Ford Performance NASCAR: Front Row Motorsports Teleconference Transcript

Ford Performance Notes and Quotes
NASCAR Cup Series (NCS)
Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Front Row Motorsports is off to one of its best starts in the organization’s history as drivers Michael McDowell and John Hunter Nemechek have each posted two top-10 finishes through the first 16 races.

McDowell has posted career-best finishes at tracks other than Daytona and Talladega in two of the last three weeks, registering an eighth-place finish at Pocono before bettering that on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.


American Muscle

Nemechek is in the thick of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle and goes into this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway second in the standings. He’s one of only three drivers to not post a DNF in 16 starts this season with the others being fellow Ford drivers Kevin Harvick and Matt DiBenedetto.

Since joining Ford in 2010, FRM has posted two NASCAR Cup Series wins, the first by David Ragan at Talladega in 2013 and the other by Chris Buescher at Pocono in 2016. This season, the organization recorded top-10 finishes in back-to-back weeks for the first time when Nemechek finished eighth at Talladega and McDowell was eighth in the first Pocono race.

Ford Performance hosted a teleconference today with McDowell’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, along with Nemechek and Front Row Motorsports General Manager Jerry Freeze, who has served in that capacity since 2009.

DREW BLICKENSDERFER, Crew Chief, No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang – WHAT HAS BEEN THE DIFFERENCE FOR YOUR IMPROVED PERFORMANCE THIS SEASON? “It’s a lot of things, to be honest with you. Whenever you get better in this sport you very rarely can put your finger on one thing. It’s not one crew chief. It’s not one crew member. It’s not one driver, it’s a few things and when we went from three to two teams at Front Row, we were able to kind of cherry pick and although losing the funding from the 36 car and things like that in the organization hurts, as two teams now we were able to take guys off of that 36 to possibly make our team stronger, either engineers, crew members, so I think the two teams, the guys that build the cars and go to the racetrack on the cars are better than they’ve ever been at Front Row. Bob Jenkins has done a great job every single year of making small improvements to the quality of products we get from Roush Fenway Racing. We’ve had a longtime relationship with them and every year he spends a little more money to get a little more updated and have similar cars to the 6 and the 17, and this year we are as close as we have ever been and probably about as close as you can be to having the same cars as was coming out of their facility, and that’s not only the bodies, but the parts and pieces we put on the car as well. So, I think we have a better product. I think we have stronger teams, and that gives a confidence in the race car drivers that we’re not gonna battle our butts off to try to stay on the lead lap, we’re gonna battle against guys who are spending two or three times more than us for top 15s, and I think both John Hunter and Michael have been able to do that or the majority of the year.”

HOW MUCH OF AN IMPACT HAS JOHN HUNTER HAD SINCE JOINING THE ORGANIZATION? FRONT ROW HAS TRADITIONALLY HAD VETERAN DRIVERS THROUGH THE YEARS. “I think John Hunter has brought, one, some attention to Front Row Motorsports because of his good runs. Whenever a rookie and youth kind of come and do that, people look at it a little differently, so I think he’s brought some attention to Front Row. The other thing John Hunter has, and I think we all kind of realized it maybe a few years ago more than just a year ago, the talent he has when he was winning races in his dad’s truck. And then he kind of got lost in the mix. He wasn’t one of the big three in XFINITY last year. He wasn’t Cole or Christopher Bell or Tyler Reddick, so you kind of lost the mix of him coming into his rookie season, but I think whatever saw in him is the ability to be fast, and when he came in here he immediately picked up on Sunday and was fast. When you have a guy who can come into your organization and run fast lap times, and sometimes you’re gonna take the good with the bad, you’re gonna put yourself in bad situations, you’re gonna get wrecked, you’re gonna wreck yourself, you’re gonna do things like that, but when you show how much speed the car has in it, you start focusing on things a little differently. In your Monday meeting you’re not worried about your brakes weren’t quite right, or the transmission didn’t shift quite right. You’re worried about, ‘How do I get faster because this guy is showing speed.’ So he brings into the Monday meeting, ‘Hey, I was fast even though I wrecked,’ and the 34 and other people that are associated with us can look at that and say, ‘Okay, our cars have that speed in them, how do we get it with our veteran drivers to be able to complete the whole race. How do we teach John Hunter to be there for the long haul, the things that rookies go through, how do you race around this guy versus that guy – things like that. Those are the things that he’ll still learn, but he already has the speed and that’s the hard thing and that in a company is very valuable. You start focusing in on things that are more important for racing then some of the things that you don’t worry about if you’re running mid-pack, so he’s helped the 38, the 34, all of us with showing how much speed our cars have.”

DID THE INCREASE IN INVESTMENT OF GETTING STUFF FROM ROUSH INCREASE WHEN THE NEXTGEN CAR GOT PUSHED A YEAR LATER? “He can probably answer that better, but, no. The cars we were getting that we’re racing now were pre-pandemic, so they weren’t thinking, ‘Oh yeah, we can use them too.’ Bob Jenkins made an investment going into this year, and it kind of caught us by surprise, but it makes a little sense. If I can invest a little bit right now, I might get more bang for my buck in 2020 as we go to the new car in 2021, then I would every other year because other people might be focused elsewhere. We can actually perform this year and maybe get some funding in here and help us for 2021, so Jerry could probably talk more specific about that, but these are all the same cars that we had planned pre-pandemic and pre-delay for 2021.”

CAN YOU DESCRIBE HOW BIG OF AN ASSET MICHAEL HAS BEEN? “Every driver is different and every driver in every organization is different, and what Michael does really well is Michael understands where Front Row cars should be. Last year, that was 21st, 22nd. He understands that and he understands that if he’s running 16th with four to go in the race, this is a really good result. Sometimes it’s not worth wrecking trying to get 15th when 16th is a good result for Front Row Motorsports – I’m talking pre-2020 – so Michael understands that really well. And this year we’ve all had to move up our goal. You start the season and everybody has goals and our goal initially was we wanted to run in the top 20 week in and week out. That’s a good season. That’s over-producing for the amount of money spent at Front Row versus a lot of other companies. We’ve had to move that up actually in the last few weeks because we’re outperforming that, so our goals keep moving up and Michael keeps moving with that. He understands. Sunday afternoon we’re running ninth and he realizes the two in front of us – the 21 and the 3 are getting into it – do I want to risk being involved in their wreck going for seventh when I can finish ninth in the Brickyard 400? And he does a really good job of trying to weigh that out. A lot of drivers, rookies and veterans alike, they don’t see the big picture. They don’t see that finishing 22nd in points in a Front Row car is a good result at the end of the year, and Michael understands that, so he understands all of that. That’s what why he brings a lot of value to us. The other thing that Michael does more than any driver I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with really, really good ones like Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth – nobody works harder at trying to get better and is open-minded enough about criticism than Michael. It’s very easy for me to tell him, ‘You stunk getting in the pit box right there,’ or, ‘You can’t hit somebody that hard on a restart, you’re gonna damage our nose.’ And he takes it really well. I can tell him, ‘Hey, you know what, when we stayed out and tried to get stage points you did a bad job getting into turn three and lost us two spots and we lost stage points. We need to do better about that.’ And he accepts that. He understands the ultimate goal is for him and I to have open communication because it’s just gonna make us better, so he’s very, very open and good about that, and that’s what Michael, I think, brings to both John Hunter and other teammates as well is showing them that you don’t always have to have a chip on your shoulder about what’s going on. If you have this open dialogue, you can say I stunk at that or I’m good at this and get further. It’s kind of a long-winded answer, but Michael does a good job of realizing all that.”

HOW HAS THE LACK OF PRACTICE OR QUALIFYING WORKED AGAINST YOU OR BENEFITTED YOU? “it’s kind of both ways for us. Michael is always a good qualifier and one thing about the qualifying system is Michael is one of the better guys I’ve worked with that can cold turkey jump in a car with no practice and go, ‘You need me hold it wide-open, I’ll hold it wide-open.’ So, it benefitted us last year when you’d practice on Friday and qualify only on Saturday. Overnight didn’t bother him. Other guys want to feel the car out right before they go out and qualify, he’ll just go and he’ll do it. He trusts us, so the qualifying part of it, I think, has hurt Front Row Motorsports, especially the 34 car. The no practice thing, I think, has helped us a tremendous amount. Where we lack compared to some of the other teams is when they unload on Friday they’ve got a team at the shop ready to look at the information from the racetrack and help the people at the racetrack get their car better. Guys like Kyle Busch, they are the best in the world at sitting in that seat and saying, ‘I need this to be better on Sunday.’ They know what the track is gonna do. They know what they feel. With us getting our race cars better Michael doesn’t always know. John Hunter is a rookie, he always doesn’t know what’s gonna happen on Sunday versus Saturday. They haven’t had great race cars for years and years like some of the veteran guys have had, so I think them not knowing that and not hurting us during practice has helped a ton. We don’t have the personnel back at the shop helping us work on the cars Friday and Saturday. We load up and go to the racetrack almost everybody in this shop goes to the racetrack. We don’t have guys sitting back here at the shop, at least an engineering staff that’s willing to help, so no qualifying hurt, no practice, I think, has been a huge benefit and I think our tools have shown that they’re as good as anybody’s because we’ve hit that first run really well since the pandemic.”

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SEE POST-PANDEMIC IN TERMS OF FORMAT? “Going off my last answer I think as the 34 car we benefit from no practice, and I also think as a race fan, I mean, I do TV during the week and I hear a lot of what the fans say and what the show is about, and, to be honest, I go back and watch the races a lot because I’m worried about the 34 car during the race and I don’t realize how the 11 blew a tire or when they did or things like that. So when I go back and watch the race as a race fan, they have been some of the best races I have seen post-pandemic, and I think that’s because if you look at Martinsville, the 34 car we started 29th and we were running in the top 10 at the end of the first 60 laps. We had lapped Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, guys that have rooms lined with grandfather clocks we lapped because they missed it, and I think that’s what the race fan wants to see. They want to see Denny Hamlin battling back. They don’t want to see him up front all day long. They don’t want to see Kyle Busch up front all day long. I mean, those guys don’t like it, but I think as race fans it’s really nice to see the comers and goers throughout the race. How risky can a team be pushing right-front camber, knowing they don’t have tire wear looks during practice for the race? We know there is performance there, but is it worth that performance? So I think the no practice things has led to really, really good racing, I think, in the Truck Series, XFINITY and in the Cup Series. I think when we can start having fans back and things like that, what would benefit the racetracks is what about a truck race on Friday night, XFINITY on Saturday and Cup on Sunday. You still have three days at a certain racetrack, but they’re broken up. I’m one of the biggest race fans there is. I’m not sure I would stand on my motorhome in the middle of the infield if I had nothing to do to watch and XFINITY practice, but I’d stand on it to watch an XFINITY race or a truck race or a Cup Friday and a Cup on Sunday – something like that. That way people can come. They can enjoy camping, but see racing and not practicing because I think we’ve proven that we can put on a really good event without having to do it, and, oh by the way, it saves a ton of money for the teams not showing up and just running through tires.”

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS WHEN YOU ROLL OFF AT KENTUCKY? “I think you’re thinking about a million things. The thing that’s going through my mind now is it’s gonna be different. It’s not a night race. It’s always hot at Kentucky, but it’s gonna be in the heat of the day. It’s gonna be mid to high eighties, the sun is gonna be blaring on the racetrack. There’s gonna be a lot of things different than what our notebook says. Not only is it post-pandemic and no practice and no qualifying and no anything, but there’s gonna be a ton of other variables that get thrown at you, so you’re trying to collect all those thoughts. Meanwhile, Kentucky is a place where pit strategy comes into play, so I think as a crew chief you’ve got to be very clear on, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on, we believe. If it isn’t that, these are the three things we can do to change it. If we’re tight, this is where we go first. If we’re loose, this is where we go first. If this is the problem we have,’ you kind of have to have all of those ready. I say it all the time, it’s just like an NFL coach. They have to be prepared when they start the game if they see a different defense than what they expected, ‘how do we react to that?’ That’s what we’re doing. When we unload at Kentucky there are so many variables that we can’t quite control, but we have a good idea, what if the pace is slower than we thought because the tire combination is different than what we thought we had modeled, and all of a sudden we’re running slower. How much packer do we have to pull to get our car down. You have to be prepared so you kind of have to have all these things running through your head and when that race starts, and whatever challenge you have, none of us are gonna be lucky enough to where you go right to the front and you’re leading every lap, so whatever challenge you have you have to be able to have one or two things in your notebook you can pull out so then you can start working that direction through the race or you’re gonna be lost.”

HOW MUCH MORE ARE YOU DOING THAT ON THE PIT BOX RIGHT NOW, LIKE CHANGING EVERYTHING AND LOOKING AT DEVELOPMENTS THAT YOU DIDN’T DO BEFORE? “You were doing it at a much smaller level. Now it’s bigger, so you’re doing that more now. The other thing that plays part of that is one of your engineers most likely is sitting at home and that’s not always a bad thing because when he’s at home without the distraction of the pit crew, without the people around and everything, he’s focused in on more singular items. So as soon as he’s scanning you and hears your driver complaining about something, he’s immediately talking to you. That’s actually maybe a help compared to what it was before because he doesn’t have to be worried about, ‘Was that pit stop slow? And why did that guy blow a tire?’ Those are things that sometimes the engineering staff doesn’t need to be worried about, but you’re just there and you get caught up in the moment. He’s at home singularly focused and that you always kind of have it in the back of your mind and I’m always constantly communicating with the guy at home and the guy next to me. What about this? We had a rules issue this week at Indy when there was a wreck on pit road and I am immediately, I know the rule book pretty well, but not everything down to a T, and I’m immediately telling my guy at home, ‘Find that rule for me and pull it up, so I don’t have to worry about it.’ Meanwhile, I’m organizing the pit crew and I’m doing other things and with a limited crew my other engineer is waving the sign, so I don’t have anybody on the box with me. Meanwhile, I can be worried about that and I’ve got a guy at home fixing some of this stuff. So, it’s definitely different, but, like most things, the reason why we’re in this sport, we appreciate the way that is and it kind of leads us to want to do it more and more and, like I said, no practice, show up cold turkey is fine.”

YOU WERE RIGHT NEXT TO WHERE THE ACCIDENT TOOK PLACE ON PIT ROAD. WHAT DID YOU SEE AND HOW DO YOU PREVENT IT FROM HAPPENING? “I think one of the big things we could do to prevent it was having the spotters back on the Pagoda. The fact there were no spotters that could help these guys on pit road. John Hunter probably had just as good of a view as I did looking at it at both angles while he’s sitting in his pit box. That was coming and part of that was because we pulled into our pit. When we pulled into our pit real early everybody checks up behind you and it gets worse and worse and worse. Michael didn’t do anything wrong. He turned and because of how narrow it is, you don’t get to turn to the left and slow down, you kind of slow down as you’re turning into your box, and that just keeps on stacking up. So, I think one preventive measure is as narrow as Indy is, you know you always have the risk of that. We need spotters to help saying, ‘Hey, they’re checking up in front of you,’ so the guy three, four, five back they don’t just pile into it, but with primary spotters only down in turn one, they have no view of what’s going on there, so that really hurt. We need to get them back on the Pagoda as soon as possible, which will help that situation. My view of it, I was scared. I was scared for my guys. I immediately called off the pit stop and told them to take cover. A tire was flying at our car and hit our spoiler. There were a lot of things going on and it was one of the first times as a crew chief, I’m obviously talkative, that I kind of got quiet because once I knew that my guys were okay and every car was just sitting there smoking and stopped three feet from us, it was like, ‘Okay, access the damage. What do we have? Finish the stop.’ I didn’t know who was hurt behind us or what was going on, so it was definitely a bad thing to be a part of. When I went over the wall I’ve been hit by cars. That is easier than watching it go on because you’re in the moment and you’re playing it, but watching all that go on it was scary. I knew the 12 guys were on the right side of their vehicle and once I kind of saw my guys were okay I immediately went to kind of look to make sure those guys were okay, but that’s when racing stops and compassion comes out to a fellow crew member that could be hurt.”

JOHN HUNTER NEMECHEK, Driver, No. 38 Death Wish Coffee Ford Mustang – HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE NO PRACTICE, NO QUALIFYING NOW THAT WE’VE BEEN DOING IT THAT WAY FOR SOME TIME NOW? “Honestly, the no practice and the no qualifying stuff, I think it has helped us as a race team at Front Row Motorsports from the standpoint of some of the other bigger teams have four cars at the racetrack every weekend and they can try a lot more setup changes than just Michael and myself can try during practice, and if they hit on something then all of their cars tend to go that way. Now with the format kind of being run what you brung and only having so many amount of adjustments that you can adjust on your car with during the race makes the communication between your driver and your crew chief that more intense and more special in the sense of making sure that the communication is clear of what you need and trying to really figure that out. I definitely think that it’s helped us as an organization. I actually like it. I think it’s made the racing a lot closer. I think you see some of the same guys up front every week, but, at the same time, there’s still some guys that you wouldn’t think would be up front every single week and it tends to change. Some weeks you hit it and some weeks you don’t, but it’s a part of racing. I like the fact that there has to be a level of commitment from the time that you show up to the racetrack to the time that the checkered flag falls on the package that you bring and the adjustments that you make.”

WHAT DO YOU THING ABOUT WHEN YOU START THE RACE AT KENTUCKY? “Everything that I learned looking at data and just trying to soak in the moment. I feel like it’s kind of become the new normal of just showing up to the racetrack and hopping in and going in and racing. From the time that the green flag falls you have to be on your A-game and you have to do everything that you can to push your vehicle to the max. Every spot counts. Track position is huge at every place that we go now and it’s kind of difficult to pass at most places that we go to, so being able to be close on your setup balance-wise right from the start and now with no practice and no qualifying you’re thinking about pit road speed. ‘Okay, can I maximize that’ when we roll down and do our check. And then going through your kind of pre-race checklist of making sure the splitter doesn’t touch from the first lap on-track, and just kind of thinking about your balance and what you need. It’s a huge commitment to be able to say, ‘I feel this or I feel that,’ that as a driver you have to be able to adapt to any situation. Our situation is no practice and no qualifying, so let’s do it. Let’s go out and have fun.”

WHAT IS THE TOUGHEST PART OF THE KENTUCKY TRACK? “I felt pretty comfortable in a truck and XFINITY car there. I feel like I’ve always run pretty decent at Kentucky. This is my first time in a Cup car, so I have a lot to work on. It’s not just one thing. It’s learning how to drive the Cup cars and figuring out what I need around Kentucky. How to use the air to your advantage to be able to make passes and create runs and how to block the air from the guys behind you trying to stop them to pass. I think one and two is pretty explanatory of the line that you run and being able to move around. Turns three and four have changed over the years with the PJ1 and everything else that kind of goes through it. I definitely have thoroughly enjoyed being able to kind of change that up and making turn three and four a completely different corner than anywhere else we go to, so it’s been fun for me.”

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH MICHAEL MCDOWELL? HOW DO YOU THINK YOU’VE BENEFITTED FROM EACH OTHER? “I think from the standpoint of coming to Front Row this year downsizing from three cars to two cars and trying to put all of our resources in the 34 and the 38 this year has definitely helped our organization, and being able to be committed at trying to make our cars better and trying to make the organization better and trying to push ourselves to be better every single race at the racetrack from the communication aspect to being a driver to pretty much everything that you can do to make sure that you go faster on the weekends and capitalize on the results. We’re sitting really close to each other in points. We’ve run around each other pretty much all year. We’ve finished really close to each other. We’ve both had a few top 10s this year, so the working relationship with Michael has definitely been good. It’s something that I can rely on as a veteran to ask information and talk about our cars and trying to figure out what we need as an organization to be better. If we’re fighting the same characteristics, like he had a great run at Pocono and we came with a completely different package that didn’t work, so we ended up going to his package for Sunday and we got more speed out of it, so it’s definitely been good. I think myself coming in as a young rookie that wants it and is determined to try and make the program better, and just want to run the best that you can every single week. I definitely think that Michael has stepped up his game this year some as well, and we continue to push each other to be better as drivers on and off the racetrack.”

IN WHAT WAYS HAS THIS SITUATION BEEN CHALLENGING FOR YOU ON A WEEK TO WEEK BASIS TO GET BETTER? “I think the biggest thing for myself if kind of going through the whole process of the weekend. With the longer schedules it was something that I was gonna have to adjust to on focusing in this practice session we need to focus on this, and this one we need to focus on this, and then qualifying Saturday and racing Sunday, so going back to a one-day show kind of takes you back to almost the Truck Series side of almost being in that mindset. I’ve raced in all three series now and I can say that I’ve raced at least one race without practice or qualifying, so it’s definitely been an adjustment for myself to study data more, to be able to focus on video more, simulation stuff. It kind of puts an exclamation mark on how much preparation you actually have to do going into the weekend, but then as a rookie, not knowing exactly what you need in your race cars every single week in every different place that you go and what that track wants from a race car is something that’s been difficult as well, but I’ve been able to rely on a few other Cup guys, some veterans in this sport to be able to ask questions and kind of get their knowledge. For myself, it’s just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much information as I can to have that experience and to be able to put everything into one basket and push forward. For myself, it’s been a little bit difficult. I feel like most weeks we’ve kind of shown speed right off the bat. We’ve continued to progress. Some weeks we’ve been on the struggle bus side, but, overall, from almost every week I’m kind of glad that we haven’t had practice. It makes it more fun and the other difficult thing from a rookie perspective is being able to study data and look at film and being in the sim or whatever it may be, but what if we show up at the racetrack and the tire compound is completely different from what we thought about. The pace has slowed down half-a-second or three-tenths, then your mind has to go back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to drive these things compared to what you were driving in a simulator or what data you had studied. So there is a lot of different variables that go into it. You just, as a driver, have to be able to adapt really fast.”

HOW HAVE THE GOALS CHANGED IF AT ALL SINCE THE SEASON STARTED? “The expectations and goals have remained the same. Just because we’ve been running better doesn’t mean that our goals and expectations change. Yes, there are some weeks where you finish 15th like this past weekend at Indy and we had a better car than that you get frustrated with your finish and where you ended up compared to really how you ran all day. But, overall, the circumstances and what-not we’re still going into every weekend with no expectations. We want to run the best that we can every single week and we want to continue to push forward and run every lap. For myself, this year is about learning. It’s about taking in everything that I can and building that notebook on the experience side.”

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST THING YOU’VE NOTICED TRANSITIONING FROM XFINITY TO CUP? “I think it’s trying to figure out how to make your car better through the race, how long the races are, managing yourself through the race and just trying to not psyche yourself out. Now, going from the Cup side to the XFINITY Series, I haven’t run any XFINITY races this year, but last year and then going from the Cup side this year to the truck side, the truck race seems like a sprint. Charlotte, the whole length of the truck race was one stage of the Cup race during the Coke 600, so it’s something that everything happens way faster, for sure, in the Truck Series and what-not, but I think managing your day and managing the race and trying to stay focused for a longer period of time, just knowing that you’re not out until the very end of it. There are so many chances to work on your race car and try to get it better through the day, and that was probably the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make this year.”

IS YOUR DEAL MULTI-YEAR? DO YOU EXPECT TO BE BACK IN THE CAR NEXT SEASON? “I’m not sure. I’m taking it race by race and seeing what we can do at Front Row Motorsports as an organization and just continuing to try and run the best that I can.”

PRESIDENT TRUMP TWEETED ABOUT BUBBA WALLACE AND CRITICIZED NASCAR. I KNOW YOUR DAD IS A BIG TRUMP SUPPORTER, SO I’M WONDERING IF YOU SHARE HIS POLITICAL VIEWS OR HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT THE WHOLE SITUATION? “I don’t have too much to comment on the whole situation, but I will say as NASCAR when something happens or someone gets hurt or the whole situation that happened in Talladega, NASCAR, every driver, every crew member, if we don’t like each other, if we may have a rivalry with one another, we as NASCAR I feel like are a family and we continue to come around and support each other through times of need and through times that may hurt or something that goes on, so we’re one family and we continue to stand side by side and we continue to push forward and put on the best shows that we can every single weekend.”

ARE YOU PART OF A NEW BREED OF DRIVERS THAT ARE DATA JUNKIES? DO YOU DIVE INTO THAT TO IMPROVE OR JUST ANOTHER INGREDIENT? “It’s another tool, whether a driver is able to use that and take advantage of that tool to make the most out of their day or their chances at winning. I feel like I’m a data junkie. Any data that we can get I definitely feel like it helps me and is just another piece of the puzzle for myself in getting prepped for a race, especially not being there. But I think when you go back and say that dad raced more off of feel, a lot of the older generation guys raced more off feel and I still feel like there are some of those out there, but they didn’t have access to the data that we do now. Times have changed and technology has evolved and it’s definitely something that has kind of put on the map for ourselves to use, and being able to utilize every single resource to maximize your potential when you show up at the racetrack is something I want to do. I’m determined to try and win. I’m determined to try and be the best that I can every single week that I show up to the racetrack, and being a rookie and not being able to show up to the racetrack with practice and qualifying, you have to look and use every tool that you can. So I enjoy it. I love looking at it. Sadly, I think they do in the XFINITY Series now, but not in the Truck Series, so it’s just technology evolving and staying on top of everything.”

ARE YOU HAPPY SOME OF THE OLDER DRIVERS MAY NOT BE AS MUCH INTO THAT ASPECT AS YOU ARE? “I mean, everyone has access to it. I don’t know if some drivers don’t use it or some drivers look at it more. I’m sure some dive into a little bit deeper than others, but, overall, it’s a great tool and it’s something that you can look at for sure to build your notebook up. The guys that maybe not look at it definitely have way more experience than I do in the Cup Series and have a notebook full of notes, so they can more or less rely on that, where I have to look at other avenues to try and build my notebook.”

JERRY FREEZE, General Manager, Front Row Motorsports – HOW DO YOU THINK THE RETURN TO RACING HAS BEEN FOR YOU? “I think the on-track product is really good. I’ve really been impressed with the way NASCAR has kind of rolled with this situation and I feel made the most of it, and tried a lot of new things that we’ve talked about for years doing in the sport, and now we’re seeing what’s a good idea and maybe what’s not such a great idea or needs a little bit more tuning. I think kind of multiple things. One, managing through the pandemic while we were open for business it gave us a little bit of time to get some more product built in the shop and get prepared for this multitude of races, and then we were shut down for a little bit with the stay at home order, and then we had a couple weeks to get ready again before we raced again, so I’d say we had all told about four weeks that we weren’t racing that we were just building up product, so we were pretty well-prepared for the comeback and the aggressive schedule that we had. I think the racing has been super on the track and then as far as our team goes I’ve been really, really happy and Bob Jenkins is really happy with what we’ve been able to achieve in results and John Hunter and Michael have both been just so far beyond performance-wise where we were last year at this time with points accumulation and top-10s and top-20s and all that. It’s just been really fun to watch.”

ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT GOING BACK TO THREE CARS IN CUP NEXT YEAR? WHAT ABOUT TRUCK OR XFINITY? “We’re pretty notorious for figuring out what we’re gonna do around November or December, so I think and just kind of judging our performance last year in the Cup stuff versus this year, there’s no comparison. We’re so much better, better prepared and I think that’s focusing on two cars. I don’t really feel like that we’ll be a three-car Cup operation next year. We embarked into a Truck Series operation with Todd Gilliland and we work hand-in-hand with the DGR-Crosley crowd and we kind of cross collaborate with some fabrication folks and what-not in their shop doing our bodies as well as helping on the truck bodies with those guys. I can see that continuing. We’ve been really, really happy with Todd’s performance in the Truck Series as well. They haven’t run as many races, but Todd’s been a solid top-five contender since we’ve come back. I think we’ve got to kind of gauge his progression and if he and David and everybody feels like he’s ready to take a step up, maybe we look at an XFINITY Series team or another year in the Truck Series. I don’t know, but I’d say if you were gonna ask me right now in the beginning of July what Front Row looks like in 2021, I’d say probably very similar to what it does right now – two full-time Cup teams and then a lower tier series team with Todd.”

WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH ROUSH FENWAY IN TERMS OF WHAT YOU GET FROM THEM AND WHAT YOU DO IN-HOUSE? “Our relationship ship has change minutely, but it’s primarily been we share in the technology that they develop and how to hang a body, how to build a chassis, but we’re doing that work ourselves. We’re trying to replicate their product, but we’re taking direction from them on how to build it, and then we share information at the racetrack. When it comes to buying a new chassis, we buy it from them, but we’re hanging our own bodies. We might have one-off have them do a speedway body for us, maybe to go to Daytona and things like that, but, for the most part, I’d say 98 percent of the body handing stuff we do here. The original chassis build is done at their place. When we knock a front or rear clip off, we’ve got three guys in our chassis shop that are not only doing truck stuff for Todd’s team, but then they’ll do the repair work on the chassis that we own. But, really, as far as the direction of how these cars are built, we follow their lead on that and, again, just try to get as close to their build as we possibly can. And then when we go to the racetrack we’re sharing information just like we’re a four-car team and nobody is holding any information back from anybody else. There’s a site that kind of shows all four teams’ setups on a live feed, so you can kind of know what changes are being made to the 6, 17, 34, and 38 throughout the weekend or during the race. And then obviously we race as teammates on the racetrack as well and it’s just a strength in numbers. They’re a two-car team and we’re a two-car team, but we can operate as a four-car team. I feel like this is the first time in our relationship with Roush Fenway, which goes back a long time, really ever since we started racing Ford. It started off just buying used equipment from them and now it’s evolved into something a whole lot more, but it’s the first time I feel like that we’re actually bringing something to the table to build a better car, build a better body, and we work with them with some wind tunnel testing. We’ve got a wind tunnel test tomorrow that we’ll hopefully learn some stuff from and we’ll share with them and likewise when they do the same the information gets spread around, but it doesn’t help anybody in an alliance if we showed up with a different spec car or a different body build than they did and then having the drivers share information about how their cars are doing. It really doesn’t mean anything because he’s got a different car. They’re the lead dog in the design aspect of what we do, but we are capable of our own manufacturing.”

SO ARE THEIR DESIGNS GETTING BETTER? ARE YOU GUYS MANUFACTURING STUFF BETTER? OR ARE YOU JUST HANDLING RACES BETTER? “I think all three. I think they’ve got an improved chassis spec going into this year. They’ve done a really good job on bodies for a while, both speedway and downforce speedway for a long time. They’re downforce stuff has gotten really good in the last 12 months, for sure. I think we didn’t put the resources to I think building everything into the body builds that they do and it kind of showed up at the racetrack. We were taking maybe 90 percent of the build, 95 percent of the build and we’ve just gotten a whole lot better of getting all those details in order. I feel like we’ve just done a better job of replicating their product than we ever did in the past, and I think they’ve got a better product. I don’t they’re real super-happy with the way their running right now, but I’ll say this, we’re real happy that we’re right there behind their two cars in points and it hasn’t ever been that way. We’re usually about seven or eight spots behind them, so I think they’ve had bad luck – last weekend for instance with both cars – one car blowing a tire and crashing and the other one in the pit road wreck. We avoided both of them and had a top-10 and a top-15 finish, so they’ve had some bad luck, but they’ve had good speed in their race cars for sure, so I know they’ll bounce back and I’m sure the 6 and 17 will both be contenders to get into the playoffs. Back to the third part about execution, I do feel like we’ve been executing better on the racetrack, too and doing a little bit better job. I think the schedule since we’ve come back maybe plays into a team like ours favor a little bit, where you don’t have the practice sessions where the mega organizations that have a lot of sim engineers in the background running 18,000 sims to come up with that next optimized setup aren’t gaining that advantage all day through Saturday, rolling through Saturday night into Sunday into their race car, so I feel like we’re bringing a really good car from the shop with good engines in them and good drivers and good, solid teams and crew chiefs behind them, and the guys are executing on Sunday and not just getting beat by all of the additional resources that some of the big mega teams have. I think the schedule has helped teams like ours, like Richard Petty Motorsports, like Richard Childress Racing that you haven’t seen necessarily racing for top-10s a whole lot, especially in Front Row’s case, I won’t speak for the other ones, but we’ve been much more competitive, especially since we came back. We were off to a good start, too. Michael had some bad luck at Vegas and John Hunter was real solid the first four races, and Michael had some shining moments, too, so we were pretty decent but I feel like it’s all stepped up a notch since we’ve come back from the break.”

WHAT HAS STOOD OUT TO YOU ABOUT TODD GILLIAND’S PERFORMANCE IN THE TRUCK SERIES? “I guess I didn’t know what to expect. We felt like he really got kind of a bum rap with what was going on at KBM last year. He was a pretty raw rookie. He’s still just 19 or 20, maybe he’s 20 now. I don’t know. He’s just a young, young guy and I thought he was doing pretty good. There was a lot of pressure on him, for sure, and with a lot of negativity going around, so when the end of last year came along and I think Todd was trying to figure out what his next move was, Bob approached David about a collaboration. There was a way we could kind of help each other out with some of the stuff we had going on particularly with our fab shop that would help us out, but Bob wanted to help Todd out, too, and give Todd an opportunity in the Truck Series to show what he could do. The problem was we didn’t have a truck team. We didn’t really know much about the Truck Series, so DGR was looking to move into Ford and it was a perfect fit all the way around that we could help each other out. We’ve really relied on them to help us get off the ground with the truck team and, again, kind of the same way with Roush Fenway we’re racing with the 15 truck as a teammate and sharing information and just racing like they’re complete under one umbrella. Going into this season, we weren’t quite sure what to expect because Todd had been a little up-and-down. He’d had a big win at Martinsville at the end of the year and I’ve just been really, really impressed that every race he’s run up in the top-five and had a shot at winning a couple of them. I guess I didn’t expect it to be as competitive as it’s been. They had a little change with crew chiefs and Chris has come in and done a super job since they’ve come back racing and I’m absolutely convinced they’re gonna win a race or more than one race and make the playoffs, for sure.”

WHAT DO YOU FEEL THAT TEAM NEEDS TO WORK ON TO BE EVEN STRONGER? “I think everything is just a step at a time. Kind of like us at Front Row, we’re not gonna run top-10 every week, but we’ve become a solid top-20 race team right now, and then the next step is to be a top-15 race team, and I think with Todd, Todd has been a solid top-five truck – maybe not first, second or third, but fourth, fifth, sixth, so that next step is to get up there and lead a lot of laps. If he’s in that position to lead and win stages and being able to dictate what’s going on a little bit, then that’s the next step to winning. He doesn’t have as big of a hurdle to win races as we do with the Cup stuff, so I think that’s just the next step now is just keep the consistency and running in the top-five and then hopefully getting up there and leading some races and putting yourself in a position to win and I’m really confident that he can do that.”

A COUPLE TEAMS HAVE REPORTED POSITIVE COVID TESTS. HAVE YOU HAD ANOTHER TEST POSITIVE AND HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR A SMALLER TEAM LIKE YOURS TO KEEP EVERYONE HEALTHY? “That’s a great question that concerns us every day, the leadership here, and as I’ve said here a few times in groups that we’ve had meetings with both when we first came back and just reinforcing what we’ve got going on here, we can’t afford an outbreak. We’re not a deep bench here. We’ve got right around in the Cup shop over here in Mooresville, there’s about 60 people, and that’s our road crews and support teams and marketing folks and business folks and everything else. If we had an outbreak, let’s say among the 34 road crew, how are we gonna get to the racetrack? We could get people in the shop to go, but it might not be pretty on the execution side of trying to get results. Thankfully, we have not had a positive case amongst the Front Row staff. We’ve been trying to practice the safeguards of social distancing and wearing a mask in the shop at all times when you’re around others. We’ve had a few people that have been exposed to folks and we’ve had them go ahead and quarantine themselves away from Front Row Motorsports for the period of time to get to a 14-day period. Have we been testing everybody that walks through the door? We have not, so you don’t know for sure that there might not be an asymptomatic COVID case in the shop, but so far we’re doing temperature checks too and trying to do that stuff that we feel like we can do on a daily basis as people walk in the shop and just make sure that somebody who is clearly showing symptoms hasn’t exposed themselves to others in the shop.”

FRONT ROW HAS GENERALLY USED VETERAN DRIVERS, BUT THIS YEAR YOU HIRED JOHN HUNTER. WHAT IMPACT HAS HE HAD ON THE ORGANIZATION AND THE 34 TEAM? “I think there’s no doubt he’s had an effect. I keep a little spreadsheet every week and I wrote these numbers down because I think they’re pretty impressive, just with total points of our two cars the 38 car has scored 51 percent more points to this race number versus last year, and that’s obviously with a driver changes, but with the 34 car we’ve got 65 percent more points. We had a pretty lousy start with Michael last year and he got stronger as the year went on, but, yeah, it’s been really nice to see. Going back to your original point there, we did step out of the box a little bit about what we normally do at Front Row. We’ve been one of those teams that now that we do have a truck team it could be a little bit different. We certainly look at Todd as a future prospect for us, but we didn’t have that Christopher Bell coming along or Tyler Reddick or anybody like that driving the XFINITY cars, so usually when you see that guy on the ascent he’s already locked in with somebody else with another team or another manufacturer, so we just kind of stumbled into this situation last year where unexpectedly David Ragan decides he’s gonna retire, which was around Michigan in August last year when he shared it with us, and it started getting around in the garage. One of the first people to step up to me was the guy that represents John Hunter. They were getting the word then that it sounded like the GMS XFINITY team was gonna potentially close at the end of the year, so John Hunter wasn’t really attached to anybody and certainly somebody on the ascent, a young guy, and because of his dad and knowing his dad for so long we’ve been watching him race since he was 14 or 15 years old and he’s won a ton of big-time short track races and won a lot of truck races driving his dad’s trucks and I’ve always thought just really overachieved. This was an opportunity for us to latch onto somebody that was maybe on the ascent and the guys – the David Ragans and David Gillilands that have driven for us in the past just were such great guys that really did a solid job, didn’t tear up your stuff, had good, solid days and were really good with sponsors, but they had kind of had that big opportunity somewhere else and it went away for whatever reason and then they were with us and we never could really seem to get out of the position we were in. So, it was a little bit out of the box for us to have the opportunity to hire somebody like John Hunter and then given Matt Tifft’s situation last fall it gave us a chance to kind of audition with John Hunter and let him audition with us – sell him on us and he did really well in those three races that he drove for us and we were able to wrap up our deal for 2020. But going into this year, I do think it’s had an affect on the 34 car how much stronger the 38 car has been this year and how much more competitive. Michael and Drew Blickensderfer as his crew chief, we really thought highly of that combination last year. They really had some strong races, just couldn’t quite get the finishes a lot of times, so going into this year I think having a little better equipment and a teammate kind of pushing things along has really shown up on the racetrack in better results for both teams and as somebody that just cares about the organization than the individual teams that make it up, that’s wonderful to have them both running really strong and much better than last year. Points position-wise, we’re not a heck of a lot higher than what we were last year, but the number of points we have is a lot higher and without a couple of bad finishes, we’d be right up there in the 18th or 19th, and I think both cars are averaging a 19th-place finish and Front Row cars have never had that over a season. I’m sure the factor of having John Hunter in the team has made a difference. I also think another year of Drew and Michael working together without any real significant changes on the 34 team has helped a whole lot, and things like I talked about with the Roush Fenway relationship. I think they’ve got a little better car this year and we’re doing a much better job of implementing all of the good technology that they bring to the table and to the car. So I think when you put it all together, there’s where you get your four or five spots per race.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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