You have nine wins at Phoenix, with the last one coming in March 2018. And even when the track was repaved and the start-finish line was moved to the dogleg, you’ve never finished outside the top-10. How different is the new layout compared to the old layout and what have you done to adapt?
“When they moved the start-finish line, there was nothing really different, other than the restart. The restarts have become much more exciting because of the fact that you can use the apron and everything that happens going into what is now turn one. So, the restarts are the biggest difference since they moved the start-finish line. This configuration of racetrack is much different than what we had in the late ’90s, early 2000s. That track used to be very low on grip, and this one’s become lower on grip and now, with the PJ1 that they add on the racetrack, you have to kind of adapt just because of the fact that you never know what the grip level is going to be. The PJ1 and the start-finish line has added a couple of different elements to it that we didn’t have in the past.”
Do you view Phoenix as a new track where your past success doesn’t matter, or do you feel that your history there still carries some weight?
“Our Jimmy John’s team won several races on this configuration. It’s still the same racetrack that we’ve won the majority of our races on. The only thing that’s changed is the start-finish line. As you look at last year, we ran really well at the first race and really poorly at the second race. A lot of that just depends on where the grip level is and where your car settings are for that particular weekend. But it’s still a racetrack where we expect to go and contend for a win every time and, if we don’t, the expectations were not met.”
Restarts in the NASCAR Cup Series are chaotic, but perhaps nowhere more so than at Phoenix as drivers use all of the infield portion of the dogleg to advance their position. How dicey are restarts at Phoenix, and when does it make sense to divebomb the dogleg and when do you need to take the traditional line around the track?
“You just have to be aware of where you are on the racetrack, and it depends on which guy you are. If you’re the guy on old tires, new tires, inside, outside, you kind of have to have a plan before you get to the corner as far as what you want to accomplish. If you accomplish it, that’s fine, but if you don’t, then you immediately have to go into damage control, where you go on defense to try and be used up as little as possible. You can easily wind up in a bad spot in the middle, four-wide, because it funnels down pretty quickly off of turn two. There’s a wall that you come up on to the straightaway, and then everybody’s funneling from four-wide to at least three-wide. There are a lot of different angles of attack that happen, so you just have to be aware of your situation.”
How important is the spring race at Phoenix in terms of reconnaissance considering the track also serves as the season finale?
“I would tell you very important but, based on what happened last year, it was irrelevant. We were racing for the win in the first one and then nowhere in sight of contention for the win in the second race. I think the second race last year taught us a lot about the different applications of the PJ1 and where you need to set your car, but this year there’s practice at the second race, so we’ll know all of that beforehand.”
How much can you improve today’s NASCAR Cup Series cars in the span of nine months at a particular venue, as that’s the amount of time between the spring race and the season finale?
“There’s still going to be an evolution of setups and aerodynamics that create those common denominators throughout the year of things we do well, things we don’t do well, things that have worked for us, things that have not worked for us. You still build that notebook because every year is different based upon tires and racetracks and weather. Things that are different from last year will create a different pattern of things that will work out this year.”