One of the biggest misnomers in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is that off-weekends exist, because when the teams don’t go to the racetrack they simply put their heads down and get caught up on things that have slipped through the weeks of going to the track. They also try and get things prepared for the next string of races. Teams know they only have one other week on the schedule between now and the end of the season where they aren’t racing.
This week, Matt Puccia, crew chief on Greg Biffle‘s No. 16 for Roush Fenway Racing, not only talks about preparing for Sonoma but also the aero package that is coming to Kentucky — including the mindset of the changes and what they mean going forward — and getting ready to return to Pocono.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch: You are coming off of an off-weekend. Did you get to do anything fun or was it all work and no play?
Matt Puccia: It was an opportunity to catch up. You get racing, you get testing, you get so focused on getting to the next weekend and the weekend after that. It was a good opportunity to take a good look at what we’ve been doing over the last few months and get caught up, look at what we need to do going forward. We planned out the next few months and got ready for this next little sprint here before we get ready for the Chase in September.
Neff: You are heading off to Sonoma this week to attack the first road course of the season. There are two different schools of thought on how you set up for a road course: some guys go soft, while other guys like a stiff setup. Which way does Greg Biffle like his car set up for a road course?
Puccia: Watkins Glen and Sonoma are totally different racetracks. Watkins Glen, you get a little more of the aero so you want to be more on the stiffer side. Sonoma, if you get too greedy with that and get too aggressive on your setup, you start losing your forward drive. That is something you have to be really conscious of when you go to Sonoma. You have to approach it, almost like a short track that you turn right at; you have to take it like Martinsville. You have to focus on your forward drive and you have to focus on getting your car to turn good. That is what our strategy is going out there this weekend; it has worked out for us in the past.
Neff: Sonoma is a pretty long course, and when they throw a caution you get four or five minutes to make decisions on what you’re going to do with the car. Is that too much time to think about it or is it nice to get that much of a respite before you have to bring him down pit lane?
Puccia: You hopefully are in a situation where you are doing your pit stops under green. You get up in the front and then you’re playing the race backward and getting inside of your windows, hoping for cautions and not pitting under cautions. It doesn’t always work out that way when you go to Sonoma. It is a place where you can get inside of that window and, if you do pit, you go a lap down. That definitely doesn’t help you if the caution comes out. Then you come into a situation where, if you do come into the window, you may consider pitting under caution.
A lot of strategy goes into road-course racing. It is a little different change of pace. Usually this time of year you are looking for some different races that involve different kinds of strategies. You look at the races we have in front of us here. We have Sonoma where you have a different strategy. Then you go to Daytona, Kentucky, Loudon and Indy. All of them will have a different way you approach them. Looking forward to a little change of pace this weekend to see what we can do.
Neff: Road courses are a different animal from an oval from the fact that you can’t see the whole course from one spot. How many spotters do you end up using when you are there? Do you use one extra or more than that?
Puccia: Sonoma isn’t bad for spotters. From where the spotters’ tower is, you can see the majority of the race track. So you can use one spotter, but you do have one blind spot where our guys usually struggle seeing. That is down getting into turn 11, right past the entrance to pit road. That is where the spotter loses sight of him so you need somebody to spot turn 11 all of the way around to just past the start/finish line. At that point the spotter in the tower can pick up the car from there. He’ll spot everything else. You have the spotter down in turn 11 who will call that corner and give the green flag and call the other flags.
Neff: In reality, how many true passing zones are there at Sonoma?
Puccia: We were just talking about that today. There are really only three or four spots where you can have some really good passing. One of them is what I call the braking zone for [turn] 4A. That is the straight line before you turn right. You can out brake someone there and get your nose up inside of them to get past. [Turn] 7A is the hard right that you go through before you go through the esses, [which] is another spot where you have an opportunity to get your nose up under somebody and start a pass.
Then, of course, turn 11. A lot of passes are made down in turn 11, especially on the exit. You get a nose up along side of someone. You have to clear them before the next lefthander before you get to the start/finish line because you don’t want to go side-by-side up through the next righthander.
Neff: NASCAR just announced it’s going to change the aero package for Kentucky and the buzz is it may be going to track-specific aero packages. How do you feel about that prospect?
Puccia: I think it is an opportunity. You go to every different track and each one gives you a different challenge and opportunity for racing. What we run at Sonoma this weekend is not going to necessarily offer you a good race at Loudon or Indy. I think NASCAR is looking at a chance to change things up. Kentucky is an opportunity because we haven’t had a downforce race since Michigan. With the race being July 11 weekend, we have a while to prepare for that. It is probably the biggest break that we are going to have between downforce races. NASCAR wants us to get prepared and will take a look at it at Kentucky. They’ll look at what we have there and analyze how the racing unfolds and make a decision on what we do going forward to the tracks coming in the future, perhaps more quickly than normal. They’ll decide what kind of packages they want to use going forward. It will be interesting for sure and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
Neff: Is what you are seeing completely different body panels or is it more of just what you’re seeing now with trimming down the spoiler and splitter?
Puccia: I don’t think anyone knows right now. They are looking at spoiler stuff and splitter stuff and seeing how it goes from there. I don’t think you can leave anything out of the question right now. They are looking at every aspect of it; this is just one iteration of it. They are going to see how it goes here and we’re going to progress from there.
Neff: Goodyear has already let everyone know that it did not develop a tire for this package so it’s unknown how the tire is going to perform. Do you feel like a lesser amount of downforce is going put a bigger burden on the tires at Kentucky?
Puccia: I can tell you firsthand that there wasn’t any development with this package. We were fortunate to get to do the Goodyear tire test in Kentucky a few months ago. We didn’t do any work with this package. It is a little bit of an unknown with the tire option but I feel pretty good about where we are going with the tire that we are taking to Kentucky. It will be a little conservative for the package we’re taking there but it will give us a good opportunity, with that tire package, to get a good read on what we have here. Once you get a read with this aero package then you start evaluating, if that helped, what tire do we need to use along with it to complement the package? I think there are a lot of unknowns right now, tires being one of them. It is new territory for everybody so we’re just going to go into Kentucky and see what we have going on. We’ll move on from there.
Neff: How different will your package be, going back to Pocono, now that you’ve had a race at the track with the 2015 rules package?
Puccia: Hopefully they’ll fix the bumps in the tunnel turn for starters (laughs). That was pretty wild. I think, Michigan aside because we had a very poor race there and know what mistakes we made there, but leading up to that we had a good month of May. Even the beginning of June was a good race at Pocono. I think we have a good notebook. I think we know where we need to improve when we go back there.
This downtime here is giving us a little opportunity to do some work on the eight-post rig and our simulation and prepare for when we go back to Pocono in a couple of weeks — Indianapolis for that matter, too. Indy and Pocono have very similar characteristics. They are shaped differently but they have similar characteristics so what works well at Pocono will work well at Indy.