Chris Buescher and Ryan Blaney Talladega Media Availability

CHRIS BUESCHER, No. 17 Fastenal Ford Mustang Dark Horse – IS THIS ALMOST A MUST-WIN FOR FORD WITH HOW STRONG YOU GUYS ARE ON SUPERSPEEDWAYS? “No. It’s circled high on the list because it’s the next one. We know the start of the season we don’t have the wins that we want at this point. I’m gonna speak more specifically to RFK and our group that our first eight races have been significantly better than we were at this time last year for us personally. I know that at the beginning of the year our goals are to say that we want to start this year off where we ended last year and that would have meant having a win by now. Obviously, we’re not there, but we have been able to be very competitive at races, to be close. We’ve gotten real close between our two cars at a couple races now. I’m sitting here looking back and feel like we’re really just three spots back from where we need to be. I think if we could be three spots better every week. Right now, that puts our days – most of our days that have been top 10s, that puts you fighting for a top five and that takes our best days right now fighting for a win. That’s a very small step to take, probably the hardest step to take, but that’s certainly in the ballpark. We know we’re gonna be fast down here. We were fast in Daytona. When it comes to this race we’re gonna try and work together and try to execute it and try to find our way up to the front, but certainly not a do-or-die situation for this weekend.”

ARE THERE SPECIFIC BENCHMARKS YOU GUYS ARE LOOKING FOR IN TERMS OF SIGNS OF PROGRESS? “The ultimate measure is trophies. We want to be there right now, but we have tons of metrics that say we look back through our year, I think about last season for us. We went into the offseason and told ourselves that if we could figure out how to make the first 10 races of the year like we finished our year, then we would have no problem fighting for a playoff spot and when we got to the playoffs we would be more prepared and ready as we came back to some of these tracks for a second time that we could fight for that title a little harder than we did last year. That was our main goal. I think that was the big benchmark for us on the 17 side and in a lot of ways we’ve been able to do that, but I would say that we are looking for a little execution still. We are looking to have some cleaner days. We’ve already had as many DNFs as we did all of last year by now. Some of that stuff has been on us this year, so we have some cleaning up to do on the 17 side, but certainly the performance has been better. I think about Phoenix. That was our runner-up, but last year at the end of the year that was a race that we had a legitimate shot at winning and had some issues late in the race that kept us from that or kept us for at least fighting for it. Before those last two races at Phoenix, I’ve wanted to burn that place to the ground, so that is a pretty massive measurable difference for myself and for our team to know that we’re on the right track and to be able to back that up this season. That was a good measure and something to take away for us and now we’re trying to figure out on a couple of the other areas. We’ve only had two mile-and-a-halves and one of them was a DNF for us, just a mistake on our part, so we’re all working together to be better. We know we’ve been better to start this year, we just have to execute better on the 17 side. We’ve got to clean some things up and also find a little bit of speed. That’s where I’m talking about three spots better week in and week out.”

HOW MUCH DO YOU PREPARE OR STUDY THE NUANCES OF PIT ROAD TO TRY AND GET EVERY EDGE? “We’re splitting hairs, right? You’re talking about pit stops in eight seconds, high eights. It’s pretty wild to think about that. We were laughing about this. We were at a Fastenal convention earlier this week and I was talking with a lot of folks coming through our line and they’re like, 14-15 second pit stops. That’s flying. I was like, ‘Yeah, half that.’ That’s the reality we’re working in, so when you start looking at that and ways to gain and advantage, we have a ton of metrics that we study. We look at pit road entry times, rolling times, exit times every single week. We’re keeping a rolling count on the season for that and trying to keep up with where Brad and I compare as drivers, where we have other places to gain and advantage because it’s all included on the lap. If you find two-tenths on pit road and the pit crew does a fantastic job, that’s all null in void if you tip-toe onto pit road and lose two-and-a-half seconds there. It is a big part of our studies. We think about the nuances of different pit roads. I would go back to Vegas. I studied very hard to be better in Vegas for this race this year because of last year as we got down to the end of the season that was a race where I did a terrible job on pit road. I kept sliding through the box and could not get it hooked up. Our pit crew as on it. They did a great job and I couldn’t do anything to help them that day. That was completely on me for a day that they had the ability and we certainly should have gained spots and should have been in a better place and I needed to do better. I worked hard on that to be better for that specific race this go-around and our pit road numbers were significantly better just by me improving and our pit crew guys being better for what they’ve done through the offseason as well, but it showed up in a big way.”

WHAT DO YOU FEEL HAS BEEN THE STRENGTH OF THE NEW MUSTANG DARK HORSE AND WHERE CAN IMPROVEMENTS BE MADE? “We’re gonna keep working on it. We’re never sitting still. This sport doesn’t do that, so we look at places where we feel like we’ve been better. Overall, we’ve got a little bit more to work with, but I think a lot of people behind this wall that are a lot smarter than me working on this, but I think it’s working within the box that we’re in and trying to figure out how to maximize this new body, but also more or less find more of the rebounds. How do we take stuff from last year and go to racetracks – Talladega won’t be as specific to this – but how do we go to other places and say, ‘If we were a number two too tight at this race last year, what does that mean if everything else was the same with the new Mustang Dark Horse?’ So, that’s the bigger thing is just trying to tune on that and I think we have definitely been honed in on it and we’re still working through a lot of data, a lot of information, a lot of sim stuff trying to get a lot of that right to where we’re truly dialed in.”

THERE SEEM TO BE MORE WHEELS COMING OFF THE CARS. ARE THE TEAMS PAYING MORE ATTENTION TO THAT SINCE THERE SEEMS TO BE A RASH OF LOOSE WHEELS? “First answer is I have no indication with this single lug stuff. Unfortunately, I have lost two now I believe, maybe three. It is the wildest thing. There is absolutely zero indicator that something is happening. I don’t know the specifics as to why that is, but you don’t know and it’s strange that sometimes it will happen coming off pit road. Sometimes it will happen two laps in. Sometimes it will happen – what was the 5s last week, it was many laps after. I don’t understand that at all. As far as why it’s happening, we’re getting close on pit road. Everybody is getting better. We started off trying to work in half-second brackets to try and find time to compare the competition and now we are working in tenths of a second. A tenth or two here or there is gonna be the big difference. Everything is getting closer, a lot like on track right now as we figure out this car and figure out how to optimize what we’re given, everything starts getting in a tighter and tighter box, so we’re all trying to find ways to be faster and obviously loose wheels is not faster ultimately, but you’re trying to get right there to that edge and it comes down to a judgment call on the changers. If they feel like that was tight enough and that’s what they train hard for and study for and I think it’s something everybody is gonna be paying a lot of attention to. I know we are after the start of this year already, trying to make sure that the big picture is not affected by that chase of that last tenth of a second. Sometimes it’s cleaner execution can go a longer way.”

DOES QUALIFYING TAKE ON MORE IMPORTANCE BECAUSE OF GETTING A GOOD PIT BOX? “Yeah. Qualifying has become more and more important. That was a big push for me for last season and a big push for this year as well. I’ve had a couple of really big misses to start this season off, so way too many starting positions from the thirties this year and it seems like we’ve had a string where if it wasn’t a mistake on my part, it was some kind of out of the box parts deal that we had to change and start at the back anyway. We just haven’t had the best go of qualifying and that puts you in a really tough box, a really tough pit box, so as soon as you start coming around cars hanging the rear tires out, making the pit crew run eight extra steps throughout the course of the stop around the rear of the car, you’re just losing tons of times. Ultimately, no amount of speed trying to change a tire is going to overcome the distance once you start getting in a bad situation on pit road, so that has become extremely important, just being able to get your car positioned in the box properly. I know that’s also led to some very close calls on pit road and I think that’s come up from a safety aspect for our sport that we certainly need to be protecting our pit crew members as they have cars coming around them. I know we’ve already got the orange line rule and it sounds like that is gonna start being watched a little bit more closely to make sure that in the name of safety we’re taking care of our pit crew members as well.”

HOW DIFFERENT IS THE QUALIFYING FEEL FOR YOU NOW IN THIS NEW DARK HORSE WITH OTHER TESTING YOU GUYS HAVE BEEN DOING? “I would say it’s not very specific to qualifying itself. It’s just carrying over from practice and what we’re trying to figure out for this car. I don’t think that we’ve had many practices that we’ve gotten through with our 20 minutes and said, ‘We’ve got it honed in. We’ve figured out the offset and where we need to be.’ So, we’re getting to qualifying and we’re still taking a little bit more of an educated decision to try and predict what we need and we’ve hit on it a couple of times and been really good, and we’ve missed it a couple times. I’ve done a poor job a few times. Like I said, we’ve had some parts issues that have made us start at the back, so looking at all of that it’s not specific to qualifying. It’s overall still being in that big picture of how do we find that rebalance. What is that number for us if we look at our balance in practice to qualifying, or if we look at last season and say, ‘This is what we needed last season. How do we put that in for this go-around to make sure that it carries over?’ It’s the same exact stuff, it’s just in qualifying you’re getting one chance. Texas last week three and four was wide-open for everybody, so you basically say there’s no differences over there, so it all came down to one corner, one difference and it was just the middle of one and two. How did you get across the middle of one and two and if you hit it right, that was your lap right there. If you missed it, then you were deep into the middle of the pack.”

DO YOU THINK THE HUMAN PERFORMANCE CENTER HAS HAD A LOT TO DO WITH RFK’S IMPROVEMENT? “It certainly does. Our facility at RFK is top-notch. It has come a really long way from the weight room above all the competition director’s offices and sitting there getting scolded for something that didn’t do properly and hearing weights slam across the ceiling. It’s come a long way from that and what it’s done for us is measurable, I think, in our pit crews, in what Brad and I are able to get out of it during the week. I think it’s measurable in the talent level that we’ve been able to get to come over to RFK and show them that we are an organization that wants to take care of you, wants to give you the best tools and all the tools you need to go be the best you can be on and off the track. I think that’s been a really big hitter for us to be able to convince people to come over and be a part of what we’re trying to do, and I think that’s why you have a season last year where our pit crews were top-notch. The 6 was the MVP on the season, so it translates. It’s not the only thing by any means, but it’s a massive part in the presentation to our potential crew members coming over. It’s a massive improvement to our current crew members that are able to come in there during the week at any time, but then can also do our bigger team events, team workouts to try and do a little bit of team building at the same time. We have a lot of different options with that space, so it’s certainly been a really big hitter for us and there are a lot of ways we’ve been able to measure it and probably a lot more ways that maybe we can’t measure, but certainly feel like it’s been good.”

RYAN BLANEY, No. 12 Wabash Ford Mustang Dark Horse – NO HASSLER THIS WEEKEND? BABYWATCH? “He had his girl, so he’s not here this weekend, so Tony Palmer, my engineer, is gonna be on the box and Travis Geisler is gonna be up there as well.”

NO CONCERNS? “No, not at all. Tony is great. He obviously works with Jonathan every single weekend and through the week and obviously Travis Geisler being the competition director and ex-crew chief he knows everything, so I’m really comfortable with those guys. I’m happy Jonathan can be there for his daughter and enjoy his time at home and take that all in, so I’m looking forward to working with those guys this weekend. They’ll be great.”

HOW DO YOU EVALUATE WHAT THE SEASON HAS BEEN SO FAR FOR THE 12 TEAM? “Fairly decent, I think. I honestly feel like we had the first quarter of this season go better than last year at this time. Fairly decent runs. I feel like we haven’t really been, besides last week, I thought I could have won last week. I had the speed to do it, but I feel like before that we did a good job of stringing together a handful of top fives, kind of running up towards the front, maybe not leading a ton of laps like at Vegas. I feel like if I could have gotten there at Martinsville, I had a really good car at the end of that race, but just could never get there. I was too far back at the end, but I think we’ve been getting better. I was pleased with the performance from Vegas to Texas. I thought we made a big improvement on our mile-and-a-half program. I felt good last week. I felt on par with the 45 and the 11 and the 9 last week. Honestly, I felt a little better than the 9 last week. I passed him a couple times throughout that race and it was unfortunate we didn’t get to race for it at the end, but I feel like the direction of our team is in the right spot right now. We’re obviously trying to get things a little bit better, but I’m happy with the progress we’ve made. Hopefully, we can continue to make that progress.”

DID YOU TALK TO PREECE ABOUT LAST WEEK? “Yeah, we had marshmallows the other night at a Ford team building event. We’ve talked and we’re past it. We’re all good.”

WAS HASSLER INVOLVED IN THE PREP? “Yeah, he was involved in everything, and he’s calling in for the race, so he’ll be in those guys’ ear, but he was involved in prep like normal. He’s just not here.”


HOW DO YOU BALANCE WHETHER OR NOT THERE WILL BE A CAUTION ON THE LAST LAP AND WHAT IS YOUR THOUGHT ON THAT? “I don’t know. You never can predict it. I’ve always had that in my head. You can sit around and predict favorites for these races for here and Daytona and that’s like trying to guess the lottery. You just never know what’s gonna happen. My mindset is I’ve always just tried to stay in the game and just be in a position to try and capitalize at the end of the race and we’ve been fortunate here the last handful of times here to have a shot to at least run up front and have a shot to win the race. Sometimes you don’t win the race, but at least you’re giving yourself a chance. It’s good fortune, good strategy, good communication to try and find yourself up here. It’s so weird the two different speedways. At Talladega, we can’ seem to do any wrong. The last few years here we’ve been like second, second and won a couple of them and just have had good runs, and then Daytona I seem to knock the fence down every time I go there and it’s none of our doing, so I have no idea. It’s just the product of speedway racing and hopefully we have good fortune tomorrow. We’ll just do all we can to try to find ourselves up front and have the right strategy and that’s really all you can do, and trying to make the right decisions at the end of the race. That’s part of it.”

SHOULD WE EXPECT MORE AGGRESSIVE FUEL SAVING TOMORROW LIKE THE DAYTONA 500? “Yeah. I don’t know if it’ll be much different. Yeah. It’s unfortunate that’s just kind of how it is now. You’re saving gas to take less gas than the other people on pit road. You’re gonna make more time up that way than you are sometimes on the racetrack, especially if you have these green flag stops here. It’s pretty important, so I don’t necessarily enjoy it. I know people don’t enjoy watching fuel saving, but it’s just kind of what it is nowadays on these speedways and who can take less gas than the other guy. That’s just part of it. I don’t know how to fix it. Put five gallon fuel tanks in them or something, but I don’t know if you’ll see maybe as aggressive. Like at Daytona that one run when me and Bell were leading the pack it was really slow. We were running slower than qualifying. I don’t know if you’ll see that aggressive because I think guys have realized that now and they’ll just push the pace and just kind of go from the back to the front because you can go from the back to the front easy if you’re running four seconds off the pace saving gas, you can just get the third lane rolling and move. I think now everyone has gotten used to it and I think people have figured out how to counter it, so you might see an interesting deal there that we’re in this weird spot. A lot of guys are gonna be saving gas.”

DOES THIS RACE FEEL LIKE ALMOST A MUST-WIN FOR THE ORGANIZATION? “I don’t really think it’s a must-win. I haven’t really sat around this week thinking of it that way. Yeah, it’s a good opportunity for us to win because we’ve been strong at these speedways and we usually all work really well together on these things to try and get a Blue Oval in Victory Lane, but I don’t think it’s a must-win. It would be nice, obviously, and it would give a good shot of life for sure since a Ford hasn’t won this year, but I just think you’ve got to stick to your normal plan. ‘Hey, we’re pretty good at these things. Let’s just try to do our job again and see if we can get one in Victory Lane.’ But it’s not a must-win, I don’t think.”

WHAT CLICKED FOR YOU AT DOVER LAST YEAR COMPARED TO YOUR OTHER PREVIOUS STARTS THERE? “I don’t really know. I thought we were good all weekend there and I feel like Dover is always, at least since I’ve been on the Cup side at Penske, a struggle racetrack for us, for our cars. Whatever we do as a group just doesn’t really suit that place as good, so we’ve been really trying a lot of things to try to figure out, ‘OK, what can we do different.’ I know our three cars went with a pretty different mindset on each car, each team to try to figure out, ‘Alright, how can we run better at this racetrack and be more competitive,’ and our group just kind of hit it and had a pretty decent day and was able to run in the top five pretty much the whole day, really all 400 laps around that thing, so hopefully we can take what we learned last year and apply it and be able to string together good runs for all of us and all three of us running towards the front and continue to get better, so a little bit of me changing some things up there and then us kind of trying some different stuff that just happened to work out last year.”

WHAT ABOUT THE BUBBA BABY NEWS? “That was exciting to be a part of. It’s one of those things you had to keep a secret for a little bit longer than you wanted to and let them announce it obviously, but it’s great. I’m happy for he and Amanda. They’re great people and I’m really excited for their next chapter. I told Gianna, I was like, ‘All of our friends are having babies. When are we gonna pop one out here?’ We’ve got to get married first. If it was up to me, she’d already be about ready to get one out, but she doesn’t want to be pregnant for the wedding so we’ve got to wait. I’m egging her on, but we’ll see.”

HOW MUCH OF THE HENDRICK-GIBBS SUCCESS PEOPLE FALLING BEHIND THEM OR THOSE TWO TEAMS FINDING INCREMENTAL IMPROVEMENT IN THE THIRD YEAR OF THE NEXT GEN CAR? “Obviously, those two groups have fired off the season really good and have been super fast with all of their teams early this year. I don’t know if falling behind and them finding stuff, I feel like it can go into the same category. Teams find things all the time and they found some good stuff over the winter and they were able to apply it early this year and be the two best teams, but it’s that cycle I always talk about of you never know when teams are gonna find a little bit of something else and start challenging. You never know. In my position, I hope that happens with our group and I think we’re on to something. I think we’re getting a little better to run with those guys, but they’ve done a good job in the winter to try and figure out how to maximize their potential early this year and now it’s up to us to try to figure out our side and say, ‘Hey, how are we getting beat? How can we continue to get better?’ That’s really all we can do at this point is try to point out areas to where we’re getting beat by those cars and focus in on those areas and try to figure out how can we improve in those spots that we are getting beat in, so it’s a tough process. I wish it happened faster than what it does, but it’s a lot of work to try to figure those things out, especially with this car. Little things go a long ways, so you hope to find those things. I think we’re gaining on them.”

ARE WE GOING TO SEE FEWER WINNERS IN YEAR THREE OF THIS NEXT GEN CAR? “I feel like the more reps you get with something, like with this car, it’s the third year of it, the more reps you get the more it gets separated. I feel like the first year when it fires off it’s new to everybody, so you never know who is going to hit on it. There’s a lot to learn still and when you have a lot to learn and tons of areas where you can improve, anyone can hit it on any given weekend no matter what kind of team. I feel like that made for huge parity and now at this time as we’re in the third year into it, teams are figuring out all of the maximums they can get and it gets harder and harder to separate yourself and it gets harder to make ground up, I feel like. That’s with everything. New things are easy to mess up, so you see a lot of teams messing it up on the weekends like missing it by a mile, but as you get used to it that gap just closes and everyone gets more comfortable with it and you kind of start seeing what you’re talking about. It’s like you have your teams that figured it out and they separate themselves, but it’s hard to tell. You never know what’s gonna happen, but I hope they just don’t run away with this thing, those two groups. I have a feeling they won’t. I think everyone will kind of figure out what they’re doing or figure out something for their teams to improve.”

HOW HAVE ANALYTICS HELPED YOUR PERFORMANCE ON THE TRACK? “I have no idea. It’s fun to look at. I enjoy looking at some of that stuff when I see it on social media every now and then. I like the 50-lap. I don’t know who does that. Someone on Twitter does it, but analytics, I don’t really look at that stuff. Things change and stuff like that, I guess the best thing you can look at on that side is drivers best finishes at each track. That might help you as far as who is gonna be competitive this weekend, but, for me, I have too much to worry about in terms of how do I go fast myself.”

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