Michael McDowell, driver of the No. 34 Horizon Hobby Ford Mustang Dark Horse for Front Row Motorsports, and Ryan Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Advance Auto Parts Ford Mustang Dark Horse for Team Penske met with media members at Phoenix Raceway ahead of Cup Series opening practice. For McDowell, it marks a return to his hometown track where he seeks victory while Blaney returns to the site of his 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship-clinching win last November. 

MICHAEL MCDOWELL, No. 34 Horizon Hobby Ford Mustang Dark Horse — WHAT DO YOU WANT TO GET OUT OF THIS WEEKEND? WHAT WOULD MAKE THIS WEEKEND SUCCESSFUL FOR YOU? “A win. Yeah, I mean, I think that’s the generic answer, right? But I mean, realistically that’s what it’s all about. You know the beginning of the season these first 10 to 15 races you’re just hyper-focused on on trying to get a win and trying to get yourself locked into the playoffs. So obviously that’s not going to happen every weekend. It’s not going to present the opportunity every weekend. So maximizing the points and making the most of every race these first five to six races are really critical and we’ve had an okay start but not a great start so I feel like we need to come out of here feeling pretty good about where we’re at.”

WITH THREE POLES FOR THE FORD TEAMS COMING IN TO THIS WEEKEND AND THE PRACTICE TIME THAT IS AVAILABLE TO THE CUP DRIVERS TODAY, IS THAT GOING TO HELP YOU GUYS DIAL IN THE CAR AND TRY TO GET THAT FIRST WIN FOR FORD THIS WEEK? “I think that this weekend obviously having this new aero package on the short track downforce levels it is good that we have a little bit of time to work through it. Obviously there was a test here in early December right? Sometime in December, but we weren’t a part of that at Front Row. We get manufacturer notes and things like that, but they’re trying different tires and different downforce settings and all different kind of situations. I think it’s important that we have a little bit of practice just to kind of learn, what this car is going to behave like with this diffuser and splitter and everything. So I’m glad that we have practice. Anytime that you have an opportunity to dial it in is good. I’ve seen it go both ways I feel like one of the things that our team does well is unload pretty close. When you have practice, the really good teams seem to dial all their cars towards the front, so it’s not always a help. But this weekend we definitely could use the practice.”

THIS PRACTICE SESSION YOU HAVE TODAY, THE ALLIANCE WITH TEAM PENSKE, ARE THERE PUNCH LIST THINGS? ARE YOU GUYS TIED INTO THEM DURING THIS? HOW DOES THIS NEW PARTNERSHIP WORK WHEN WE LOOK AT THIS 50 MINUTE PRACTICE YOU HAVE TODAY? “Yeah, definitely we’re tied in information wise and sharing that information of what we could possibly learn and try different things. But I think everyone’s pretty much on their own agenda, if that makes sense, because each team kind of has their own punch list of things that they want to try, whether it be different setups or different packages. But obviously, the more data and the more data points that you have helps you make a better decision come Sunday. But this practice is tricky because we don’t get a lot of them. And so my crew chief, he’s like, I want to try these three packages. And I’m like, I just want to tune on one and make it good. But I understand we don’t get a lot of opportunity to try different things. So we’ve got to take the opportunities when we get them. But tonight is going to be one of those difficult nights where you go through all that information, decide which direction you want to go.”

WITH THE NEW ALLIANCE WITH PENSKE, ARE YOU GUYS WORKING WITH THEM ON AS FAR AS LIKE, HEY WHAT’S IN YOUR CAR, WHAT’S IN OUR CARS, TO DO ANYTHING DIFFERENT DURING THIS PRACTICE? “Yes, I mean yes and no. We can see what they’re doing, they can see what we’re doing. We had a meeting prior to getting here on, you know, directionally what everybody’s thinking, but at the same time it wasn’t like you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna do this, and we’ll come together and we’ll make one package after that. I think everybody individually, each car number individually, is kind of trying what they want to try and we’ll take the notes when we’re done.”

AND WHAT WOULD YOU WANT TO SEE ON SUNDAY THAT WOULD MAKE YOU SAY, OKAY, THE CHANGE TO THIS PACKAGE IS SUCCESSFUL? “Well, that’s a really difficult question because I think the championship weekend, the fall race was pretty good. I don’t know what the overall consensus was, but it was good racing and seemed like a decent amount of passing. So if it was better, that would be great. If you could run closer to cars and run like we see in Xfinity where you can run in their tracks and not lose so much. You’re always going to be at a disadvantage when you’re that trailing car, but maybe not quite as much. But I feel like the fall race was pretty good when they didn’t treat the track, when they didn’t put the sticky stuff down. I felt like we could move around and pass. So yeah, I’ll be curious to see how it drives.”

CAN YOU GIVE ME A QUICK ASSESSMENT OF THE PERFORMANCE OF THE NUMBER 34 TEAM SO FAR IN 2024? “Yeah, I think the speed has been great. I think our execution just hasn’t been very good. And that’s on me. And last week we didn’t execute well, less on me last week. But the good news is we have speed and speed makes up for a lot of things. We’ve just got to keep that speed up throughout the year and then clean up some of the things that we’ve had troubles with and I think we’ll be in a good spot to contend for wins. We’re not there today, but we might be there tonight. I’ll let you know after this practice, you know? And I think that that’s the good thing is we’re pretty close with everything. So we just have a few little areas to clean up and I think we’ll be able to put ourselves in a better position, especially as we get into the summer months.”

YOU HAVE TO BE EXCITED ABOUT GOING TO COTA. THOUGHTS ON COTA AND HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THEM MOVING THE RESTART LINE? “I am excited about COTA. Just in general, it’s our first opportunity back at a road course and felt like we had one of the strongest packages at the road courses. Obviously, updates for that as well as far as rules go. So there will be a few things to jump through, but I don’t think it will be anything terribly different. Moving the restart and giving ourselves a little bit more opportunity to not be nine wide going into turn one, I’ve been on the good side of that and I’ve been on the bad side of it. And what’s tough is for a competitor, you just want the fastest car and the fastest driver and the fastest team to win a race, right? As a fan and as probably for y’all, you want to see action and excitement and cautions and crashes. So the package and what we see, I feel like there had to be a little bit of a compromise and I think that this is a good compromise, that you’ll still have action but not nine wide going down in there and you know making a mess of a day so I hope that it all gets a little bit tidier but these end of the races restarts are always wild so it’s a part of it.”

SO FOR YOU COMING BACK TO PHOENIX, PERSONALLY, HOW MUCH DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO HAVE A GOOD FINISH AT YOUR HOME TRACK? “Yeah, it’s obviously really important. I mean, every weekend’s important, but it’s nice when you run good in front of your hometown. This hasn’t been a strong track for me and for us in the past, but I feel like we turned that corner last year, especially with our short track program. And we were able to get a top 10 here, which for us was a big day, because this had been one of those tracks that we’d struggled at. So we made good gains last year, and we want to keep that up this year and put ourselves in contention. So it’s fun. It’s good to have a strong day. I probably don’t think about it too much as far as the hometown thing, because I’m thinking about points and trying to get a win, and every week counts. But it’s nice when you have a good day.”

AS THE ORGANIZATION HAS GROWN AND DEVELOPED, OBVIOUSLY YOU’VE HAD SITUATIONS WHERE YOU’VE WON AND SITUATIONS HAVE TOP FIVES AND TOP TENS, BUT IT SEEMS LIKE MAYBE THE NEXT STEP, AND MAYBE PART OF THIS IS THIS RELATIONSHIP WITH TEAM PENSKE, IS THE CONSISTENCY OF TOP 15 FINISHES. AND I THINK THAT’S PROBABLY LIKE ONE OF THE NEXT STEPS FOR THIS TEAM. IS THAT HOW YOU SEE IT AND HOW YOU GET THERE? OR IS THAT TAKING TOO BIG OF A LOOK AND IT HAS TO BE MORE RACE BY RACE AND LET IT BUILD UPON ITSELF? “I think that I’d probably look at it a little different. If you look at, and don’t quote my stats, you’ll have to look them up. But 2022, we had 12 or 13 or 14 top 10s, right? So that’s a decent number of top 10s as far as being there consistently. And the next year, I think we had 12. And then last year, we had a little bit less than that, but last year we had more speed. So speed is what puts you in contention to win races, but that consistency that you talked about is really important too. I think that if you look at, we’ll just use Joey Logano as an example, even last year when they didn’t have all the speed, somehow at the end of the races they’d still be fourth, fifth, sixth, they just do an incredible job of executing and getting top ten. So I feel like the next logical step for us is having more top five speed because even if it’s not every weekend, if you have ten or fifteen weekends that you have top five speed, you’re going to win a race somewhere. Somewhere you’re going to get it right, you’re going to execute, get it all right, and you’re going to win a race. And winning a race, there’s such an emphasis on that in our series because it gets you in the playoffs and all the things it does. So for me, it’s more about having those days of top five speed than it is having top 15 speed throughout the entire year, if that makes sense. I think they go together for sure, but I think just having more of that top five speed is what’s going to allow us to contend for more wins.

SINCE YOU MENTIONED LOGANO, OBVIOUSLY YOU’VE BEEN FORD TEAMMATES FOR A LONG TIME SO I’M SURE THERE’S INFORMATION SHARING OR AT LEAST SOME CONVERSATIONS HAVE TAKEN PLACE OVER TIME, BUT AS YOU KNOW THE ABILITY TO BE A BIT STRONGER AS THE RACE GOES ON, THIS RELATIONSHIP NOW, HOW CAN THAT HELP YOU GUYS TO GO THROUGH THAT? IS IT MORE OPEN DOOR AND KIND OF TAPPING HOW THEY DO IT? “There’s so much that goes on as far as just data analysts and engineers going through who did this well and who does this well and the adjustments and how the track changes, and how the car changes versus track changes versus traffic, and so much of that information, we can see it and we can get it, we just don’t have people to process it all. So being able to lean on them a little bit more for that engineering support of processing that data will help us have a better understanding of trends, of how the track’s trending, how the race is trending, and so that part of it for sure will help when you talk about getting better throughout the races and making the right adjustments and how the track changed and how the rubber went down and all those things. We know it, we watch it, we see it, but there’s teams of people that analyze just those types of things. So being able to lean on them more on that technical side for sure will help us to make better game day decisions and changes. But all that, like I’ve been talking about, is going to take a process of being able to go through the information, understand it, and then apply it, obviously. And so it’s still early, but I feel like even this week, this week we made really big gains at home, at the shop, on how well we were able to utilize the information. So we’re making gains, and I think it’ll get better and better every week.”

LAST YEAR ON ROAD COURSES YOU WERE AMONGST YOU KNOW ONE OF THE BEST AND IN PARTICULAR WHEN WE DIDN’T HAVE STAGE BRAKES, AS A DRIVER WHO IS GOOD AT ROAD COURSES, WOULD YOU PREFER TO NOT HAVE THE STAGE BRAKES AS OPPOSED TO HAVING THEM AND DO YOU THINK THAT BENEFITS THE BETTER DRIVERS AND THE FASTER CARS? “I think last year was a perfect storm for us as far as the no stage breaks and the amount of speed that we had because the fastest car won those races. And this year that’ll look different. It’ll look different because if you want to win a stage, you absolutely have to sacrifice your race finish. I mean, you do. That’s not really even up for conversation anymore. You’re not going to drive back through the field. And so you have to make a decision before you ever get to COTA. Are we going to go for stage wins or are we going to try to win the race? Obviously we’re going to try to go win the race. So we know we’re giving up potentially 10 to 20 points on the table to make sure that we have a shot at winning those race. Then you get spun with three to go and you leave the day 30th with one or two points. So you absolutely compromise your race with those stage breaks on real courses. I understand it’ll probably create more excitement for the fans and for the people that are watching and we’re trying to entertain. But for me, selfishly, stage breaks are awful. I really dislike them. I’d rather just qualify up front and lead every lap and there not be any caution. But I don’t think the fans like that as a show.”


RYAN BLANEY, No. 12 Advance Auto Parts Ford Mustang Dark Horse — WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO WITH THIS PRACTICE SESSION TODAY WITH THE NEW PACKAGE? “I was able to be a part of the test with this package in December and I learned a little bit from that but I think mainly right it’s nice we have 50 minutes and a few sets of tires. I think what you’re looking for just all right how’s what’s the balance shift you know single car maybe try to get in a little bit of traffic kind of see how the balance of your car shifts compared to the old package. I mean honestly in December there were little things here and there that I think it did better. It wasn’t light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn’t the save-all, but hopefully it’s in the right direction. But yeah, just seeing what balance is from the fall to now, I think teams are looking forward to that. If you can get around some traffic too, I think that’s going to be what you’re going to see some guys doing, especially probably at the end of practice when they kind of start fine-tuning their stuff.”

YOU WERE HERE IN DECEMBER, BUT COMING BACK HERE TO PHOENIX AFTER WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP LAST YEAR, DO ANY SPECIAL EMOTIONS KIND OF SPARK ON YOUR WAY BACK IN HERE?  “Not really. Not now, anyways. It was nice coming here in December because it was very soon after the championship, so that kind of sparked a little bit of memories for me, but not right now. Just another race, new year.”

SO, WITH THE NEW PACKAGE AND PRACTICE, DO YOU KNOW EVERYTHING THAT’S IN, LIKE, JOEY’S CAR? DO YOU KNOW EVERYTHING THAT’S IN AUSTIN’S CAR, AND DO YOU EVEN KNOW STUFF ABOUT WHAT’S IN THE FRONT ROW CARS, NOW THAT THEY HAVE AN ALLIANCE WITH YOU? “We have decent ideas about what’s in Joey and Austin’s and Harrison’s car and mine, how we compare the two. As far as the Front Row cars, I don’t know. I mean, that’s outside of my pay grade, really. I’ve always tried to have an idea of kind of where our three or four cars are at just so you can compare because that’s the drivers we meet with. So that’s something I’ve always tried to pay attention to. The Front Row cars, it’s nice to learn from them. It’s been nice kind of playing off each other. But yeah, I don’t know about their stuff.”

YOUR LAST SEVEN STARTS IN PHOENIX HAVE RESULTED IN THE TOP 10 FINISHES, OBVIOUSLY 2023 IS THE CUP SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP. WHAT ABOUT PHOENIX AND THIS RACEWAY HAS ALLOWED YOU TO KIND OF ACCOMPLISH THIS? “I don’t know, for whatever reason, I’ve always enjoyed this place and it fits whatever we do as a company. It’s funny, like certain tracks drivers talk about, well, it kind of fits our mindset as a company of how we set up our race cars and what’s successful for us. And it’s really weird how those things just kind of work. You see it with the 5, it’s been great at Vegas for a few years, and that’s a track that works for what they do. It is kind of in the same way for our group. Like, it’s just kind of worked with how we prepare our race cars, our mindset on setups. Me as a driver, I like it. So hopefully that continues. Hopefully we can be as strong as we’ve been here the last couple of years. You never know how you’re going to unload compared to everybody else or what everyone else has found or if you’ve done your homework enough to improve. It just kind of works for us and hopefully that trend continues.”

YOU KIND OF ALLUDED TO THE FACT THAT THE CHANGE IN THE PACKAGE IS A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION BUT MAYBE NOT SIGNIFICANT. AS A COMPETITOR, ARE YOU COMING INTO THIS WEEKEND AND EXPECTING THE SAME PLAYERS FROM THE FALL RACE TO BE GUYS THAT YOU’RE RACING AGAINST UP AT THE FRONT? “No, I never really try to go in the weekends expecting who’s gonna be good. I think it can be a toss-up any week, right? So I really try not to get too focused on that. I try to just focus on my deal and how we can be our best. Then whoever’s fast in practice fast in practice and then you kind of focus on those guys and looking at their data seeing what they’re doing and where are they good. I never really come into a weekend like I think these are the five drivers that are gonna be good just because you never know. I mean it could be — there’s 25 teams at least out here that can be up towards the front and especially with the new rules package, you don’t know, even though it’s not wildly different, you never know who’s going to be going to be good.”

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO GET OUT OF THIS PACKAGE THIS WEEKEND? WHAT DO YOU WANT TO FEEL? WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SEE? THE NEW TIRE AND THE AERO SHOULD GIVE YOU MORE GRIP. BUT WHAT IN ADDITION TO THAT DO YOU WANT? “I think the biggest thing that when we mess with rules packages like this, and the goal for this package was being better in traffic. That’s the whole thing. The cars are going to drive how they drive by themselves, and we’ll deal with it and adjust for that, but how do they do in traffic? That’s the biggest thing. That’s the only gripe that you hear of drivers is, oh, they’re terrible in traffic. We’ve got to get that better. So hopefully, just we end this weekend and everyone kind of agrees that it’s a step in the right direction. You just hope to improve little by little on that side of it. So hopefully this one is a little better from the driver’s standpoint when we get in the race. If the trailing car can be a little bit closer to the car in front of them and just not get as tight and just lose so much ground. So that’s the goal. Hopefully, it’s achieved.” 

THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF TALK THIS WEEK. YOU’RE ONE OF OBVIOUSLY THREE FORD’S TOP 20 IN POINTS. DO YOU FEEL AFTER LAST WEEK THAT THERE’S A BIG COMPETITIVE GAP BETWEEN YOU GUYS AND THE CHEVYS AND THE TOYOTAS OR IS IT JUST A PRODUCT OF THE FIRST TWO DRAFTING RACES?  “It’s kind of hard to tell. I thought all the Fords were really strong in Atlanta and Daytona. Even though one of us didn’t win, I thought we were all really strong. But then last week, Joey sat on the pole, which was encouraging. We didn’t qualify great, but we raced okay. I didn’t think we had a winning car at all last week. I thought we maximized our day running third. Whereas the fall race at Vegas, there was like one or two runs in the race. I was like, I think I have a car that can win if we can kind of just get up there. So I think we just got our work to do, you know, with the new car and hopefully we can fine tune it to where it needs to be. I obviously would have liked to be, have been a little bit more competitive last week as far as racing for the lead. But not many guys race the five for the lead. Hopefully, as we get running this car, this week will be a big test to say, okay, where’s our short track program at with this new car, and if we really need to get to work or if we’re a little bit closer than what we think. It’s early to tell. You’ll get a really good idea here in the next month or so of where you stand and if you’re in trouble or you’re not.”

THIS TRACK STATISTICALLY IS ONE WHERE SPEED AND QUALIFYING TENDS TO BE A GOOD PREDICTOR OF PERFORMANCE IN THE RACE. DO YOU PAY ANY PARTICULAR MORE ATTENTION TO QUALIFYING HERE THAN SAY ANOTHER TRACK WHERE IT’S NOT THAT IMPORTANT? “I agree with you that qualifying is pretty important here. It’s kind of hard to make some ground up. We pay attention to it a lot and qualifying hasn’t been our strong suit the last year or so, at least in our camp, at least in the 12 group. But we’ve always raced pretty well. I always would prefer a car that races forward, but you always want to start better. You never want to start 15th. But we started 15th here last year in the fall and we were able to race up towards the front, so you just never know. I always feel like it’s easier, you can tell more from qualifying to the race here of who’s going to be good or not. Like other places, mile and a half, you never really know. You’ve seen cars qualify really good at mile and a half and then struggle in the race really bad. Martinsville is kind of the same way. I always look at Martinsville. I feel like the cars who qualify in the top couple rows of Martinsville, they never raced very good. Here I feel like it’s a lot more consistent with qualifying in the race. So we’ll see, we’ve tried some new stuff this weekend to try to get one lap speed out of it and hopefully we can tune it up for qualifying because it’s not fun starting 15th here you have your work cut out for it just makes it harder to start your day off and pit stalls are not as good so that is something we really pay attention to.”

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