Jason Ratcliff spent his first full season in the Cup series in 2012. Many people might think he was an overnight success, but he’s been crew chiefing at the national touring series level since 2000 when he started with Casey Atwood in the Nationwide Series. He’s been on top of a pit box for nearly 400 races between the Nationwide and Cup series and his drivers have gone to victory lane 38 times, most recently last weekend. Frontstretch spent a little time with Ratcliff this week to talk briefly about his win with Matt Kenseth at Las Vegas, pit speed enforcement and options that teams have for Bristol.
Mike Neff: First of all, congratulations on winning your first race of the season and the first for Toyota in the new car. It has to feel pretty good getting there so quickly with a new driver.
Jason Ratcliff: Yes it does. I feel like we have a strong race team and obviously we have a strong driver. I knew we’d have some success in 2013 with Matt coming onboard with Dollar General and Husky partnering with us. It would be crazy for me to say I didn’t think it would come this soon but honestly, I’m surprised it came this soon. I thought it would take us a little bit longer to gel and get the chemistry where it needs to be. It just goes to show you that the things we did in the off-season have really paid off when it comes to communication when it comes to chemistry between the driver and the race team.
MN: Matt’s not a very outwardly emotional guy but seemed very emotional about the win. Do you think he put more pressure on himself because of the way the season started? With him blowing the motor in testing and the trouble you guys had right out of the gate at Daytona?
JR: Now that I know Matt, he’s a guy that puts a lot of pressure on himself all of the time. He’s very competitive, obviously. He pushes himself and puts more pressure on himself than anyone. He has some high expectations for himself and the race team. So far we’ve been to three races and he has pushed himself as hard as anyone I have ever seen to try and be competitive and put himself in a position to win. Y’know you’re leading the Daytona 500 and fell out and started the season off in a hole that way, it kind of puts you a little bit behind. At Phoenix and Vegas, was he pushing a little harder. Yeah, he was trying to get back up there and put himself back in the top 10 where he feels like he and his race team belong. I don’t think he pushed himself any harder than he normally does. He’s a pretty hard charger no matter what the situation is.
MN: With the way the new car is reacting and the advantage that clean air has. Is track position still the biggest factor? With the tires they had at Vegas that just didn’t wear out, did that play into your strategy? Knowing how important track position is.
JR: It is a little early to evaluate this car. There was a discussion about Phoenix and the fact that it was hard to pass. Most of the time, if we go to a track that has a new surface, and Phoenix is one of them, most of the time if it is a track that has a new surface, we see that. They have a lot of grip and everybody can run the bottom and until the track wears out a little bit and widens out, like Vegas did, you have a hard passing. It is just the race track. At Vegas, I thought there was a lot of passing. We started 18th and passed a lot of cars throughout the day. Matt, and a lot of other guys, were able to pass the slower cars easily, along with a lot of the other guys. At the end, Goodyear brought a good tire that was durable and the fall off wan’t that much. The track conditions were a little bit cool but that isn’t what I meant. Once you get into the top five, the cars are so competitve that someone has to make a mistake for us to take advantage of it. The competition is so close that someone has to make a mistake. I knew, as we got close to the front, our car would get better. They always do. Was it going to be enough to hold off the No. 5? It seemed like it did.
MN: Two of the JGR cars got busted for speading on pit lane. Would you like to see them make the speeds for everyone on pit lane visible to everyone and would you like for them to go to a GPS system where it is actual speed, not the average speed?
JR: I think, right now, they give you enough information that you can control it. They tell you where the timing lines are, you know how many feet are between them, they tell you what the speed is, they give you a five mile per hour cushion. They give you all of the information you need to play the game, so I think it is a race within a race and I like that. The guys who want to push it, push it, You get caught, you knew what the rules were. The thing I don’t like on the GPS, I don’t feel like we’d get to see that information. It would be hard for us to calculate off of it. Right now, if we make a mistake, we usually get to do an evaluation that says this is where we went wrong and what to do to make it better. I like it the way it is. Guys getting busted are just pushing it.
MN: The fans spoke out about Bristol. The ground the top of the track. By the time guys were done, the guys were making time off of the bottom by running around the top. Are you setting up your car to run the top, bottom or inbetween?
JR: To me, you always set it up to run the bottom. If you have a car that can run the bottom, it can run the top. If you go to a track and the driver tells you that they can’t run the top, that is a driver preference thing more than a racecar thing. A lot of times you’ll get cars that can run the top or the bottom. We’ll work on the bottom until the race gets going. We’ll see if there is some grip at the top but we won’t live up there. If everyone is running the top, I’ll work it for a good option but the fast way around is the bottom.
We’re going to work on the bottom and use the top as a bonus optoin. We’ll try to make sure we can partner with Rocky in the car. Hopefully there will be some differences with this car . Until the top takes some rubber, we most likely will learn nore.
MN: Is the new rear end camber change going to be exploited at Bristol? Will teams be maxing out the rear end camber or just trying.
JR: I don’t think we’ll know until the weekend. This is the first time we’ve been to a track of this style. You’ll need to be prepared. A lot depends on how the car reacts. It is always a compromise with every corner of the car. If you put more camber in, you’ll have more lateral grip but you’ll give up longitudinal grip and some forward bite. Until you get there, I don’t think you’ll know. I really think it will be setup specific.
I feel like a lot of guys will unload with a fair amount of camber. Will they be maxed out? Probably not, but they’ll be closer to that than any other way. Throughout practice they’ll take some away slowly to see if they can find some speed.
MN: When they repaved the track, there was progressive banking. Now that they ground it at the top, did that result in the middle of the track having a hump or is the banking still progressive?
JR: It is hard to tell with the naked eye. Best I recall in the fall, it seemed like there definitely some change there. I don’t know if it is as much banking as it is the texture of the surface. They definitely decreased the angle, but to get it to cover the top to bottom with the same banking, I don’t think there is enough concrete there. I think you’d have to dig so far that you’d hit the rebar. It is still progressive but there is definitely some change to it.
MN: You don’t have to move people any more but do you still add extra bracing to the nose and back bumper in anticipation of the contact?
JR: The bars in the nose are there every week. NASCAR mandates what goes in. The car is pretty stout out front. In the rear end, they give you a couple options. You can add or take away a couple tubes but the basic structure is in the rule book. And that is what you have. The days of going in and bracing the bumpers up, are gone. To me, they’re pretty stiff everywhere we go.
MN: I would like to see some air get under the cars. I’d love to see the front valence come off the ground by two or three inches. That would get air to the car behind and their cooling system which would help them coo.l.
JR: You would think that it would, but I don’t know if it would change it that much. The biggest problem is we have this period that is resulting in explosions of changes to the car. It wasn’t one single thing that changed. So to go back and make a couple of changes for the betterment of the car in front of behind there will be a lot of other changes required to make the cars go around the race track. The biggest thing will be the tire itself. Goodyear has kind of followed the race car. It has turned into we’ll build a tire for this year and then next year and then year after year after year. Now they have a tire for what we’re currently racing. If they change the car, then the loading and grip and tons of other things change. As Aero grip is taken away, you have to make up for it somewhere. Otherwise you’ll still have ill handling cars that will not be able to pass because no one can drive them.
So do I think lifting the cars up will help? Yes. Unfortunately it is going to require a ton of changes to go along with it and I don’t think all of them will join in on that feeling.
The No. 20 was in Victory Lane this past weekend. Kenseth has won at Bristol before, and with Ratcliff on his box, they could form a formidable combination.
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