Mike Neff · Thursday August 22, 2013
Jason Ratcliff is sitting pretty, getting ready to make a run at the title in the Sprint Cup Series. With three races to go in the regular season, Ratcliff has his driver Matt Kenseth in position to be tied or leading the points when the field is reset for the Chase. Kenseth is tied with Jimmie Johnson for the most wins in the series with four. Each win will be worth three bonus points and will have Kenseth tied with Johnson for the point lead as the green flag flies in Chicago.
Ratcliff came away from Michigan with a 15th-place finish for his driver after the team lost some track position around halfway through the race, and never really recovered. As he is getting ready for Bristol, he talks about EFI, picking your lane before the race even starts, not adding any bars to the bumpers, and “Bristol, Baby!”
Mike Neff: We just got done at Michigan. It certainly wasn’t the best race for you guys, but you did come home in one piece. How did you feel about it?
Jason Ratcliff: It is a little bit frustrating. We made some ground up early in the race and got up to the top 5. It felt like we were making our car better but then we lost track position on a restart and it just snowballed from there. We just couldn’t make the track position up. I felt like there were times during the race that it was going to turn out pretty good; we were competitive but, even though the races are long, when everyone is on similar strategies. If you get one setback it is almost impossible to make it up. I wasn’t completely disappointed, but I didn’t feel great about it either.
Neff: There was only one Toyota in the top 10. We’ve heard that Toyota has scaled back their aggressiveness with their engines a bit to work on durability. Was that a product of the scaling back or was it just a result of how the chips fell?
Ratcliff: I would say it is a product of that. Those guys build the engines and they have a measuring stick to evaluate where they’re at. For us, we bolt the thing in and see how you perform. Based on past experience and how your competition is running around you is our measuring stick. I think they’d say the same thing. I don’t think we’re where back to where we were weeks ago, but it is improving.
Neff: So, now we’re headed off to Bristol. Jet fighters in a gymnasium. With the fact that they ground the top to try and get it back to one groove but it definitely isn’t one groove, what kind of a challenge does that throw at you from a setup perspective? Can you set up for a high groove or a low groove or do you just set up for Bristol and adjust once you see what it gives to you?
Ratcliff: We performed decent the first race and led some laps so I thought we were in pretty good shape. So I don’t know right now. I think we have to be prepared for anything knowing how that race track is. Every time we go there it seems like it is a little bit different, for whatever reason. Whether it is the tire combination, the weather is a little warmer, the rubber sticks a little bit more than it did the last time, it is a pretty sensitive race track, especially if it warms up a little bit. I felt like we ran good enough the first race that we can start pretty close to that and be prepared for whatever it throws at us.
Everybody loves Bristol. Y’know, back when it was one lane, they liked it because people wrecked. It didn’t make the racing any better, it just made the wrecking more frequent. Bristol is unique, it provides a different atmosphere for racing than anywhere else. Whether it is one groove, two grooves, three grooves, in the end it gets really exciting. I like it being more than one groove because it gives guys a chance to move around and try different things. Either way I think Bristol is a fun track. If you get your car close and you run competitive, it is a fun place to go to.
Neff: Do we have the same tire that we ran the last time we were there?
Ratcliff: Yes, we do.
Neff: On pit road, a year or so ago, Brad Keselowski exploited the fact that they didn’t have a lot of timing lines on pit road. They’ve since added more to eliminate that ability. Do you feel it is a benefit to pit on the front straight or anywhere special on pit road or does it matter since we enter off of two and exit off of one during caution?
Ratcliff: I think there are two really good pit stalls. There are four decent ones and two really good ones. Those are the ones on the far ends, the end of the frontstretch and the end of the back. The toughest thing about that pit road is getting blocked in. Beyond that, once they added the extra timing lines it took everything else away. The only advantage left is having an opening when you’re leaving, which is fine. That was a big deal when Brad did that; track position is a big deal so any time you find an advantage on pit road to gain track position in the end it is going to work out to be huge.
Neff: With the track being small up there, like it is in Martinsville, from the time the pace car picks up the field until you have to make the call about what you’ll do and whether you’ll come in or stay out. Is that something you have to kind of predetermine based on your fuel strategy windows or is that something that is driven by where you are at the point during the race and you just make the call by your gut feeling?
Ratcliff: You look at it and kind of lay out a game plan based on track position and fuel along with tire falloff. You try and execute that plan but the variables you don’t know are when the cautions are going to fall, what kind of damage you’re going to receive. You have to be flexible with your plan. You can’t have any plan that is set in stone, you know that going in. Usually a decent plan will get you through the night as long as everyone else cooperates. (laughs) It is one of those unique tracks. A track like last week it is a little easier to say ‘I’m going to do A,B and C’ and you can almost call your shot like on a road course. Bristol is different. You see guys that aren’t really close to the front and everybody gets off sequence and you get two or three different strategies going in three or four different groups and when it all shakes out and you have a couple of cars from each group that survive to be in the front at the end. The biggest deal is you have to survive to make it work. That is the first big step of the strategy. From there you have to kind of take it where they give it to you.
Neff: On the EFI side of things, we’ve been to Bristol a couple of times with the EFI and based on how fast you are on and off of the throttle, have you heard from Matt or any of the other drivers that it is a different feeling or if they like it better than the carburetor at Bristol?
Ratcliff: Not really, I think, across the board, the one thing that stands out to me is when these guys have gotten used to the fuel injection for almost two years and now they go get in a Nationwide car and they say ‘Man, this thing won’t run’. Those poor guys over there are constantly working on carburetors. I don’t think there is anything worse on carburetors than there used to be, I just think that the fuel injection is much cleaner and more efficient. I don’t think Bristol in general, but across the board, EFI has tidied things up pretty well and given you some adjustment you didn’t used to have to make the drivability of the car better across the board.
Neff: In the old days, when you were headed to Bristol, you used to be able to beef up the bumper with some more bars to keep the nose and tail from getting torn up. With the new chassis, can you even do that anymore or are you pretty much locked into the same bar configuration no matter what?
Ratcliff: Most of the tracks it is mandated. They give you a little bit of wiggle room to move a bar left or right maybe a few inches. For the most part, the size and the amount and the number you can have are set in stone. No more of the big chrome horns out there to snowplow someone out of the way.
Saturday night, we’ll see cars running from the top to the bottom at Bristol again. Matt Kenseth has been to Victory Lane in the Cup series twice at Bristol, but the last two races he’s come home 25th and 35th respectively. Ratcliff is hoping that the initial configuration will be adaptable enough to hold up the confetti at the end of the night.
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