Mike Neff · Thursday October 31, 2013
Matt Kenseth has seldom finished strong at Martinsville, but he has found new life there thanks to Jason Ratcliff and the Joe Gibbs Racing organization. He has also been the most dominant driver on the circuit on intermediate racetracks, which is where the series is heading this weekend — Texas Motor Speedway. The marriage of Ratcliff and Kenseth has exceeded most people’s expectations. Most first-year relationships take awhile to gel, but the No. 20 team has not only run exceptionally well; they are on the verge of winning a Cup title in their first season.
After Martinsville, Ratcliff spent some time with Frontstretch to talk about the great run they had at the Virginia half-mile, testing for Texas, gamesmanship on pit road, and setup transition from track to track.
Mike Neff: As good of a weekend as you could have at Martinsville without winning the race. Tell us about leading the most laps and coming up just 20 laps short of winning.
Jason Ratcliff: We felt pretty good about Martinsville after the first race. We know it is a track where the No. 48 is exceptional, especially recently. Knowing they’re the closest competition that we have right now in the points, we knew that would be difficult but we felt good about it going in, especially if we could improve on what we had in the first race. We felt like we could at least hang with them there. We had some struggles in practice, made things better, our teammates helped us a lot determining what package we’d run in the race. All three teams qualified very well; it was a good weekend for Joe Gibbs Racing altogether.
We really got off at the 1/3 point of the race; miscommunicated and left him out there on old tires. It could have been a lot worse, although it did set us back pretty good. Then, we just had to play catchup. We had to be aggressive, get off sequence a little bit and try to have fresher tires on our car than the other guys did. We knew that was going to be our only opportunity to get up there. It worked out. The cautions didn’t look like they were going to fall our way but most of the competitors cooperated (laughs) and didn’t pit when we needed them not to and did pit when we needed them to.
Matt did a good job of keeping the nose clean and fighting from 20th or worse up to the low teens. Then, with a few guys pitting, that put us in the top 10, and he raced his way back to the top three pretty quickly. We felt like we had a top two or three car all day if we could keep the wheels on it and the nose on it and keep track position. We did a really good attempt at ruining all of those (laughs) at some point in the race. In the end, whether it was Matt or the crew or the spotter, everyone did a good job of keeping their head on straight, staying focused and fighting. For the most part, the cautions didn’t fall our way but, after that one mistake, we were able to make good decisions from that point forward.
Neff: I’m curious, and I even mentioned it to you on pit road before the race, you picked the pit stall right next to the No. 48. I assume that was intentional. Were you trying to keep track of what they were doing and trying to keep your enemies closer than your friends?
Ratcliff: No. There are a few good pit stalls at Martinsville and we were fortunate enough to qualify in the top five. Once you get past the fifth or sixth position, the good stalls are rare. When it came to our turn to pick the stall, thanks to qualifying fourth, that was the best one that was available. Coincidentally, it was right there. It made for a little extra excitement maybe, and people blew it up a little bigger than it was. That was not my intention… but it didn’t hurt anything. I think it worked out and allowed us to keep an eye on what those guys were doing.
When the opportunity presented itself, Matt was able to enter the box a little shallow and you know how those games are played. However, if there had been a better pit stall available that would have been more beneficial to us, whether it was getting in or out or whatever, then that stall would not have been my choice, for any other reason than the pit box strategy itself. It didn’t have anything to do with the No. 48 car.
Neff: One last Martinsville question. Starting on the outside was a huge disadvantage during the race. Matt said he couldn’t count high enough to worry about coming off of the pits in an odd or even position. Did you have anyone, whether it was the spotter or someone on the pit box trying to keep track of where you were in the odd and even number positions of the guys on pit road… to try and have some input in trying to start on the inside lane?
Ratcliff: I wish we could think that fast. There are certain pit boxes on pit road that would allow you to do that. We were in the corner there. It probably would have messed us up trying to do it. Trying to get off of pit road in the highest spot we could was really the only thing we focused on. It is a good idea if you can do it. Also, at that time, it is really difficult to know how many cars are staying out and how many are staying out to try and lead a lap and then, they’re going to pit.
Again, if you are in the right pit stall, you can do it and take advantage of it but where we were located that would have been really tough to do.
Neff: Heading off to Texas. I know you tested there a couple of weeks ago. How did the test go and how do you feel heading into this race?
Ratcliff: I felt like, during the first race there this season, we didn’t perform as well as we should have, especially with it being a mile-and-a-half track. The test was beneficial to go there, throw a few things at it, take our time and work through some different setup packages. We didn’t leave the test thinking we had the exact setup that we were going to come back and race with. We did leave with enough good information to feel like we could throw it all out on the table and sort it out. We are way better off going into this weekend than we would have been without the test. We still have some work ahead of us. We crashed a race car there thanks to a tire failure, which kind of shortened up our test a little bit, but all-in-all, I think we learned quite a bit before that happened.
Neff: In the post-race comments at Martinsville, Jeff Gordon shared that they were in the opposite end of the garage from you guys so they couldn’t keep track of what you were doing on your race car. Did you keep track at all of the lap times they were running or anything like that or were you totally focused on your car and your test?
Ratcliff: I’ll say 99% of our effort was focused on what we were doing, what our teammates were doing and what we were learning. You go in with a test plan and try and execute that to get the most out of it that you can. It wasn’t just them either. There were several other teams there, Michael Waltrip Racing, several Roush cars. There were enough good cars there to really watch everyone and measure what we were doing as far as lap times against everyone else. We paid attention to everybody, as a whole, not just that group. You definitely watch your competitors, if nothing more than to see if you’re competitive with the same lap times as the other teams or better. You always use something to measure that with.
Neff: It is a mile-and-a-half track and your team has been very strong on those types of tracks this year. Everyone says that each track is different and unique in what makes a car go fast. Does the general package for an intermediate track transfer to the majority of the mile-and-a-half tracks and specifically Texas?
Ratcliff: From an aerodynamic perspective, you’re shooting for the same thing. You are trying to get your car in the air with the same platform at all of these tracks. You’re looking for an optimal platform, but there is enough difference in the track surface, and not just the abrasiveness but the roughness of the surface or lack of and also the tire that Goodyear brings. That tire can cause you to change several variables in your setup.
Even though the tracks are similar in shape and size, there are too many things that keep you from running the same setup at all of these tracks. Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas are a fair amount apart just because of the tire, let alone track surface itself. Texas is unique. It used to be similar to Chicago because the tire was close but now Texas has a one-off tire on the right side, which separates it and puts it in a class by itself.
Neff: Not sure what the weather forecast for race day is, but it is a daytime race. Does that play into setting the race car up in anticipation of sliding around a little more than you did at Charlotte and Atlanta since they were nighttime races?
Ratcliff: Definitely, when the track temp and outdoor temp increased at the test we could see a pretty big swing in the balance of the car. So that was good to know. It looks like, right now, the forecast is somewhere in the middle of the coolest and warmest we saw at the test. They are predicting 69 degrees, which is a nice day. We saw mid-70s during the test but in the evening we saw as cool as 55 degrees. It will definitely play a factor, especially in the sunlight. We hit both ends of that at the test so we should be able to find something in the middle that will work.
Neff: One last question: With three to go, there are some guys who are mathematically eligible, but in reality it is a two-horse race. As you mentioned about the pit stalls at Martinsville, there are a lot of head games that can go on. Chad and Jimmie have done this a bunch of times… Matt is a former champion. Are you ready to get your hat in the middle of this and kind of toss some barbs back and forth, good natured or not, to play the head games a little bit?
Ratcliff: I wish I was that crafty. I’m just not. If I have any energy whatsoever left at the end of the day to think about what is going to improve us on Sunday, I want to apply it to our race car and what we can do for race strategy. If they want to do that, good, I hope that is what they do because that will take focus away from something else they could be working on. For us, our focus is going to remain on the No. 20 car and what we can do to perform well.
Like I said, if we have an ounce of energy left at the end of the day, that is where it is going to go.
Ratcliff and the No. 20 team are tied atop the points; they hold the tiebreaker in wins by two over the No. 48 with just three races left on the schedule. The next two races will decide what kind of battle we’ll see at Homestead. Many have noted that the No. 48 has never run well at the track, but they’ve also never had to. While Kenseth does have a win in Miami, his average finish there is worse than Johnson’s. This weekend will go a long way in determining just what the landscape will look like when the green flag drops at Homestead.
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