The No. 16 team of Greg Biffle is heading into Bristol knowing it has to win in the next few weeks to have a chance to run for the championship, and crew chief Matt Puccia feels confident that the team is going to have something for the competition thanks to a strong car from the spring and a tire test its teammate recently completed for Goodyear. The night race at Bristol Motor Speedway is always unpredictable and surprise winners are not uncommon.
Heading into this weekend, Puccia has a laundry list of things on which he needs to focus. This week in Tech Talk he touches base on fuel mileage, tire strategy, communication and pit stall selection among other things. The high banks of Bristol even have some aerodynamic impacts on the cars, so Puccia also discusses the philosophy on the ride height of the car and how it helps the team deal with the transitions from the corners to the straights.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – You have struggled some this year for sure. NASCAR threw a new aero package at you as well for Michigan International Speedway. How difficult does it make it for you when you’re trying to find speed and you’re battling with a new package at the same time?
Matt Puccia – It was definitely a challenge that brought on some additional stuff. However, it did open our eyes to a few things that we are missing. I definitely didn’t think we’d struggle that much on Sunday. We had, what we thought, was a decent car in practice at the end of Happy Hour on Saturday. We could go out and do our business and move forward. It ended up not going that way.
We struggled a little bit on Sunday. That aero package brought on a lot of challenges, especially when it came around to race time. A lot of guys struggled with being tight by themselves and then being really free in traffic. The guys that were good in traffic and could maneuver around better were the ones who capitalized.
Neff – The groove seemed to move up by the half to two-thirds point of the race, but drivers seemed to struggle with getting well away from a car they were trying to overtake. Was that attributable to the general package or what it due to the fact that, in order to make a pass you had to be close to the other car and when you got that close you were too loose?
Puccia – I think you just had to have a car that was capable of dealing with being very free in traffic. There were some who were able to do it really well and some that struggled with it. It was a factor of a lot of things but the package for sure was creating a big wake in the air. That obviously had some influence on that. It was definitely a struggle but we are onto Bristol with the old package.
Neff – Speaking of the old package, we are making our second trip to Bristol with this package. While it is a night race, most of the time the ambient temperature at night in August is about the same as the daytime temperature in the spring. We did actually end up racing at night in the spring, so that is a twist. How much can carry over from the spring to this night race that you learned in April?
Puccia – Hopefully a lot. Even though the results didn’t show it, we actually had a very good race car. We were running in the top 5 early in the race and got a little off sequence. Our car was very good up front. We got caught with a penalty on a green flag pit stop which hurt us and kind of ruined our night and then we got caught in a late race incident. Looking at what we raced and our teammates raced there and scored a top 5 in the first race. Looking at what the [No.] 17 tested there a few weeks ago doing the Goodyear tire test gives a good direction of where we need to start and where we need to be when it comes to racing on Saturday night.
Neff – You mention the No. 17 testing for Goodyear. How similar are the styles and feels that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Biffle like to have in the car?
Puccia – They are a little bit different. They have some similarities but it seems like Bristol has been one of those tracks where the packages are quite similar for them. We looked at what we did in the first race and where we were, and feel decent about where we are right now and where we’re going to start. I think we can take a lot of what they did at the test and apply it to what we are going to have this weekend.
Neff – When it comes to picking pit stalls at Bristol, if you get the pole you obviously want pit stall number one. Assuming you don’t get that stall, knowing the potential for calamity and having to work on your car, is it beneficial to get the first stall on pit road, either off turn 2 or turn 4, knowing you may have damage to your car and it would give you a chance to get in your pit more quickly and get to work on your car faster?
Puccia – Yeah, it is a challenge picking pit stalls at Bristol because the boxes are very small and getting in and out of them can be a challenge. You can utilize timing lines there to your advantage just the way they are spaced out. Getting a good pit selection is pretty crucial. If you aren’t fortunate enough to get one of the four, or really six, because there is one at the start/finish line and at the same point on the back straight that are really good stalls. I personally like to be on the back straight. I’m typically one that likes to pick in the top-10 or top-20 pit stalls but Bristol is one of those tracks where I like to pick on the backstretch because, if you pick back there you tend to be by yourself because everyone tries to pick up front and you always have a traffic jam as you’re trying to get out of your pit stall because everyone is up there who is on the lead lap.
Neff – As far as the race goes, for years it was one groove around the bottom. We’ve now evolved to one groove around the top. Is it a benefit to focus on getting your car to work at the bottom because, if you can get down there, you’ll be able to make passes because there won’t be near as much traffic down there?
Puccia – We make a pretty good effort to try and make our car work on the bottom. I think it is crucial to be able to make your car work on the bottom. Everyone is going to be on the top, everybody’s car will work a lot better on the top. The reality of it is that, in order to make a pass, you’ll either have to drive through them or make your car work on the bottom. Getting some track time down there is pretty big. Typically what we’ll do is run three laps on the bottom and then three laps on the top. We’ll make a change and run it on both the top and bottom to see what it affects either way with the balance.
Neff – Since Bristol is a half-mile track, in theory there shouldn’t be much aero dependence at the track, although the speeds we run at certainly does make some difference. With the new ride-height rule, having the car down on the earth, how much rebound do you have to build into the shocks to keep it on the ground versus telling the driver to suck it up and deal with hitting the bumps harder?
Puccia – The new ride height rule that we came out with just makes it easier to get our cars to not transition as much. Bristol is one of those tracks, kind of like Dover, where you fall into the corner and come up out of it off of the banking onto the straightaway. The car wants to rebound back up and this package allows us to control that a little bit more easily than what we had a couple of years back.
Neff – Is this the same tire the series had in the spring?
Puccia – Yes, it is the exact same tire we had in the spring.
Neff – With that knowledge, do you feel like tire wear is going to be a big part of the strategy for Saturday night?
Puccia – The tire that Goodyear brought for us in the first race opens up a lot of different pit scenarios and strategies. You’ll see guys taking two tires and staying out because track position is so big there. In the first race we didn’t have a very good qualifying effort. We mixed things up and got onto a different strategy and got into the top five early in the race. The car was totally different when we got up there. We had a good car in the back but we just couldn’t do anything with it. You get yourself in jeopardy of going a lap down when you’re in the back because the leaders are on your back bumper so quickly there.
I think you’ll see a lot of two-tire stuff, you’ll see a lot of no tire, just fuel stuff, you’ll see people staying out. That is what makes it so exciting at Bristol having all of those different strategies.
Neff – Last week didn’t end up being a fuel mileage race, but it was still in play. The two weeks before it most certainly was. We’ve seen Elliott Sadler play the game at Bristol before and win. Are you already tuned into what point of the night you’ll be able to make it to the finish without pitting?
Puccia – Yeah, for sure, that is something you look at very closely. You have to wager when the time comes. If you’re up front you want to maintain your track position. It all depends on how many cars are on the lead lap as well and where you are running. If there are 20 cars on the lead lap and you’re running 10th you may want to come and get tires if the caution flies late in the race. If you’re leading the race you’re going to want to hold onto that track position. It will be interesting, that is for sure.
Neff – You don’t have garage stalls at Bristol; you just park behind your hauler. Is that a benefit or a detriment since you’re so close to your hauler all of the time versus being in the garage and having to run back and forth to your hauler when you need some things?
Puccia – We are parked on pit road, not necessarily behind the hauler. It is a little bit of a challenge. It is harder because you are out in the heat. The temps will be hot. That track is like Dover with the radiant heat. I don’t know if it is the concrete or what but that track just gets super hot. The guys get that much more worn out. I like having the garages where you have an area enclosed. It brings on its challenges but you do have the luxury of having your hauler closer than normal.
Neff – The Last Great Coliseum seems to have more noise than any other track that we go to. Do you have to do anything special from a communication standpoint with sealed microphones or amplified headphones or anything in order for everyone to hear your directives?
Puccia – The technology today has come so far today. With noise-canceling headphones and everything that we use today is just so far superior to what we had, even 10 or 15 years ago. The biggest thing that I tell my guys is that things happen in a hurry there so they need to have their helmets on during the race. For the simple fact that they can hear me if something happens in a hurry. If the guys get relaxed and get caught off guard without their helmets off it’s not good. That is the biggest thing, but no big adjustments that we have to do on our end.