The Chase for the Championship in the Cup Series is stressful and intense. When teams are not in that mix, the focus changes to preparing for next year and trying to win a race for your sponsor and team in the current season. Matt Puccia is trying to finish the season strong with his driver Greg Biffle, and they are on their way to doing just that.
As the team prepares for the only night race in the Chase, the No. 16 crew faces several obstacles this week. Puccia had an unfamiliar role last weekend as he was not at the track. His wife gave birth to the couple’s first child, so he left Dover and was at her bedside as she gave birth to their daughter. Going into Charlotte, he has to deal with the challenges of practicing during the day for a nighttime race, setting up the car to work on the top and bottom of the track and dealing with the limited possibility of weather issues again this weekend.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch – Congratulations on the new addition to the Puccia pit crew this past weekend. Did you make it home in time to see the actual birth?
Matt Puccia – Yeah, made it home in plenty of time. There was six hours or so that I was driving home that I was a little nervous about it, but made it home in plenty of time. Actually had about 12 hours to spare. Really happy I made it home. It was really special that I was able to be there for that.
Neff – Following up on Dover, obviously you weren’t able to be there for the actual race but did get to do the debrief afterward. How do you feel the whole weekend played out for the No. 16 team?
Puccia – We knew it was a possibility that I wouldn’t be there. We had a pretty good plan going in, for the last couple of weeks actually, for Loudon too. In Dover we had a good plan, the guys did a good job of working through the practice plan, what little practice they did have. We were able to get a couple of runs in. Fortunately for us, we did have a pretty good notebook to go off of based on the first race where we had a decent race. Kevin did a great job with Randy and Richie and all of the guys on the team. They did a good job executing the plan and everything went pretty smooth.
Neff – It came up during Loudon and Dover as guys were saving fuel. The broadcast was talking about getting down of the flat to make sure they were picking up the fuel. When you went to EFI you were told that there would be pickups on both sides of the fuel cell. Is that not the case anymore?
Puccia – No, you still have the same single pickup. At tracks like Dover and Bristol, especially Dover, you have a lot of banking on the straightaways, so under caution at pace lap speed, you don’t get fuel up into the pickup and that can cause an air pocket. If you get an air bubble you can see guys running out. It is a little bit less susceptible with it being EFI but there is still the possibility of running out.
Neff – Heading to Charlotte for a night race, but you practice in the daytime. How much does that throw a monkey wrench into getting set up for a night race?
Puccia – It is always a challenge. The biggest thing is figuring out what the speeds are going to be for the race pace and what you are going to have to do to your car to adjust to have the car high enough or low enough depending on whether you’re going to be going faster or slower. Depending on how hot it is during the day when you practice that can change that. I feel like we have a pretty good notebook. This isn’t the first time we’ve had to do this at Charlotte. Looking back at the spring race we had a similar practice schedule, practicing during the day and mostly racing at night. You just have to adjust for what the balance is going to be based on temperatures and plan accordingly.
Neff – We’ve also seen, the last couple of years since Kyle Larson came out and didn’t know you couldn’t do it, you can run the high side in turns 1 and 2 as well as 3 and 4. Is that something you can plan for, anticipating running the high end most of the night, or is that something that you have to see how the car will react once the night evolves?
Puccia – For sure you have to be able to run the top. That is one thing we have focused on pretty heavily over the last few years during practice. We have to get some laps on the top of the racetrack and see what our car is going to handle like up there. Obviously a lot of times during the day the fastest way around the racetrack is around the bottom. The reality of it is, if you just have a car that runs around the bottom, you are probably not going to do a whole lot when it comes to racing. Getting up on the top of the racetrack and getting your car to work up there is going to be key to being able to work your way through the field and maneuver when the race starts.
Neff – Restarts have been the discussion point for the last five years, or at least two months. One of the challenges some drivers have is the gearing and how it impacts them getting going on restarts. Is that something you have to anticipate when you set up the car, as to what your ratios are between second and third gear, so that Biffle can take off quickly on restarts?
Puccia – Yeah, it is a big thing everywhere we go. Each driver has their own driving style and what they want for the gear ratio split from second to third. That is something you have to play with. We have a pretty good notebook of what Greg likes from years past. The monkey wrench that was thrown in this year is the reduced horsepower. You have to adjust a little bit for that. I feel like we’ve got a pretty good handle on it for what we need for these tracks and what we have going forward.
Neff – Both gear ratio and running the top, is that something that the rear gear can play into? If you are planning on running the top for the majority of the night, can you change to the alternate gear or are you pretty much locked in no matter what part of the track you are running on?
Puccia – You do have a slight option for a gear ratio for your final gear. Unfortunately it is the wrong direction of what you want to do. NASCAR has done a pretty good job of policing and mandating the rpms to stay down in the range where they are looking at to keep them and save these engines. You’re pretty locked into what you can do and not much you can do there.
Neff – Another thing people have been talking about this week is warnings/penalties for tech failures. If you go through tech and they find something they don’t like, how much do you have to worry about getting through the second time to avoid being put in the penalty box for multiple passes through?
Puccia – You look at some of the challenges from early in the year, like back in Atlanta, when a lot of the cars missed the opportunity to qualify because of the line of cars going around multiple times and NASCAR looked at that and tightened up the reins on what guys could get away with. They set a very clear black and white on what the tolerances were going to be. Guys started taking advantage of that so NASCAR said, if you’re going to push it on the tolerances then we are going to stop allowing you to go around multiple times. So you see the guys who were going around three and four times are being more sure to pass the first time through. They don’t want to have two and three passes through to get the penalties and warnings. If they get a stack of penalties, then down the road they will get higher penalties including fines.
Neff – Not as bad as last week, but there is a slight threat of rain for Saturday night. As was mentioned earlier, we get to practice during the day to get ready for it. Do you set side part of that time to actually work on daytime runs in case we do get rained out and have to run on Sunday during the day?
Puccia – Seeing as we practice during the day, we can tell what the car will do during daytime runs. We’ll keep a close eye on the weather going forward into Saturday. It looks to be getting better as we get closer. Looking back at Dover, the forecast that we had going into the weekend was one of the factors that played into me going home at the time I did. I thought there was no way they were going to get the race in. However, the forecast cleared up and they were able to get some practice in, which I never thought would happen, and they were able to get the race in. Once we get closer to Saturday night and see what the forecast is, we’ll make some gametime decisions on what to do with our chassis.
Neff – Have you tried out the digital dash yet? There have been quite a few teams trying it out.
Puccia – We’ve been looking at it. The majority of what we’ve been looking at with that has been at some of the NASCAR tests just to get our feet wet and explore what features we’re allowed to use. Going forward, it is obviously something we’re going to be running every week next year and we’re going to try and get a couple of races in the remainder of this season to get Greg and the other drivers familiar with it. Looking at it and seeing what we need to adjust and change is the focus. It is a totally different look from what they are used to looking at. The key is just getting comfortable with that. The features that we can use this year are limited compared to what we will have next year. There is a lot more stuff that we are going to be capable of seeing on the dashes that we cannot this year.