Drew Blickensderfer, crew chief of the No. 10 Ford Mustang Dark Horse for Stewart-Haas Racing, participated in the Ford Performance weekly media Zoom call Wednesday to discuss the season to date with driver Noah Gragson and field questions heading into this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway.

DREW BLICKENSDERFER, crew chief, No. 10 Ford Mustang Dark Horse –  YOU AND NOAH HAVE HAD A REALLY GOOD START TO THE SEASON, SOMETHING SEEMS TO BE CLICKING FOR THE TWO OF YOU IN THE EARLY GOING: 

“Yeah, you know, when word got to me that Noah was probably going to drive the 10 car in 2024, I immediately reached out to him. We invited him over to my house for dinner, spent some time with him through the off-season, got to know Noah, and tried to start that relationship as quick as possible. It came together kind of late, so I wanted to get to know him as much as possible before the season started. We started off good. We got to know each other. And then since we’ve been racing this year, we tried to figure out what caused you not to be prepared last year? What were you thinking? And I think all of us thought Noah had great talent to drive race cars. He showed it in Xfinity. It didn’t work out for him last year driving Cup cars. Why was that? What can we do better? So after a few weeks into the season, we started getting into routines to where we prepare for the weekend together. His backpack, his laptop is on the table right next to me right there. He’ll probably be walking in in a little bit. We’re going to the Ford simulator here in about a half an hour. So just things to prepare ourselves. Noah’s talent level is extremely high driving race cars on Sunday. Figuring out what line he needs to run, figuring out how to make passes, where to put his car, things like that. The things we had to work on was how to unload to where he was comfortable, could get up to speed quickly, and then qualify better. We put a ton of emphasis on that at Dover. We’ve got some results at Dover with qualifying. So, our game plan seems to be working.”

SUNDAY, RYAN PREECE HAD THE FIRE, AND HAD SMOKE IN THE CAR. THEY HAD TO PARK IT, AND OBVIOUSLY, IT’S NOT YOUR CAR, BUT YOU’RE ON THE SAME TEAM. WE HAD THE ISSUES WITH THE SMOKE IN THE CARS AND THE FIRE, AND WE THINK BACK TO WHEN KEVIN (HARVICK) HAD THE INCIDENT AT DARLINGTON, AND HE WAS BLAMING IT ON CRAPPY PARTS. HAVE YOU HEARD WHAT HAPPENED SUNDAY? 

“Yes, yes I have.”

DO YOU THINK IT’S INDICATIVE THAT MAYBE THE PROBLEMS ARE RESURFACING? BECAUSE THAT WAS FORD’S THAT THAT WAS HAPPENING TO EARLIER ON AND WE HAVEN’T IT IN A WHILE AND NOW IT’S BACK. 

“Yeah, knock on wood, that was self-inflicted. That was the bolts between the headers and the collectors keeping everything together. We had some issues there amongst the teams on our side. They were not installed correctly and it was allowing the collectors to come disattached from the headers, kind of fall on that rocker box and cause an issue. So it was a self-inflicted error, a little change in process that someone didn’t catch and it was close to happening on all of our cars to be honest with you. So they were unfortunately the victim of it but when we got back to the race shop all of our cars were close to having a similar issue. So obviously that gets rectified quickly. Everything gets torn out of our Kansas cars and fixed. I think NASCAR has done a good job. I think us as a group, because it was more relevant for us last year or the year before, we’ve taken a lot of effort to keep that from happening. And knock on wood, I think we’re in a good spot with that. We just have to make sure we clean up our end to make sure the parts are installed correctly.”

YESTERDAY NOAH KEPT TALKING ABOUT HOW YOU’VE HELPED HIM ADAPT TO LIFE AFTER THE JOSH WISE PROGRAM, TALKING A LOT ABOUT PREPARATION. I WAS CURIOUS, CAN YOU GIVE SOME MORE INSIGHT INTO SOME OF THE THINGS YOU’VE TOLD HIM AS HE’S MADE THAT BIG CHANGE? 

“I think Chevrolet has a great program with Josh Wise doing that for a lot of their drivers. And when Noah came in here, that was his preparation, and that was the world he knew. And we had to try to adapt to figure out how we could get him what he needed. Whether it was a driver or an engineer or whoever, working with Noah on figuring out how to prepare for Saturday and Sunday. And like I said earlier, what we have stumbled on is Noah’s ability to adapt in the race is extremely high. And we feel very comfortable there. I think it’s a process, right? You’ve got to take step one and step two. Step one for us was how do we unload and make him feel comfortable and doing the inputs in the race car he needs to be doing at this level. And number two, how do we prepare from practice to qualifying so that we can qualify up front. We all know it’s a track position game. A lot of these places we go to the better pit stall, the better starting position, it just makes the weekend so much easier. So Noah has the ability to go fast. He didn’t know where to find that sometimes Saturday. I think we struggled with it earlier in the year, we kind of narrowed it down. And to be honest, Chase Briscoe had a similar struggle. Those two have befriended each other, they talk a lot about it, and they were wanting similar things. So Richard Boswell and I decided on Tuesdays, Chase and Noah and Richard and I have lunch together and we go through the things they want to see. We have the ability to give them a ton of information and kind of overload them. So we are able to sit down with that information and say, you guys don’t have to read 28 pages of data every single week and try to memorize it. What’s important to you? And in those talks, we were able to tell them what we thought was important for us. These are your markers on green flag pit stops. I think with Chase and with Noah, it wasn’t so much about how to drive the race car on Sunday. It was this is what the fast guy was doing in practice when the speed was up. What was going on in practice when the speed is up and then going into qualifying? These are qualifying, these are the things you need to do. So we have lunch on Tuesdays together, work through all of that stuff, and we’re able to communicate and we’re able to see things like, hey, going into practice to qualifying, normal pickup from group one in practice to group one and qualifying is four-tenths, this is what we’re gonna have to do. This is how X driver did it on the racetrack, and just talk through that stuff. And in that, we do it on Tuesdays, we go to the driver sim on Wednesdays, we’re able to go to the driver sim and practice those things. And it’s just become a dialogue, you know, we’ll look at the 10 best drivers at a certain racetrack, like Dover last week, and it’s like, okay, Martin Truex drives it like this, Denny Hamlin like that. And it’s super easy then for me to say in practice or in the race, hey, drive it like Ross Chastain. And I see that, and he knows what that throttle trace and that brake trace look like from watching on Tuesday, and he can start emulating that and pick up speed or figure out how the car changes. It’s helped our dialogue. It’s helped us be more efficient throughout the weekend talking about those things and it’s things I hadn’t done before with Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola previously. They did a lot of their homework by themselves. Noah liked to do it in a group setting. So, it was kind of new for us as well, let alone him. And we’ve kind of adapted and figured it out. And it’s really helped speed up some of our communication from Saturday to Saturday night and then on Sunday as well.”

NOAH SAID YESTERDAY IS THAT PART OF THE PROCESS WAS LEARNING HOW TO TALK TO EACH OTHER. SO IS THIS EXPANDED COMMUNICATION THE BIGGEST GROWTH THAT YOU GUYS HAVE SEEN SO FAR?  

“Yeah, I think it has in our growth. I think we saw it at Vegas. Vegas was a great example. He had never even driven the car wide open in qualifying previously through three and four coming to the green. And I told him, you can drive it wide open through there. And he’s like, ah, last year I couldn’t do that. And he didn’t trust it. And then after driving our car at Vegas, he’s like, man, I should have, It felt like I could, but I just, it’s not in my brain. And so I think the growth has come with the communication and along with that, the confidence. Our race cars are getting better. He feels more comfortable when he sits in the seat and smashes the gas pedal coming off the corner than he did previously. So his confidence along with just our communication, especially him and Chase. Those two have befriended each other. Boswell and I, we talk quite a bit and we go back and forth a lot. Our cars are set up similar for the two of them. So, there’s a lot of communication that has kind of helped both of them, to be honest.”

FORD AS A WHOLE HAS STRUGGLED, AS WE ALL KNOW, TO GET A WIN SO FAR THIS SEASON. WHAT DO YOU EQUATE THAT TO AND WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU GUYS ARE IN THE PROCESS AS A WHOLE TO GET ONE? 

“I can’t speak for the other four teams. I think at Stewart-Haas, we are better than we were last year. I think that’s a combination of things. I think the new Dark Horse car we think is slightly better than what we had last year. I feel we have more potential. We’ve got young drivers. We don’t have Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola anymore. So we have some young guys that are trying to figure out some things as well. I think if you would have asked me in December, would Noah Gregson have four top tens already and would Chase Briscoe be 12th in points? I’d be like, we’re doing our job pretty decent. It is hard to catch Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick and those guys in a big step. But I can tell you as a 10 team, as an organization, I fully expect us to be able to run in the top 10 at Kansas. I think if I would have said that a year ago, there might have been some chuckles on the call that, ooh, that’s going to be a stretch for all of you to be able to do something like that. But there was a spot at Texas where all of us were racing for about eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th in the middle of the race. And it was legit. No strategy, no anything. So I think us as Stewart-Haas, we have gotten our cars better. And it’s going to be hard to win races sometimes when we had to go, we had to gain about 17 spots to win a race. I think right now we’re going to have to gain about 10 spots to win a race. But that being said, I believe if a late-race restart happens at Las Vegas on a green and white checker, Noah was running six, trying to catch Blaney and Chastain for fourth, and right there with them, I like our chances. I like our chances at least to give a run for it, right? I don’t know if we have the outright speed to go out and beat the 5, to beat the 11, the 24, those guys, but we’re racing around Trackhouse. We’re racing around RCR. We’re racing around Roush, we’re racing around a group that was better than last year for most of the season right now. I think that’s a good step and it’s April, or May, I’m sorry, just starting May. I think you kind of evaluate your program old school by the Coke 600 and right now our program, I feel, if we were an 18th place team last year, I think we’re closer to a 10th place team. And 10th-place teams can win races. It’s got to be the right strategy in the right circumstance, but we’re edging up on that, I believe.”

WHERE DO YOU STAND ON THE PRACTICE DEBATE? SHOULD THERE BE MORE? WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE PRACTICE? 

“I’m old. I’ve been around for a long time and some of the new guys laugh at me when I talk about stories of having two practices on Saturday, one after the Xfinity race. I like practice. I enjoy working on race cars and seeing race cars on track. I don’t have to spend the money the owners do. I don’t have to do the TV schedule for the TV people. I like practice. I think the more times our cars get on racetracks, the more fun I have. That’s an exciting part of my job. So being able to have practice, I think it helps the young guys as well. You know, guys like Denny Hamlin have a huge advantage over the Noah Gragsons. Noah had zero idea of what his car was going to drive like on Sunday when we started that race off history. And he still wouldn’t have a great idea if we had practice, but he would get more comfortable in the car to understand that. So I think it kind of separates the field slightly, not having practice. The other thing practice does is it allows people to come to the racetrack and help grow the sport. When I got in the sport, we would have 25 guys come in on Sunday and you wouldn’t need that many people, but you’d have 25 guys come in, a guy just pull a hose, this, and they were 22-year-old guys who wanted to work in racing. And that kind of, those people are going away right now. You don’t have young kids coming in here. You’ve got more veterans and we’re getting older and we’re getting older as crew members and people that work in the shop. I really like the aspect of the more time you have on the racetrack, a few more people at the racetrack to kind of learn the sport and fall in love with the sport and the travel part of it. It’s much easier to travel at 22 than it is at 42, so those people loved it. I think there’s some advantages to it, but like I said, I understand the engine costs, the tire costs, all that stuff starts raising questions that fortunately for me, I don’t have to answer.”

HOW HAS THIS YEAR BEEN DIFFERENT FOR YOU PERSONALLY TO WORK WITH A YOUNGER DRIVER LIKE NOAH AS OPPOSED TO VETERANS LIKE YOU’VE WORKED WITH IN THE PAST LIKE ARIC, MATT KENSETH, MCDOWELL?  

“It’s changed tremendously. You know, Aric’s the ultimate professional. I knew when he showed up, he was prepared, and he was doing everything. What I learned early was that Noah was willing to do that work. He just didn’t know where to look for that, and we had to kind of spoon-feed that to him. Noah and I have had tough conversations. We’ve had good conversations about it. I’ve enjoyed the process of figuring out what it was going to take for Noah to be better prepared, for Noah to perform versus another guy, right? My challenge as leader of the 10 team is to determine what’s going to get the best result on Sunday. Well, maybe us getting the best result is me spending more one-on-one time with Noah and a little less time on the setup plate with the guys down there. So then I would have to divvy that work to someone else to make sure one of our engineers were more down there and I could spend time with Noah. So it’s been a change, but it’s been one that’s fun to adapt to. Doing the same thing over and over again with another veteran, I probably wouldn’t be as excited. There’s some excitement here. Noah’s here a lot. He’s talking to the guys in the shop. He spends a lot of time in my office. I have a TV in here that we rewatch the week coming race over and over on it, and we pick up things and talk about it, and it’s something I haven’t done in the past with the veterans, but it also intrigues me and it sparks interest in me, and I think that’s the best thing for the 10, is for Noah and me to spend more time together, for him to get more comfortable with my lingo, with what I see and what I think, and it’s definitely been quite a bit different than what I’m used to, but it’s challenging and fun in a different way.”

WHAT IMPROVEMENTS DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU GUYS HAVE MADE ON THE INTERMEDIATE TRACKS SPECIFICALLY? DO YOU ATTRIBUTE ALL THAT TO THE DARK HORSE OR ARE YOU NOTICING ANYTHING ELSE THAT’S REALLY HELPED YOU GUYS CLOSE THAT PARTICULAR GAP? 

“I think one thing that I’ve learned in this sport is to get better, it takes a little fraction on everything. I think the Dark Horse is part of that for us. In the winter, we sat down as a group and we kind of thought, hey, we don’t have Kevin Harvick, we don’t have Aric Almirola, we’ve got a bunch of young guys. As non-drivers in this company, we need to figure out how to work better together and be more efficient. And we spent a lot of time in the off-season coming up with a Las Vegas setup as a group, as a four-car team, every engineer, every crew chief, talking about it, getting involved. And we ran with it at Vegas. We saw a lot of success. The other guys jumped on board with it, and saw more success at Texas. So I think we’ve stumbled on getting the balance of our race cars significantly better. So they chang less in traffic versus clean air. So they chang less fast lap versus slow lap, practice the race and front of the run to the end of the run. So I think we’ve got our balance and our setups better. I think the Dark Horse is slightly better. When you start getting setups where you’re pretty comfortable to unload at Vegas, Texas, Kansas, then you can go to the simulator and you can spend time working on a little better than that. And last year, none of us had a ton of success so we were kind of shooting in the dark all the time. And you can’t narrow in and get that bullseye. Where now, we feel we’re a little closer to that bullseye. So one team will go try something and the other team will go try something just a little bit different and see, okay, this did this and this did that. And I think it’s narrowing our focus and getting closer to where our cars drive better. And when they drive better and they’re more consistent, it’s easier for the driver to go out there, whether he’s got to put a qualifying lap down or in the middle of the race, change his line. And he has confidence where our stuff was just on the edge all the time last year and one slip up and you lose four spots on a restart, next thing you know, you’re stuck in 22nd, you can’t do anything. It’s allowed our drivers to be more aggressive and I think as a company, we have narrowed the focus on what’s good and bad on my own app racing for setups as well.”

CAN YOU SAY A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT YOU ACTUALLY DO IN THE SIMULATOR WITHOUT GIVING AWAY ANY TRADE SECRETS, OBVIOUSLY, AND HOW THAT COMPARES TO WHAT YOU WOULD DO, SAY, FOR PRACTICE?  

“A lot of our simulator time is preparing us for practice, to be honest. We’re getting ideas that we don’t quite have the answer to, maybe at the end of the simulator session, that we’ll continue over to practice. But what we do in the simulator is we have a desktop sim. We run the car, it spits out a ton of graphs. I have it on my computer screen over here. It’s in a MoTeC file. We look at it and it kind of evaluates our balance and our grip and where our splitter is and where our ride heights are, things like that. We get ideas from that. That exact tool then inputs into the driver’s sim at the Ford Tech Center and the driver can sit in, in his seat, with his steering wheel, with his controls, all the way down to his dash, and drive what we dream up back here at the shop. It’s good sometimes, it’s bad sometimes. But like what we’ll do today is we’re pretty comfortable. We’ve done prep work for Kansas, so we’ll do three racetracks a day. So we have Wednesday for a few hours. We’ll go in there and this is prep work for North Wilkesboro. We’ll run what our guys think is a good baseline and maybe a couple geometry options. Because right now they’re building the North Wilkesboro car down on the shop floor. So we’ll kind of narrow it down, what we think is best. Then our engineer can send it to the team, build the car like this. So that’s like the preliminary part of it. Then the next race track we’ll do is Darlington. And Darlington’s a little more specific. We’ll be bars and springs and shocks, do about five or six runs at Darlington, kind of narrow down what we think is right, and then we’ll go to Kansas. Kansas is pretty much done. Kansas is going through the Hawkeye right now, it will get loaded up tomorrow. We’ll let him run Kansas. And Kansas is primarily practice changes for Saturday and qualifying for us. We’ve already let him run a whole bunch of laps. Kansas is a place you run the wall, so we’ll get Noah in a rhythm running the wall, feeling comfortable up there. We’ll then throw in a qualifying setup and we’ll bump up the grip a little bit, let him take off from pit road very realistically, see if he can maximize his shift points, his wide open through three and four at the most speed he can at the line, run a lap. This is my balance. We’re like, oh, we didn’t adjust enough. We’ll try something else. Adjust it a little differently than we could. Let him do that about six or seven times. And then Noah gets into a rhythm of, oh, from practice to qualifying, I let off the gas here versus there, and I get back on the gas way harder. I don’t tip into the throttle. I smash the gas. I use no brake or whatever his inputs are for him. Then a lot of times we will maybe hit pit road for a green flag pit stop. It’s so realistic. The billboards are accurate on the side of the race track, everything. He can say, the last billboard right there, we don’t know if it’s a Goodyear billboard or a Sunoco or whatever, we’ll see it once we get there, but he knows the last billboard is where he needs to lift and start braking to get down to pit road for a green flag stop. So, we’ll do a lot of the race prep things the week of, the week before, a little bar springs, trying to get everything narrowed down and three weeks out, kind of the build set for us. It also gives him a chance to say, next week, hey, you know when we did Darlington last week, I like that a little better, and we talk about it easier. And that’s kind of the process we’ve adapted on the 10 with Noah. We’ll spend a ton of time today, like I said earlier, getting our practice and qualifying. Based off the temperature we expect at Kansas during practice. We’ll bump up grip to get a similar lap time, make sure that seems like about in the range. And then we’ll play with that so that hopefully his inputs will match. We’ll go as far as putting, like right now, Kyle Larson, obviously a historic great Kansas racer at running the wall. We’ll put Kyle Larson’s fast lap in practice against the wall up on a screen in the simulator for him, and he can try to match that and say, hey, this is what I’m doing differently. I can’t do it like him because the car does this, and then we know we can either change the car or change him, and it develops a line of communication. It’s just it’s an invaluable tool that we have that since the practice time is limited we’re able to try to check some of those things off. Do a couple changes at Kansas and race runs and then we know if he gets out of the car and says this is doing this remember in the simulator that fixed it. It helps us build a program and a notebook for Saturday night and things like that.”

IF NOAH COMES DOWN AND HE WANTS A CHANGE TO THE CAR AND YOU MAKE IT, IS IT DOING WHAT YOU EXPECT? IS THIS CHANGE MAKING THE DIFFERENCE THAT YOU EXPECT? OR ARE YOU STILL AT THE POINT WHERE YOU’RE LEARNING WHAT THESE CHANGES DO? 

“I would say we’ve gotten a lot better with that this year and I think that comes back to the fact that our cars are better balanced and driving easier for our guys to be able to try to make at least reasonable speed with. I think a lot of times, ill-handling race cars don’t have one problem and we have kind of gotten our race cars better so we’re not just, oh, we’re loose, but it also blows through the front tires off the corner or multiple things, right? Whenever you hear a driver say, I’m this into the corner, but I’m this off and they’re drastically different. As a crew chief, you just kind of want to pull your hair out and say, there’s no chance we can fix a lot of that stuff right now, our base platform, our aero balance, our bars and springs in the car are just way off. We’ve narrowed that down and we’ve been able to through the race just like at Dover make changes to help Noah and the best we were was that last run. We lost two spots at the very end of it but he fired off there in fourth and looked competitive enough to race around those guys and have decent enough speed to stay with them and kind of move around the racetrack. I would say this year we have helped that a ton. In the last two years at Stewart-Haas, we would kind of pull our hair out and say, we’re scared. We know we have to make big changes because we’re 23rd on the racetrack and we’re not fast enough. What are we gonna do? This year has been settled down to a little bit of air pressure here, a little bit of air pressure there. We have a lot more faith in what those changes will do versus rounds of wedge in and out with the air pressure to try to make big stabs at it.”

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