to the track more or will it peel off more thanks to the heat?
Puccia – I think you’ll see the same thing that you always see at Dover. The warmer temperatures will allow for the rubber to get down a little bit easier than when you have cooler temperatures. That should be pretty standard. The thing about Dover, since it is a concrete track, when the caution comes out all of that rubber usually gets picked back up off of the racetrack. You always have to adjust for that. You have to change your mindset a little bit whether it is going to be a green flag stop. A green flag stop, you won’t have the rubber picked up, versus a caution pit stop, you will have the guys doing pace laps and picking the rubber up. It is going to be a totally different handling condition depending on whether it is a green-flag stop or yellow-flag stop. Those are the challenges you always have at Dover. It has always been that way and I am sure it will be that way this weekend.
Neff – Speaking of weather, there are possibly afternoon thunderstorms on Sunday. You’ve already mentioned how important track position is. Will that make you focus even more during practice on qualifying to ensure you get good track position?
Puccia – Track position is huge there. Just like Bristol, if you don’t qualify well the leaders will be on your back bumper really fast. It is difficult to pass there and it can be a single-groove race track until the rubber gets laid down and the groove starts moving up a little bit. It is a little tough to pass. Qualifying is always a big deal there. I would like to do a little bit of race stuff on Friday just to get a feel for what we have. Then we’ll switch over to qualifying trim and work on the qualifying setup quite a bit to try and get us a decent starting spot for Sunday.
Neff – With the new ride height rules, do you have to work with your shock package to put more rebound in keep the car on the track since you do have those rough transitions?
Puccia – It’s typical Dover. The new ride height package it is actually a little easier to manage that. You don’t have to do the trick stuff that we used to years ago to try and get the car to stay lower. With the no-ride height rule it is a little easier to keep the car down. It is always a challenge to get the car stiff enough in the front to keep the car low without having it too stiff where you fall down into the corner and get the front tires sliding up the race track. It is always a balancing act when we go there. It is the stuff that everyone fights when we go there. That is what makes it a fun challenge at Dover. Every track is unique when you go there. Charlotte has its own characteristics, Texas has its own, every track we go to does. That is just the characteristics of Dover and that is what makes it fun and challenging to go there.
Neff – Speaking of the ride height: with how you get it down onto the ground so fast and continuously, does that make it harder on the driver, especially on tracks that are rougher, because of the fact that there isn’t as much rebound in the shocks and springs to absorb some of the bumps?
Puccia – The landing is rough, especially in turn 3 because there is a pretty good bump down there. Landing there is always rough on the driver and they will complain about that a lot. I think the biggest thing that makes it rough, especially at Dover, is the seams. The drivers always complain about the concrete seams that we don’t normally have at other tracks. It is so fast and there is so much air in the front tires. The drivers will complain that the front tires feel like basketballs because it is so rough getting through the seams. You’ll hear a lot of that chatter when you’re scanning people on Sunday with guys saying they feel like the front tires are basketballs just because of the seams.
Neff – Several years ago we saw Kasey Kahne almost win the race running nearly exclusively on the high side all day long. Do you feel like you’ll have at least two, if not three distinct grooves to race on Sunday?
Puccia – I think you’ll have at least two. It will take a little while to rubber in. That is the challenge because you get the top rubbered in to where you want it and your guys can go up there and run and then the caution comes out and all of the rubber gets picked back up and the groove is gone away. They’ll get it rubbered in. You’ll see guys up at least two grooves. The third groove is the tough one but it isn’t out of the question. If that third groove does get rubbered in it will usually make for some pretty good racing.