The Frontstretch: Tech Talk: Jason Ratcliff Looks Back On Suspension, Moves Forward To 600 by Mike Neff -- Thursday May 23, 2013

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Jason Ratcliff has had an eventful beginning to the season. He’s led Matt Kenseth to the most wins in the series. He’s been handed the biggest fine in the history of the sport and suspended for six races. He’s gone before the appeals board and had that suspension reduced while the fine was left at the full amount. He spent the Darlington race communicating with his team via every means possible and he finally was able to lead his team in his first ever All-Star race.

Ratcliff spent a little time speaking with Frontstretch about modern communication, crazy ideas to make the All-Star race better and what to look for in the Coca-Cola 600. He also discusses how his team will approace the next 16 races before the Chase begins.

Matt Kenseth’s three wins have him leading the Sprint Cup Series through 11 races. Jason Ratcliff explains how the No. 20 team has remained in front of the pack.

Mike Neff: I’ve never had the chance to interview someone coming off of suspension so this could get interesting. As far as around the shop, did anything change from a preparation standpoint, for Darlington.

Jason Ratcliff: As far as communication, the things that changed the most were: we spent a lot more time sitting down and discussing how we thought practice would unfold, changes we’d make for qualifying and the race. Things we need to anticipate. A lot of times we do those things anyway, leading up to the event, but at the race track we’ll continue those things, all the way through the weekend. However, with Wally stepping in, we made it a point to spend some additional time here and there on the Monday and Tuesday leading up to Darlington to just sit down with him and bring him up to speed and have a good game plan in place. Other than that, everything was the usual. Car prep and the other things that the guys do and are responsible for at the track wasn’t any different than we do during any other week.

Neff: Since you weren’t able to be there, were you watching it or not wanting to be involved at all since you couldn’t be there?

Ratcliff: Man, I was watching it on every form of technology possible. If I could get any way to realize what was going on in Darlington to me in Charlotte I’d do it. We had a little bit of communication between myself and the track. Nothing special, the difficult thing, as it is with any time you are away from the source, be it five miles or hundreds of miles, there is a lag time. Things have to go to space and come back. The lag time kills you. I tried to be there, in case those guys had some questions or wanted to bounce some things off of me. A little communication was going on but I was mostly all ears right in the middle of it the best I could be.

Neff: The rumor was the Penske guys were using Facetime. Were you using some type of Skype thing or just texting?

Ratcliff: You know, we were using a kind of instant messenger deal. We were able to text across the computer. Again the tough part is signal. Sometimes that can be a hassle. It is great when it works but sometimes it is in and out. But everyone did a nice job. Where we probably did our best was just leading up to the event. Just making sure that we covered all of our bases and whatever type of scenario we were in we had a specific way we were going to approach it and had a game plan. To me we did a good job leading up to the race so that when we ran into some hiccups during the race, although I don’t think we did at all, we didn’t have to worry about them at that point. We tried to communicate and sometimes it is tough because so many things are going on in real time and I might not see them for 5-8 seconds after the fact. A lot of things can happen in that period of time.

Neff: You went on to the All-Star race, at one point it looked like Matt was coming to the front and then he fell back at the very end. Did he get shuffled out or how did the night turn out for you?

Ratcliff: We had an interesting practice the day before. I felt like we learned some things that we’ll be able to apply to this weekend. We really tried to use it, not really as a test, but what can we do to apply to this weekend. I thought we had a good car in practice. The track conditions probably sent me into the wrong direction. I probably over adjusted to start the race. We didn’t get a good qualifying effort. He took off when the race started and, when the red flag came out, it was an opportunity for us to come down and make some lengthy adjustments. Maybe take advantage of the rain. You know it is going to dry up and we’re going to go back to racing. The radar didn’t look like it was going to last very long. I thought we were going to ride around for a couple of minutes and as long as the track didn’t get saturated, we’re going to be going pretty quick. Then the red flag came out and everyone came down pit road and made those adjustments, our advantage disappeared very quickly. I felt like that hurt us when we were moving forward. We kind of took a loss hoping for a bigger gain. The first segment didn’t see us lose anything really but we definitely didn’t make any gains. After that I felt like we made some positive changes to the car. We kept moving forward each segment. I thought that, if we had another segment to work on it, we could have gotten close to the front.

Then the averages, you play the averages and we kind of threw that first one out because of the strategy we had. The rain kind of washing out for us hurt our average a bunch. If we could have taken the average of the other three segments, which I am sure a lot of people are saying, we could have started a little closer to the front for that last segment and had a little better finish. All in all it is what it is. That is one of those deals where you get those short runs at the finish and everyone goes there to win it. Finishing second, who cares. No one is going to let you know who finished second in the All-Star race.

Neff: Is there anything you think we can do to make the All-Star race better? The nature of the beast, with the current car, the grip in the track and the tire. Kasey Kahne said whoever gets the lead on the last 10 laps sprint, there is no way to get around them.

Ratcliff: I don’t have any, I wish I did. I think we can all throw the same kind of ideas out there. It is an aero package or we need a tire that falls off or whatever. Those things are an evolution. Those things didn’t just happen overnight. Goodyear is very involved and is working on making tires that have more grip and work better and are more durable. Just like those of us working on the cars trying to make them better. As everyone continues to get better and make every part and piece better, it is tough to look at it and say, “what can we take away from them?”. You can’t because each item in intertwined. You build the tire based on the speed and the aero package and the car. You really need to just erase the board and start all over, and you don’t want to do that. You can get creative. You see it in other forms of motorsports where they do some things that change it up a little bit and try some things. The aero package this year is quite different that helps the car and helps with the identity for the manufacturers. They’ve also changed the aero balance so I know they are working hard at it.

We throw all kinds of ideas out there. Ultimately you have to figure out how you can put the lead car at a disadvantage. The lead car has the advantage and you aren’t going to put a tire on it to change that. The lead car is always going to have the advantage until we make these things open wheel cars and take all of the aerodynamics off of them, which will slow them down really slow and make it a completely different series. It will no longer be the Sprint Cup series. The cars will look different, they will drive different and we’ll have completely different fans because they will be different. Until you figure out how to put the lead car at a disadvantage, until you put the compromise in place where, if you want to go up and lead this thing that is fine but when you get there, this is what you’re going to have to deal with.

We’ve talked about push to pass. We’ve talked about, what happens if the guy gets 20 opportunities to use push to pass, then what do you do? The reality of it is, you’re going to have to hurt the leader. Once you get back into dirty air, it just progressively gets worse, and once you’re in it, you’re in it. It is such a huge difference to be out front VS. back in the pack in second, third or fourth. And everyone knows that, which is why you see these pit crews so advanced. There is so much emphasis on them and, as a result you see so many athletes in the sport which is a good thing. We excel at every level, which there is nothing wrong with and I don’t want to change that, but it just puts so much emphasis on getting on and off of pit road and, as a result, guys are going to try and take advantage of everything. Not putting four tires on, or doing something to make the pit stop shorter just so they can get to the front because they know what it is worth. I don’t know how to fix it. I have some crazy ideas but I’m not going to say them out loud because they are just that and I would hate for someone to grab one of them and run with it.

You can’t just say you’re going to hurt the lead car. Right now the advantage of the lead car is huge. It has so much value that there is no substitute for it on the race track. Second place guy has to be really better to take advantage of the leader. Restarts right now are the best thing. The more restarts you can have the better it is. They are exciting. The more opportunities you’re going to have for a lead change. The guys go really hard on restarts. They fight really hard because they know what each spot going down the pit lane is huge. When you look at it as a whole, I feel like racing has improved. Are you going to see 25 lead changes per race and guys running three wide all day? Probably not but there is some hard racing and passing going on back in the pack .You don’t want to see one guy lead a ton of laps but it will happen. You have comers and goers who head to the front and fall back. I think that makes it better. It isn’t perfect but it is good.

Neff: We head off to Charlotte for the long race from day into night. You guys have a pretty good handle on those tracks. Have you leaned anything on the new car that will help you out with the transition from day to night?

Ratcliff: Not really in the particulars of the new car. I think we’re going to be in the same boat as most everyone else. You look at history, you look at your notes, what do we anticipate here? What little knowledge we have from the nine or ten races with the new car, you kind of integrate that into what you’ve seen in the past and what you anticipate the track directionally going. Then you try and quantify it with the new car. I think we’ve had some really good runs so far at the bigger mile and a half, two mile tracks. I don’t think it hurts us at all. We have a decent grasp on the car and what it takes to adjust it right now during the race. However the track ends up changing, you still have to know how the car is going to react to that and what kind of changes you’ll need to get you back to the feel you want. We’ll see, this race is always unique in the way that you start and finish. The other thing that makes it unique is you practice at a time of day that isn’t when you are going to run. So you say you had the All-Star race to learn something. Not really, you aren’t going to make 20 lap runs during the 600. You do some things in the All-Star race that you can’t do during the 600. You push the limits a little harder and you aren’t going to do that for 600 miles. While there are some things you can do, it is different. When they line them all up, the guy with the best guess from practice, on how the track is going to change and what is he going to need on lap 350. That is the fun of the game when you get down to it.

Neff: Charlotte’s racing surface used to tighten up when the sun went down. Lately it has actually seemed to free up. Did you find it doing that and do you anticipate it again going into the night this time around?

Ratcliff: Well, I kind of thought we’d see that last weekend and it never seemed to happen. It really comes down to the fact that each situation is unique. Is it this car, it is something else. If your car is really tight as darkness comes in, it may continue to go that direction. If we have a neutral car, right on the edge, your car may go in a different direction. I feel like I personally missed it a little going from practice to race last weekend. We’re going to have to be on our toes. I don’t know if we missed a note or something. (laughs). That was my first time in that race. Maybe I just missed it. Sometimes you can write all of the notes in the world and until you experience it you don’t get a full understanding of what you truly need.

Neff: You guys have three wins. Does that give you a chance to be a little more adventurous with your setups and strategies going through the summer since you have a wild card slot pretty well sewn up?

Ratcliff: I would like to think so but, when I think about that, I don’t know that we could be any more adventurous than we already are. I don’t feel like, at the beginning of the season, especially the races we’ve run well, I think we’ve thrown caution to the wind. We haven’t been conservative in the least. I think we can take some gambles when it comes to pit strategy and maybe if there is a bigger gamble, we might take a little bigger gamble. Before you might say no if the risk far outweighed the reward. Now we might change our mind a little bit. If you look at the races where we’ve run well and visited Victory Lane it was because we were aggressive. In the Sprint Cup you need to be aggressive all of the time before or you are not going to get there.

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