Phoenix marks the final race of our three-race, West Coast swing, and with the new NextGen car, teams are having to manage limited cars and limited parts and pieces to fix the cars they have. How are you and the team handling it all?
“The situation is manageable because we have to manage it. These first five weeks of the season, including the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, we’ve had a mindset of survival. We’re learning a lot about these racecars in regard to wear and tear on the parts and pieces, how to fix things, how well you can fix things, and the tendencies of the car. I think finding the limits of the car and learning about the car from a driver’s standpoint, that’s why you’re seeing accidents. And there’s just going to be mistakes because the pit stops are different, the way you shift these cars is different, they race different, so there are just a lot of things to learn. Keeping the cars together, and keeping yourself in a position to have solid finishes, is going to put you in a position to where, if you can bring everything home and have made all the laps in the first four points races, you can come home and work on your cars and be in a good position to start the rest of the season on the East Coast.”
We’ve spoken a lot about the NextGen car, but for the uninitiated, what are the differences between the NextGen car and the previous-generation car you raced from 2013-2021?
“I believe that the car we just got out of was one of the neatest racecars that our sport will ever see, just because of the innovation and the evolution and all the things that went into it. I think the biggest thing fans have probably noticed about the NextGen car is how relevant it looks compared to a car in the showroom. Especially for us in the Ford camp, our Mustangs look very relevant to the cars on the showroom floors in dealerships, and I think that was the highest priority – to make the cars squared up and relevant to a street car. In regard to everything underneath, it’ll really take some time to wrap our arms around accepting and enjoying what we have underneath. With the old car, they revolutionized the sport every year with new ideas and innovations that changed the way the car handled and looked and felt, and all the things that come with the evolution of a racecar. Now, you’ve got stock parts and pieces that you buy off the shelf, which is intended to cut a lot of that out. So for us – a team that really built a lot of those things and owns a CNC machine company in Haas Automation and is on the forefront of developing things – it’s a little bit of a culture shock just because you have to race differently and you have to assemble things differently. It’s a culture change that’s taking time for me to get used to because I’ve been a part of that innovation and evolution of cars my whole career. It was just part of what you did. This car will evolve, but it’s really just going to be in how you align the parts and pieces and how you drive it – all the things you do to make the car drive and do what you want it to.”
What’s the difference in skillset, and even mindset, from last year to this year as you’ve transitioned to the NextGen car?
“Our sport is unlike a lot of professional sports. A lot of professional sports depend on your body and speed and agility. Our sport puts a lot of value on experience, just because of the fact that in order to perform, you need common sense paired with street smarts so you can make decisions on the fly and, sometimes, just so you can survive. A lot of the things that we do, especially last year, we just survived and we’d grind away week after week and get solid finishes with cars that just weren’t as good as they needed to be. And while we were trying to figure it out and make the cars better as we went through the year, we still had to race. And just like last year, there are going to be weeks this year where the car is just not going to be very good and you have to figure it out and grind it out. Those things just come with time. You can bang your fist on the table and say, ‘We need to do this!’ and end up causing more commotion. It’s definitely more of a working relationship with Rodney (Childers, crew chief) and the team to hone in on exactly what we need to do to make the car better.”
What are the technical aspects of the NextGen car and how does it feel from a driver’s perspective?
“The base engine package is around 670 horsepower, which is exactly what the Xfinity cars are. I’m sure that’ll evolve into more power as time goes on. When this whole project originally started, we had three different engine packages and aerodynamic packages and, as offseason testing took place and evolved, it cycled into all the engine packages and spoiler packages being the same, except for the superspeedways. So, it’s got a low-downforce package with higher horsepower, which is much more than that 550-horsepower package that we had on last year’s car. The biggest thing was to try to have some off-throttle time and be able to have some handling deficiencies as the run went on, where you slip and slide and move around the racetrack. You’re able to have an old-school type of race and not just run in a big pack. It’s evolved in a good direction and we’ll see how it goes.”
Three races into the season and the NextGen car is still very much a blank canvas. How much are these race weekends akin to R&D sessions when it comes to understanding this car and finding ways to make it better?
“You just have to understand the situation and get used to what you’re working with. You have to evolve with it, and everybody’s going to have to communicate well in order to hone in on exactly what you need, as far as changes and grip on our Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford Mustang.”
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 resin 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 resin and the start-finish line have added a couple of different elements to it that we didn’t have in the past.”
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 dive bomb 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.”