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Briscoe, the Cup Series’ 2021 rookie of the year, struggled with a very up-and-down first fulltime season, in part due to a company-wide downtown in performance by his entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization.
The debut this season of the Next Gen car added big question marks for everyone but Briscoe’s No. 14 Ford team appeared to come out of the gate strong.
He led more laps in the season’s race of the season at Fontana (20) than he did his entire rookie season and then shined at Phoenix in race No. 4, where he led 101 laps and earned his first series victory.
Briscoe, 27, rocketed to as high as third in the standings following his 15th-place finish at Atlanta but other than a strong run at the Bristol Dirt Race – where he contended for the win – his best run since has been 13th and he’s dropped to 13th in points.
Briscoe’s diagnosis isn’t so much that his team is suddenly doing things wrong, but more that it isn’t doing them exactly right.
Where did the pace go?
“This car it seems like is so temperamental. For us, on the No. 14 car, I felt like we were one of the top five cars the first four or five weeks of the season,” Briscoe said. “Now, we’re struggling to even run 15th.
“This car is just so hit-or-miss and when everybody has the same stuff, if you miss it by one thing, that’s the difference between running fifth and running 20th. I think right now there are only a couple teams that have really hit on something, that continue to do the same thing week-in and week-out and have found speed.
“It’s kind of interesting thing because when everyone had an open playbook, you could go build whatever or go find whatever (to get better). It made it a little easier if you had an advantage to be way better than everybody else. Now, everybody’s on the same playing field and those advantages are now really, really small.”
The changes in performance for Briscoe’s No. 14 team don’t seem to be attributed to the race tracks which comprise the schedule, either. In fact, statistically for Briscoe, the results seem to show the opposite.
“I feel at the beginning of the year, none of them we were really great race tracks for me statistically outside of maybe Fontana. We’re leading laps, earning stage points, running up front, just had really good speed and the car was easy to drive,” he said.
“In the last month-and-a-half, it’s just been a struggle for us to get the car to drive the way we want it to drive. Race track-wise, I would say Dover and Darlington were two of my better race tracks but they were really a struggle for us.”
The results of late have left Briscoe and his crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier, puzzled – but it’s an issue Briscoe believes his team is not alone having to address this season.
“I don’t know what has necessarily has changed. We probably got away from what we were running in the beginning of the year thinking things were going to be better,” he said.
“I’ll be curious to see how we’re going to be this weekend (at Kansas). I think we’ve been trying to find more speed in the car but it hasn’t really related from a balance standpoint.”
An unpredictable season
The rollercoaster of performance is an unusual experience for Cup teams, which have traditionally relied on finding set-ups to ensure somewhat consistent speed and car balance on a week-to-week basis.
For instance, Joey Logano went into last weekend’s race at Darlington, S.C., saying he thought his No. 22 Penske team lacked speed to contend for wins, then dominated much of Sunday’s race and came away with his first victory of the season.
The unpredictably in results is likely frustrating for crew chiefs but does give drivers hope one bad performance does not foretell similar results the next race.
“It’s a unique situation, for sure. With your old car, if your team was good, you were going to run good,” Briscoe said. “A perfect example is look at our company, right? In 2020, all four cars were extremely good. They ran up front virtually every weekend.
“Then go into 2021 and we all struggled pretty much week-in and week-out. And now, there’s one weekend you go to the race track and your car is really good and the next weekend you can be really struggling.
“The line in the sand is just really weird to try to find where you need to be at. At the beginning of the year we seemed to be on the right side of it. The last couple weeks we haven’t been really good at anything. We know it’s there. We just have to find it again.”