You’ve now sampled the NextGen car on every style of racetrack. Is there a certain genre of track where it performs best, or has it proven to be a pretty steady commodity no matter what kind of track you’re racing on?
“I think it’s been pretty steady. The road courses are still going to be the best track because it’s the thing that suits this car the most. For us, it’s just learning the nuances of the car and how much to adjust it, how much you need in the car. We’re still working on that. The cars have run fine at every race, we’ve just had so many things go on. Everybody’s doing a good job. I think the cars have done a pretty good job at every track we’ve taken them to.”
You had a good, solid weekend three races ago at Phoenix with a sixth-place finish. With that track being relatively flat and only a mile in length, can what you learned there be applied to Richmond?
“Richmond is quite a bit different just because of the grip level and the tire wear and everything that comes with that. But I think the evolution of the process – the trims, the things that have been consistent through all the races that the guys are starting to grab and starting to navigate toward – it’s meant that we’re not talking about last year’s car at all. It’s all about the trends of this year and the things that have happened this year. You look at the tendencies of Richmond in the past and you try to adapt to what has worked with this new car.”
Coming into this season, it seemed that every weekend would be an R&D session where there’s constant learning and evolution of the NextGen car. Have you found that to be the case?
“Really, the car has evolved very little. But I think the teams and the drivers, especially those of us who have done this for so long and have had pretty similar tendencies for 20-something years where we’ve adapted to different driving styles and different adjustments and different tendencies, there’s still a lot that goes into changing your thought processes and being able to do what you want to do with this car. But I think our team has been pretty open minded to stuff and I really think the whole garage, and especially us, we’re learning as we go every week as to what the car is like.”
Have you had to break old habits as you learn the NextGen car?
“For sure. I haven’t completely broken them yet, because all the, ‘Don’t overdrive the entry into the corner,’ all that stuff, is pretty much gone, especially when it comes to qualifying. You can be pretty aggressive with the car getting into the corner, and that’s just not the way that I’ve approached it for a long time. We knew just coming into this year that there were going to be a lot of things to adapt to in order to get to where we needed to be. Even now, it’s still not second nature, even when you shift and the way that it feels, and just having that confidence level of going on the racetrack and laying it all out there. Every lap, there’s a confidence level that comes with the security of the car and the things it does. And that’s the same when we go to make adjustments. Are you confident in that, ‘I need to make a big adjustment?’ Well, what is a big adjustment? How much is a big adjustment? Is it a percent on the aero side? Is it a half of a percent on the wedge? What is a big adjustment?”
With Stewart-Haas Racing being a multicar team, how important has sharing information among all four teams been in getting up to speed with the NextGen car?
“It’s actually pretty standard in today’s world. There’s a database and a live feed between the engineers, so it’s all out there. As the changes go on in the garage, the other teams can see it. We have people back at the shop making sure that everybody stays on track and is aware of what the other teams are doing. There’s a lot of information out there, but sometimes when you’re at the racetrack, you need all the people around you to hone in on all the things that are important and making the car tick on that particular weekend. A lot of times, it’ll be something that somebody else is doing on a different team, or someone who’s driving on the racetrack with your own cars, and that’s comparing apples to apples. So if somebody hits on a shock or a spring or a camber setting on your own team, those are easy things to apply to your car so you can move forward in practice a little bit quicker. The more that everybody can hit on and try, the better, because if you’re all trying the same thing, you might as well have just one car. Everybody goes down a different path and tries to pick and choose those pieces that help everybody, and that’s what’s important.”
Over the years, do you feel your interest in what you’re driving and learning about the car has been a key to your success?
“I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve been somewhat successful because of the fact that I know what I want in the car, and I think that I’m relatively good at explaining what I want in the car. The team believes in the direction that I tell them to go, and they’re good at finding things that help solve problems. For years, that’s something we’ve just been able to figure out – the communication with what you’re feeling in the car and how we fix it, what fixes it, what pushes the hot buttons to help fix the problems in certain areas of the corner. Being able to analyze those things is ultra-important just in order to help the direction of where the car is going, where the development is going, and being able to also stand up and say, ‘Hey, I probably led us down a bad road,’ before you get 10 roads down the street. If you get one or two roads down the street and back up, it’s important to be able to do that, and that’s been important as we develop this car.”